Montgomery County trash collectors might end picket, go back to work -- Gazette.Net


This article was updated at 10 a.m. Sept. 11.

A striking worker at Potomac Disposal was hit by a trash truck Wednesday morning, as workers at a Gaithersburg trash-collecting company continued to picket the company over accusations of worker intimidation by managers.

About 50 employees for Potomac Disposal went on strike Monday morning, claiming the company tried to intimidate them during labor negotiations last week with threats of immigration checks. Wednesday morning, the two sides were working out a deal and workers were unable to report to work.

As the strike continued Wednesday, one striker was hit by a Potomac Disposal trash truck as a driver failed to negotiate a turn from the company’s gate entrance, driving onto the sidewalk and hitting the worker, according to Montgomery County Police spokeswoman Cpl. Rebecca Innocenti.

“He was leaving the company property and making a turn, he failed to control his speed and did not navigate the turn correctly, went up on the sidewalk and hit the pedestrian,” Innocenti said.

Anibal Rivas, a striking worker who said he witnessed the accident, said the truck driver “gunned the engine” adding that his co-worker was on the ground and bleeding after being struck.

“He didn’t look too good,” Rivas said.

The male striker was taken to a local hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, Innocenti said.

The driver was charged with failing to control speed to avoid a collision, police said.

Nicole Duarte, communications director for Laborers’ International Union of North America Mid-Atlantic Regional Organizing Coalition, which bargains for the workers, wrote in an email on Tuesday that strikers have offered to return to work, as they are legally required to do to keep their jobs. Duarte said Wednesday, the negotiations continued, but that the workers were not allowed back at work.

Potomac Disposal did not address the accusations that workers made against the company. On Tuesday afternoon, Lee Levine, president of the company, invited a Gazette reporter to speak with him at the company’s offices on Woodfield Road, then canceled at the last minute after company officials learned that the strikers planned to come back to their job site on Wednesday.

“Striking is an option of last resort and we felt it was warranted with the severity of the intimidation here,” Duarte said during an interview on Tuesday. “They felt they have made their point and want to hear what management has to say,” she said.

Duarte said the workers were not ruling out future strikes.

On Tuesday, dozens of strikers milled about on Woodfield Road in Gaithersburg, holding signs with slogans like “We haul trash, but we’re not trash,” as trucks rolled by, horns blasting in support. The signs and the strike continued Wednesday morning.

“There’s a lot of injustice going on,” Yovany Ramos, a striker, said on Tuesday, when the workers normally would have been collecting trash from 18,000 homes sprawling across Potomac, Bethesda, Wheaton and Silver Spring.

According to Duarte, the workers had been negotiating with the company’s managers Thursday, seeking higher wages, health care benefits, and sick days.

When workers showed up Friday morning, they found Form I-9s — forms the government uses to identify workers — attached to their time cards, something they had never experienced before, strikers said.

“In general, the company should have gone through this process right when the workers were hired. ... If they do have records for some workers, then the timing of this particular action on their part is even more suspicious,” Duarte said.

“If it wasn’t a priority when [the workers] were hired, you have to wonder what made it a priority this week,” she said, adding that only the company’s mostly Latino crew, which covers Montgomery County, was asked for I-9’s.

“It’s a very common tactic — you’ll see it through out country in a bunch of different industries,” Duarte said.

“That was sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Ramos said.

“We condemn that kind of practice,” said Sirine Shebaya, an attorney at the ACLU of Maryland. “If this was happening in Montgomery County, that would be really shocking because we would expect more from these more progressive areas of Maryland.”

She said labor laws prohibit reprisals against workers, even if they are undocumented.

Potomac Disposal has a $5 million contract with Montgomery County. It serves about 40,000 homes in the county, according to county officials.

“We don’t want workers who work for county contractors to not have the right to organize and bargain collectively. ... We’re monitoring this and we’ll see where things lead,” said Patrick Lacefield, a county spokesman.

He did not know if the county would audit Potomac Disposal, he said. Right now, though, the county is focusing on the basics.

“We want to make sure trash get picked up. If this company can’t do it, we have other provisions [so that] the other two [that already collect trash] are required to step in and do the work,” he said.

Ernest Ojito, an organizer at the strike, said the workers began trying to improve their working conditions last November. The workers claimed they were being called names and were not allowed to file for worker’s compensation, among other issues.

Drivers earn about $120 to $130 per day, Duarte said, and receive some sick days or vacation days. Helpers make about half of that, and do not receive sick time.

“Sometimes I finish my route and they want me to finish another route. They don’t pay more for any of that work,” said Oscar Martinez, adding that the workers do not receive holiday pay. Martinez has been with Potomac Disposal for eight years.

Union attorney Brian Petruska said employees file I-9’s when they start their jobs, but employers can update their records if they have a good reason to do so — for instance, if documents had been damaged in a flood.

“Ordinarily, you get it done on the first day and never hear about it again,” he said. In another labor dispute earlier this year, a company used the same tactic to fire about half of its workforce, he said.

“It’s not proper or legal for those people to lose their jobs because they were trying to join with other workers to collectively bargain for a raise,” Petruska said.

Staff Writer Andrew Schotz contributed to this story