Oakland holds nose as garbage piles up

Times Staff Writer

Twenty days without garbage pickup has taught Walter Smith an odiferous lesson about modern culture: Today’s throwaway society produces a heck of a lot of trash.

“That’s three weeks right there,” he says, pointing to a reeking line of six trash containers and an overflow of plastic bags in front of his home. “Pretty soon the rats will be here. We’re thinking about getting a cat.”

Waste Management Inc., the largest garbage firm in North America, earlier this month locked 480 trash haulers out of their jobs. The rift has provoked tensions over what city officials call a looming health crisis as the company’s negotiations with Teamsters Local 70 have stalled.


Oakland officials sued Waste Management last week for breach of contract, even though the firm has brought in 350 replacement workers. The lockout affects more than 200,000 customers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

Meanwhile, the garbage mounts -- rusting ironing boards, smashed-in TV consoles, broken-down cardboard and rotting fruit rinds that have drawn flies and forced mothers to keep their kids indoors. Panicked residents are breaking into industrial garbage bins and driving to faraway neighborhoods to drop off their trash.

Irate motorists have followed garbage trucks, demanding that they come to their homes. Frustrated residents on one block piled their trash in the middle of the road so replacement haulers would have no choice but to stop.

Lower than usual temperatures have mostly kept a lid on serious vermin, but Oakland officials are nervous. “We’re three hot days away from a serious health crisis,” said City Manager John Russo.

Following 1,600 complaints by residents, Oakland is considering hiring other companies to help haul away the piled-up garbage. “If both sides get dug in and refuse to give, this could go on until September,” Russo said. “That means nearly an entire summer without regular trash pickup.”

Issues dividing Waste Management and its workers include company contributions to employee healthcare and pension programs and a no-strike clause. Workers say the firm wants to bust the union and has taken a hard line elsewhere.

Outside company headquarters in Oakland, longtime hauler Mark Giachino held up a sign that brought honks of support from passing cars. The placard showed a figure of a red rat with the words, “Do Not Patronize.” Other locked-out workers cursed and shook their fists at replacements who sheepishly drove past in company trucks.

“They’ve done this all over,” said Giachino, a 26-year veteran garbage worker. “This isn’t their first barbecue. They’ve cooked workers and their unions once or twice before.”

The company says it has signed union contracts without lockouts or strikes. “We had reason to believe Local 70 was ready to strike,” said spokesman David Tucker. “If the strike had come, we wouldn’t have been able to provide any service for three weeks. But that part of the discussion gets lost. People say ‘Well, they didn’t strike.’ It wasn’t a matter of if, but when.”

Oakland officials characterize the company’s negotiations as “cavalier” and warn cities in Southern California’s South Bay beach communities that the firm could soon lock out workers there as well. “There’s speculation this is a trial run for them,” said Russo, “an early positioning of assets in a battle.”

Waste Management provides service for 122,000 residential customers in the South Bay, but company officials say they expect a contract with Teamsters Local 396 to be renewed when it expires Sept. 30. “We really don’t have any reason to expect anything but an agreement with no interruption in these negotiations,” said Lynn Brown, a company spokeswoman in Houston.

Sanitation strikes and walkouts are rare in California. Orange County has seen two strikes since 1981. Los Angeles had its last garbage hauler strike in 1985.

In Oakland, after both sides in the lockout met for eight hours Thursday, city officials expressed hope that an agreement could be reached. Talks are scheduled to resume Sunday.

That didn’t make Nai Lee feel any better. “This isn’t sanitary,” said the 25-year-old, as he held his infant outside his home in working-class east Oakland. “I can’t let my son go outside.”

Nearby, a neighbor shook his head at the trash and said, “Even Lysol won’t help this smell.”

Alameda County health officials report few rat sightings. “But rats are nocturnal; they feed after dark,” said Lucia Hui of Alameda County Vector Control. “When we start seeing them in the day, then we’ll know we’ve got a problem.”

The lockout has had other effects, including a slump in the ice cream business, at least according to ice cream truck driver Carlos Gonzales, whose route is in west Oakland.

“Business is down,” he said. “Mothers won’t let their kids out of the house. They’re afraid of the garbage. I want my little customers back.”

Standing by a line of garbage cans a few blocks away, Anna Brown bristled at reports that wealthy homes in the Oakland hills had seen little disruption in their garbage pickup.

“If the trash is picked up anyplace, it should be picked up every place,” she said. “The garbage of the rich is no different than ours. It’s not made of gold or filled with dollar bills.”

Tucker of Waste Management denied the claims. “In some areas pickup has been spotty; nobody would disagree,” he said. “But go to the poorest of the poor areas, and they’re just as clean as in the hills.”

Sitting on his front porch near Brown’s home, Walter Smith says he’s had a rough couple of years. The 63-year-old retired truck driver moved here from New Orleans in 2005, forced out of his longtime home by Hurricane Katrina.

Now this.

“Sometimes,” he said, “it seems like I’ve got back luck following right behind me.”