L.A.'s trash industry gets ready to rumble

A war over trash is about to break out at Los Angeles City Hall. And the ensuing lobbying is expected to be long and costly, with the outcome potentially affecting residents, businesses, workers and a quarter-billion-dollar-a-year industry across the city.

The opening clash is set for Monday, when labor and environmental groups will square off against waste haulers and business interests to determine how trash is picked up from tens of thousands of the city’s businesses and large apartment buildings.

City workers run the largest trash collection system in the nation, serving more than a half a million single-family homes and 220,000 small apartment buildings. But large apartment buildings and businesses are a different story. For generations, private trash haulers have vied for a share of the $224-million-a-year waste collection market there and at factories, schools, strip malls and office towers.

Now, a labor-allied group wants to reinvent that system by assigning exclusive commercial and apartment trash pickup rights to a handful of top bidders in 11 newly drawn franchise zones. City sanitation officials support the plan, which the Board of Public Works will take up Mondaybefore it begins moving through the City Council vetting process.

Union and environmental groups say the new system would increase recycling and ease traffic and pollution caused when hordes of heavy trucks from competing companies crisscross neighborhoods to serve scattered customers. They say it would also ensure safer, more humane working conditions for thousands of truck drivers and those working in rank recycling and trash-sorting facilities.


“It’s about accountability,” said Greg Good, who is pushing the issue for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a group tied to organized labor. “The more companies operating, the less information the city has, the less accountability.”

But business groups and many waste haulers warn that the proposal could cost renters and businesses a bundle and say it’s chiefly a union gambit to use government policy to expand membership. They fear the city would favor unionized companies and note that it is easier to organize a few companies than the 140-plus now operating in L.A.

“This is a thinly veiled attempt for labor to organize an industry that they can’t organize on their own,” said Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn. “Since when is it the city’s business to organize any industry, especially at the expense of residents and small and large businesses?”

Insight into the sheer volume of trash and the number of haulers moving around the city is offered at City Terrace Recycling, a facility in East Los Angeles where the contents of commercial dumpsters are sorted.

A steady stream of trucks from different companies roll in, get weighed and drop their garbage under the supervision of Ryan Oganesian, whose great-great-grandfather started the family’s business 100 years ago with a horse-drawn buggy.

Workers wearing masks and gloves pick out yard clippings, bottles, metal, and cardboard for recycling. No matter how fast they work, the pile of rubbish never seems to shrink; another truck is dumping its haul every few minutes.

Robert Arsenian, Oganesian’s uncle and the owner, said his employees are nonunion. His lowest paid sorter makes $11 an hour, but many make more, he said, and every employee gets company-paid health insurance.

“This proposal looks to take business away from many and give it into the hands of a few large companies who are aligned with the union,” he said. “That will cause many jobs to vanish. I would have to cut staff here.”

Good said organizing workers is not the aim of the new system.

“Nothing that happens with a franchising system is going to make it any easier to organize,” he said.

But he said unions are one way to protect industry workers, many of whom he said toil in horrible conditions. His group has collected testimonials from workers who said they were forced to sort trash without gloves or masks, were not given proper care when they were pricked with needles and were denied access to bathrooms.

City officials say changes are needed to meet Los Angeles’ goal of diverting 90% of waste away from landfills by 2025. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa supports the idea of a franchise system, although his spokesman Peter Sanders noted that its structure could change as the City Council takes up the issue.

Bureau of Sanitation Director Enrique Zaldivar said reaching the waste diversion benchmark demands more coordination and oversight of private haulers, which an exclusive franchise would provide. With today’s proliferation of haulers — permitted and otherwise — it’s nearly impossible for the city to hold companies accountable, he said.

“We very often get complaints about a truck spewing oil all over the place,” he said. “But we have no idea how to identify the trucks.”

He and other proponents acknowledge some in the waste industry may be hurt. But they maintain the change will benefit customers and could lower bills. Lack of regulation means businesses in the same area often pay wildly varying rates, they argue. Under the new system, the city would set uniform prices, with fees paid by contractors covering the cost of city oversight.

But an economic analysis commissioned by a group that opposes the franchising plan found it would cost businesses, property owners and apartment dwellers an additional $67 million a year.

Longtime City Hall watchers say the big financial stakes and opposing lineups — influential labor versus established business interests — have set the stage for a battle royale.

Trash contracting wars have convulsed the politics of many Southern California cities in recent years and have been part of recall elections in Montebello and indictments in Carson.

Veteran lobbyist Steven Afriat, who is not representing either side in the conflict, said, “And now we want to create 11 of these in Los Angeles?”