We caught up with the hoppers who went on strike to demand better pay and safety precautions during the pandemic. They say little has changed.
In May 2020, a group of New Orleans hoppers—sanitation workers who ride on the backs of trucks to empty trash bins—went on strike. They called themselves the City Waste Union and demanded better working conditions and pay during the coronavirus pandemic, including a $15 hourly wage, $150 in weekly hazard pay, proper personal protective equipment, and a fix for broken trucks they say leak hydraulic fluid.
The hoppers who went on strike—all of them Black—were employed by a staffing agency called PeopleReady, which works with Metro Service Group, a garbage collection company that contracts with cities across the South. A spokesperson for Metro did not respond to requests for comment.
The strike lasted until September. Some workers returned to work for Metro after it abruptly ended, and others left for better-paying jobs. Southerly spoke to three men who were part of the strike; two have returned to work for Metro. They all said working conditions are largely the same, except for their pay, which went from $10.75 hourly and $11.19 in overtime to $11.19 hourly and $12 in overtime. They say their other demands were not met and some employees are working 90-100 hours per week. According to The Advocate, city trash contractors have found it hard to hire workers in recent months, leading to delays in trash pickup, and “sanitation drivers have sought higher-paid opportunities elsewhere in recent months,” meaning “those left in that department must work overtime to process residential waste.”
The three men Southerly interviewed said their goal of joining an existing sanitation union or starting their own locally, City Waste Union, was dashed due to funds going missing, poor advice from their representative, and other economic stressors, forcing the men back to work. (The former representative for City Waste Union did not respond to requests for comment.)
Ja’Nard Brister aka Country Cane, 39
Brister, who is from Gulfport, Miss., has been a hopper for eight years and has worked for Metro for four.
“I ended up in New Orleans in a step of faith. I wanted something different and I came here to visit my uncle and just fell in love. This was the first job I got out here and I’ve been on the job ever since. My job consists of me getting on and off a garbage truck, lifting the can, and putting it on the tipper. But nine times out of ten, being a veteran [sanitation worker], I am gonna pick it up myself. It consists of a lot of up and down, jumping, running, and heavy lifting. Just think about how much garbage you put out in your garbage can and think of someone running with and lifting that.
[People think] about the red beans and rice they threw away the day before—how it smells, how you’re gonna get the smell out of the house. For us, we run around and play all day. We run around with headphones on and pick it up, drop it off, pick it up, drop it off. All we do is run around and talking. There’s a social life. Everybody knows everybody. I don’t have a gang affiliation or nothing like that, but hoppers are one of the biggest gangs in the world because think about how many places got garbage trucks and how they communicate is through hoppers.
I have had so many injuries. But my main one was at the beginning of [the pandemic]. My fiancé was working but she got shut down because of COVID and I was the only one bringing money in. I broke my hand and the rent man won’t accept no sick note. I told my friend, I don’t know how I’m gonna come to work with my hand broken, and he told me to come to work and just don’t let no one see. I was still out there working. There was also when I got cut so bad I needed 16 stitches. And I jumped off the truck one time and I spun around to get the can, my adrenaline rushing, and I got knocked unconscious when I hit a pole. I was also on the hopper stand once and the hopper stand broke and fell and I broke my fibula. That was the worst one.
[Before the strike], I was in the yard one day. I had been working on the truck for years at this point and never got told to take a day off. So I go to work on a Thursday and they told me that I couldn’t work that day. Why not? My driver’s here, I’m on a permanent truck, so why can’t I work? ‘You got too many hours.’ I got too many hours? How I got too many hours? I’m picking up garbage, I’m helping the environment and you sending me home? They really sent me home. They didn’t give us gloves or nothing and we’re out here during a COVID virus having to find our own protective stuff. We didn’t get unemployment. We stood out on strike to get us and our guys better pay. We were doing the strike and the strike went bad. We still wear our [City Waste Union] shirts and we’re gonna die with that. Nobody can take that from us. We did that. The strike started because they were trying to take us off the job. But now, I go to work and I have never seen it like it is now. Ain’t no drivers, ain’t no hoppers. Garbage is getting picked up a day late. I been working this since 2013 and I never seen garbage get picked up a day late. There’s no drivers and we always backed up. The same things we were fighting for then, we are fighting for now because we’re all working seven days a week, we don’t get time with our families!
They think we’re machines but we’re people. I know I’m a good hopper.
Thirteen guys who are used to running behind a garbage truck every day of the week standing down just to talk to the owner of the company for 10 minutes. We got national attention and raised almost $300,000 just from people feeling our sorrow. Don’t get me wrong, we had blessings from the man above and we had blessings from people giving to us but at the end of the day, they didn’t have to leave us high and dry like that. And now I’m forced back to work? I have to have knee surgery at the end of the year so I can’t work anymore. I worked myself down to the point that I can’t do this after this year. That’s why we were fighting to change a lot of that and I felt like we were right there.”
Rahman Brooks, aka Memphis, 33
Brooks, who is originally from Memphis, has been a hopper for Metro for about eight years.
“Not one person out there striking thought it was going to get that big. We never did. We weren’t looking for national attention. We were just trying to be heard by Metro and I think people clung onto our fight because they could relate. When George Floyd died, it made our fight make more sense to me. You got America fighting and we were fighting. Everybody is being treated unjustly so why not fight? We fighting for better wages, better working conditions, all that. People were fighting so we could stop being mistreated. Feeling like we were all fighting together motivated me to come out here and fight even more because I was watching TV and seeing everybody coming together and taking on the big machine. I knew I was doing the right thing because of that.
[The march on Metro owner Jimmie Woods’ house] was where I really realized how much love people had for us because there were so many people out there supporting us. It was an experience to feel that empowerment. Everybody was screaming at the top of their lungs and hearing how we were getting treated. It was an empowerment moment and it showed me how much love people got for us. It was a lot of us. I couldn’t believe it. I kept turning around and looking because I was amazed at how many people were there.
I never thought it was going to get that big. I never thought I’d be marching to the owner’s house. I thought we would strike, come to a little agreement, and go back to work. That was always our intention: to go back to work. We didn’t intend to strike and not go back to work. We wanted to go back to work, we just wanted to be treated right. It showed me that when people come together a lot of things can get done. And then it was snatched from under us. I kind of feel like we let people down because a lot of people had belief in us. Our fight was their fight. I think that’s where the support really came from because people could relate. People wake up every day and go to work just like us and getting treated unjustly too. I don’t know how nobody else feel but I feel like we let them down. We didn’t get the results we were supposed to get. It was a learning experience. If I ever have to do a protest or something like that again, I am going for the jugular. I know what to do and who to talk to. I wish we could’ve gave everybody what they wanted because they gave so much support and they wanted to see us win.
A lot of people don’t think about the wear and tear this job puts on our bodies. We go through a lot on this job and when we get hurt, they just replace us. We out here and we love our job but at the end of the day, we are not protected. If we get hurt, that’s it for us. The trucks are breaking down. They’re worn out and they ain’t spending no money trying to buy new trucks. We’re still getting hydraulic oil splattered all over us. Working conditions are still unsafe.
It is a dirty job but don’t look at us like we are dirty. Just think about if you were to take every garbage man away and the trash didn’t get picked up, how would the neighborhoods look? Nobody would want to see that. That’s what I believe. We do environmental work, that’s how I look at it. We keep the streets clean. We do a lot of environmental work without it being acknowledged. I think [some] people look at us and appreciate us and some people don’t. We know we are appreciated from the strike. So much love was shown to us last year. It’s a dirty job and nobody wants to do it but somebody’s got to do it. I’m just grateful to be able to do it every day.
The real City Waste Union isn’t taking donations right now because we’re back at work. If it presented itself again, we all got the knowledge now to know what to do.”
D’Artanian DeJean, 41
DeJean left Metro after the strike and now works as a contractor. “Anything in the nature of building—outside, inside, and the land. That’s been holding me down and I work really hard at it,” he said. “That’s what’s been keeping me together.”
“We were asking for PPE on a daily basis because it was hazardous materials we were working with daily. We were asking for $15 an hour, a raise from $10.25 an hour. We were asking for the trucks to be fixed or at least worked on because OSHA doesn’t want to talk to you until you’re sick. My whole body was inflamed from that and you don’t want to talk to me? We asked for hazard pay because we work year-round in a hazardous environment and hazard pay should always be a thing for us, not just the police officers. We are making sure it’s safe for you to go outside and put your trash in the trash can.
After the pandemic and the strike, there was an impact that the company didn’t expect. Even the workers didn’t expect it. I didn’t go back to work after that. They never met our demands. The guys went back and they got permanent trucks but a lot of people didn’t go back or they quit and that created a shortage of hoppers. The trucks never were fixed creating a shortage on trucks and drivers quit so there’s a shortage of drivers. This is not what we went on strike for. They’re working too many hours and they’re behind—days behind. I am one of three [from the strike] who didn’t go back there. I heard the other two guys found jobs somewhere else.
We all have said this is slavery at its best. This is slavery. It feels like having no options. This is what you get and if you don’t want to take it, they’ll find somebody who will.”
Katie Sikora is a photographer and journalist based in New Orleans.