Attention must be given to public health issues during garbage strikes in any large urban centre. However, a recent labour dispute in the City of Vancouver demonstrates that municipal work stoppages no longer provoke disaster as they once did, at least where waste is concerned. Private contractors have filled in some of the service gaps that made past strikes truly unbearable.
As this article went to press, a dispute between Vancouver and its civic employees continued to interrupt various services, including garbage collection. As of late November, the strike had lasted two months and a quick settlement appeared unlikely.
When one thinks about a suspension of municipal waste services, images come to mind of parks filled with large mounds of household waste and of green garbage bags stacked at the side of the road or behind houses and apartment buildings. However, the situation in Vancouver has provided few of these images for local media. While some Vancouver residents might disagree, it seems that municipal garbage strikes are no longer a big deal.
When waste accumulates in parks, streets or alleyways, public health risks are posed from rodents, odors and other issues. But new factors made the recent Vancouver work stoppage more bearable for the public and the strike than those in the past. As a result, the strike has been less effective from the strikers’ perspective.
Causes of the strike
Vancouver’s strike is primarily focused on labour schedules for indoor city employees. The outdoor employees (including garbage collectors) aren’t on strike. Rather, they refuse to cross the picket lines of the indoor employees.
For the last 23 years, city staff has been able to work flexible hours in order to accumulate time that could be used to take extra days off, often Fridays. Management’s concept was that this provides “quality time” with family and also eases traffic congestion. However, some (including private sector developers) prefer to have the same employees on hand five days a week to deal with issues such as permits. So last year city council cancelled the flexible workweek option.
Shortly before this article went to press, officials were optimistic that a resolution was in sight. In fact, the union’s negotiation committee and city negotiators reached a tentative deal that was put to the union. However, the union rank and file rejected the offer by the narrowest of margins (51 per cent). Hopes of a speedy settlement to the strike dimmed.
The last time Vancouver dealt with a garbage strike was in 1997, when garbage went uncollected for seven weeks. At that time, the city issued press releases to instruct citizens to minimize the impact of the strike and newspaper articles reported an unsightly mess faced by residents. The piles of garbage were unpleasant and the city was under great pressure to settle with the union.
Concern from municipal officials is not as evident this time around.
The lower level of concern is at least partly explained by a few changes that have occurred since 1997. First, the 1997 strike occurred in the summer. Higher temperatures and lower precipitation levels make summer the best time of year for a garbage strike if you are a member of the union, the worst if you are not. The 2000 strike has occurred during the cool, wetter fall season which has helped to keep aesthetic and health problems under control.
Second, and more interesting for members of the waste management industry, is that patterns of private versus public waste collection have changed in Vancouver over the last three years. Today, only about a third of the city’s garbage is collected from places that are normally served by the striking workers. The waste not collected (because of the strike) is primarily from parks and one- and two-family homes. Unlike 1997, private contractors now collect waste from restaurants and apartment buildings, so the current labour dispute hasn’t interrupted their service.
Third, the waste stream has changed; residential waste is increasingly diverted at the source, with more materials going to backyard composters or recycling bins. As a result, residential garbage accumulates less rapidly into the rotten heaps that generate public outcry.
Significant attention must continue to be given to public health issues during garbage strikes in any large centre. However, the Vancouver strike demonstrates that municipal waste workers in that city don’t have the same leverage as they once did to precipitate a crisis. When a large portion of garbage is collected by the private sector and programs that divert waste at the source are effective, management has more power at the bargaining table.
Unfortunately for unionized municipal garbage workers everywhere, lessons from Vancouver’s recent labor dispute are not likely to be lost on managers in other cities.