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Strike by trash collectors drags on into a sixth week

We’re into Week 3 of the General Motors strike, with roughly 48,000 UAW members off the job.

Still, that’s short time to the Teamsters who are picketing south of Boston. They are rounding the corner into Week 6 in their fight against the giant trash hauler Republic Services, after failing to agree on their first union contract.

We’re talking about just 24 workers based in Marshfield. But their strike has national implications as the Teamsters try to organize more pieces of Republic’s sprawling empire. They even tried to get the attention of Bill Gates, who controls the investment firm that is Republic’s largest shareholder: About 100 Teamsters from various New York union locals protested outside the Gates Foundation’s annual Goalkeepers event at Lincoln Center in Manhattan on Wednesday, holding signs with messages that included “Bill Gates treats kids like trash.”


The union has already prompted Teamsters to engage in temporary work stoppages in several California communities in solidarity. The tactic: One striking worker shows up, even from the other side of the country, and everyone there honors the picket line.

The battle could become a test for Teamsters Local 25’s president, Sean O’Brien, who is leading the charge against a company that generated $10 billion in revenue last year and $1 billion in profit. O’Brien says he’s in it for the long haul. Once you know that he’s the type of person who wakes up at 4 a.m. to fit in his workout, you believe him.

The last time Local 25, now with about 12,500 members, went on strike was three years ago, against the building supply company ABC. That lasted 125 days. O’Brien says he’s prepared to go longer this time.

The dispute with Phoenix-based Republic is over the usual issues: wage increases, health care, retirement, respect.


O’Brien says he wants the newly christened Teamsters in Marshfield to receive similar benefits to the hundreds of garbage workers he represents in Boston and Quincy. Those contracts essentially offer free health care for union members and payments into a pension plan. Republic is willing to provide modest raises. But O’Brien says the entire package would fall far short of what the other local unionized garbage collectors earn. He blames corporate greed for getting in the way.

And so, in the early-morning hours of Aug. 29, the two dozen workers went on strike. Republic quickly brought in nonunion reinforcements — the company says they are “employees from around the country” who are volunteering to help — to fulfill its trash pickup contracts with the towns of Rockland, Abington, and Marshfield. That, in turn, prompted a mobile picket line, of sorts, with Teamsters dogging the Republic trucks as they weaved their way through the towns.

How has that gone? It depends on which side is describing the situation.

A Republic press release portrays a Wild West-type atmosphere: “union-orchestrated violence, stalking, threats and racial slurs,” as well as interference by moving trash receptacles and blocking trucks.

O’Brien describes the company’s portrayal as “fiction, at best,” noting that no one has been injured and no arrests or citations have been made, despite an extensive police presence. The two sides have slugged it out in a Brockton courtroom since Republic asked for a judge’s help to curb the union protests.

Maybe the company didn’t count on the fact these are largely union-friendly, blue-collar towns. To show solidarity, many residents are throwing their trash bags in their cars and heading to the transfer station themselves, the Patriot Ledger reported. Supporters have contributed nearly $27,000 to a GoFundMe account to help the striking workers. (A Teamsters strike fund is paying their salaries while they are out of work.)


The two sides have not met for more than three weeks. O’Brien says Republic is unwilling to move from its starting offer.

The company, meanwhile, accuses the Teamsters of making unrealistic demands.

Republic says it remains willing to continue collective bargaining and respects its employees and their right to unionize but “will not give in to the Teamsters’ unlawful tactics.”

O’Brien says he views this as just an initial battleground as the union tries to organize more Republic locations. Roughly one-quarter of Republic’s 36,000 employees are union employees, most of them Teamsters.

Republic, O’Brien says, is determined to make an example of Marshfield to scare off potential union drives in other parts of the country.

We’ll see how that goes.

The Teamsters, meanwhile, see a growth opportunity, with 10,000-plus Republic workers eligible for recruitment, on top of the roughly 7,000 who are already Teamsters.

It’s a fight on the streets of Massachusetts, but one that O’Brien hopes will extend across the country.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.