Oakland Mayor Criticized for Ongoing Trash Dispute

Six months into his tenure as mayor of Oakland, Ron Dellums is facing his first big test as a garbage workers' labor dispute stretches into its second week. The mayor is trying to mediate a lockout of union workers, and says he's being unfairly blamed for the lack of progress.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

In Oakland, California, Mayor Ron Dellums faces his first major test since taking over city hall earlier this year. Garbage is piling up due to a labor dispute between trash haulers and the company they work for. Now, the popular mayor and former Democratic congressman is looking to head off a potential public health crisis amid some skepticism about his leadership.

NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES: I'm standing near the corner of MacArthur Boulevard near 69th Street in this working-class neighborhood of Oakland. And nearby is a row of overstuffed garbage bins that are spilling their contents on the sidewalk. The odor is, well, quite frankly, tolerable, only because there's a stiff wind here.

Now, the neighbors say this garbage hasn't been picked up in nearly two weeks. And that's because trash hauling is a service contracted out to a private firm called Waste Management and the company recently locked out its workers.

(Soundbite of labor rally)

Unidentified Woman: Are you ready to stop?

Unidentified Group: Yes, we are ready.

Unidentified Woman: Are you ready to fight?

Unidentified Group: Yes, we are ready.

GONZALES: At a recent labor rally, Teamster leader Chuck Mack accused Waste Management of acting in bad faith with the union and the public.

Mr. CHUCK MACK (Secretary-Treasurer, Teamster): We have a history of 40 years -40 years of no strikes and no lockouts at Waste Management and their predecessors. We have not taken a strike vote. We are not going to take a strike vote. We're not on strike. This is a lockout initiated by the employer.

GONZALES: The dispute is mainly over health benefits and a company-proposed safety program. Waste Management spokesman David Tucker says the lockout was precipitated by the union's refusal to negotiate before their contract expired.

Mr. DAVID TUCKER (Spokesman, Waste Management): On Friday, June 29th, they cancelled an hour before the negotiations takes place. And also in July 1, they again came out and stated, we are unprepared, unwilling to discuss any aspects of negotiations and they got off and walked out. And this is all before the lockout even occurred.

GONZALES: Along with the lockout, Waste Management has brought in replacement workers from around the country whose performance has been spotty at best. Caught in between the two sides are the residents of Alameda County, just east of San Francisco. In Oakland, the largest city in the county, garbage pick-up has been slowest in the poorest neighborhoods, and that angers residents such as Nancy Warren(ph).

Ms. NANCY WARREN (Resident, Oakland): Why should it be that only the rich people get their trash picked up? It's just that they know those are the people that are going to scream the loudest because they know that they have that right.

GONZALES: There's been no conspicuous finger pointing at Mayor Ron Dellums but there are rumblings that city hall should take action. And this week, the mayor announced the city is suing Waste Management for not picking up the trash. The mayor also offered to mediate the dispute but, short of taking over the contract, he says the city doesn't have many other cards to play.

Mayor RON DELLUMS (Democrat, Oakland, California): If we have the power, it would be done. Period. But we do not have the power. We do not have the trucks. We do not have the drivers. This is not a dispute between the city and city workers.

GONZALES: The garbage lockout comes, as many believed, that Dellums new administration has gotten off to a slow start. Robert Smith who teaches political science at San Francisco State University says Dellums was elected promising to reform city hall and otherwise clean up Oakland.

Professorsw ROBERT SMITH (Political Science, San Francisco State University): And that's why I've been watching and waiting to see how he turns to fulfill those promises. I've been a little disappointed that he has not moved more rapidly than he has.

GONZALES: Dellums has called for a 90-day cooling off period, which the union has accepted because its workers would be back on the job. Waste Management declined. They say they expect the replacement workers can get all garbage off the street by early next week.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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