Republic claims workers are striking to keep pension
By Jamison Cocklin
Republic Services/Allied Waste countered some of the claims put forward by the Teamsters International Union, representing hundreds of sanitation workers on strike in Youngstown and across the country.
In its first statement on the matter, the company’s corporate office spoke out against the strike, now in its third week and affecting five Ohio cities and five states across the country, with local unions in Georgia and Tennessee setting up their own picket lines over what they say are unfair labor practices Monday and Tuesday.
The strikers have offered little in the way of details about those purported unfair practices, saying only that the company has both refused to bargain in an equitable manner and changed working conditions.
Whether those conditions include shift changes, more work or changes in compensation is unclear for now. It appears as though the strike could be a lengthy one.
On Tuesday, a company spokesman said the company still was assembling replacement workers, who will focus on high-priority customers such as hospitals, schools, businesses and some residential areas. He acknowledged that other areas would see delays but could not say which ones.
For about 18 months, Republic has been seeking ways to exit the Teamsters’ enormous Central States pension fund, which is thought to be nearing insolvency. Funded by about 1,900 companies, the pension is the second-largest multiemployer plan in the U.S.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in early April, Central States Executive Director Thomas Nyhan said “there is a reasonable possibility that this plan could run out of money in about a dozen years.”
With more and more companies exiting the plan, its funds are dwindling, and Republic claims it has offered a host of options to its workers in Youngstown and elsewhere, including shifting retirement benefits into a 401(k) or the better-funded Western Conference of Teamsters Pension, which covers more than 230,000 participants.
“Until we started bargaining several months ago to exit the Central States pension fund, we almost never had a dispute with the Teamsters much less the ongoing picketing and work- stoppage activity,” said Holly Georgell, senior director of labor relations at Republic.
Georgell said in a statement that the company repeatedly has asked the union to specify the allegations of unfair labor practices with no success.
Ralph Sam Cook, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 377, in a previous exchange with The Vindicator, said that although retirement benefits are at issue, the working conditions are the primary cause of the strike.
Leigh Strope, a spokeswoman with Teamsters International, has said the company is using the Central States pension as a “smokescreen” to circumvent proper bargaining.
In Youngstown, Republic pays more than $450 per employee into the pension plan. The 401(k) would cost the company less but significantly reduce employee benefits — a practice that has grown in the American workplace during the last decade or so.
“I’m on strike because I’m sick of this $8 billion company breaking the law to intimidate and bully us,” said Darrell Zeh, a landfill worker and member of Local 377 in Youngstown. “We’re the ones who work every day to make them all the money.”
In 2012, Republic reported a profit of $571.8 million. Along with Waste Management, it controls about 40 percent of the American sanitary-services market.
Georgell said Republic will use all legal means to exit Central States.