On May 5, hoppers—sanitation workers who hop on and off the garbage truck to collect about 250,000 pounds of our city’s waste per week —walked off the job at Metro Service Group and have been on strike for the last two months. Hoppers at Metro are currently paid $10.25 per hour and only receive the legal minimum of $11.19 per hour if they work more than five days a week. While this moment may have been a long time coming, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus turned sanitation workers into essential workers, and turned the striking hoppers into the newly-formed City Waste Union. They are demanding a $15 hourly wage, $150 in weekly hazard pay, personal protective equipment, and a fix for the company’s broken trucks that leak hydraulic fluid onto the workers.
The sanitation strike has also inspired other picket lines and protests around the city—including the barista strike at Still Perkin’ in the Garden District—and continues to see a greater influx of supporters as the weeks stretch on. The most recent rally held on June 20 led a crowd of hundreds on a march through the Lakeview neighborhood to the home of Metro owner Jimmie Woods. I arrived on the picket line on June 6 and spent two weeks speaking to the hoppers and documenting the growing movement.
What has it been like being out here every day?
It’s a task every day. It’s a challenge. It’s like learning chess overnight. You can’t stop with chess, you know? How do I get good enough to win that? When I played chess, I didn’t win for a long time. My strategy was my knowledge. I continued to understand the game the more I saw it. I work by strategy. If I have a better strategy, I would do it better. I work my motivational side to support the group, the [City Waste] union. We been going over all that type of stuff. We’re five weeks in and we’re already speaking of a model. Nothing means more than something that helps us on the road. Our model is serious, you know?
Do you guys have any friends or colleagues who can’t join you out here?
We have a couple. Right now, we don’t really need them for this. We need them later on when the fight turns over.
What does it feel like to ask for things that seem so obviously necessary, and just be replaced?
It’s a horrible feeling. It lets me know what you think and what you mean. I don’t have to ask you too many questions; I can see where you’re going with it. That’s it? Oh, OK. Some things speak in such volumes, no need to fill the glass any higher. You pay someone like an officer who is clean and loyal and respectable but you don’t give us access to wages for a job no one wants to do… We need more people to call downtown and ask, what’s going on with my tax money? That group y’all got in place that pick up my trash? That’s a service we pay for and our community has to grow because we are human beings… I have to speak out and I have to speak to more people because the relationship we don’t have is what breaks us as human beings. It defeats us. Even if you are a group of solid white people, you aren’t going to accomplish much—just like us. We have to eat at the same time and understand how it works together. People are defeated by attitude and by fear, by pressure and by racism. It’s diseaseful in the mind. People don’t get to think like regular people when someone is pressuring you. And it gets worse when the color changes. We didn’t start this to make history. We found that out as we kept taking steps. Making history? Really? It sounds good. It sounds real good.
What kind of pressure do they put on you specifically?
Finish the day, hurry up and finish the day, hurry up and finish the day. HURRY UP AND FINISH THE DAY I SAY. Oh, you’re hurt? Get out of the way! Come ‘ere you and hurry up and finish the day. That’s how that shit goes, just like that. I’m talking exactly. These guys have all had at least one episode of body exhaustion, complete shutdown, cramping, dehydration…
When did you start working at Metro Service Group?
Four years ago. I had gotten so good at it. This job had become easy for me. So many things they threw at us to make this shit difficult… you could get to the level of fucking perfect and the slightest thing could throw it all off. [On] my last permanent truck—I had six days—I could come to work six days, same truck, same driver, everything—because I got awarded permanent. [It’s] the shit you want, the shit you’re looking for. Now you [have to] manage overtime and all that but hey, I worked to get here, let’s go! But the driver don’t like me. That shit went on for about four months and then I lose my permanent truck. Back down to one fucking day a week.
For any reason?
He got upset because I asked him to stop pulling off on me. Here’s the thing: don’t pull off on me. I need to be on the truck to go that way. So, if I’m dumping the can and you moving the truck or I get off the truck to get the can and you moving the truck… I’m not about to pick this bitch up and run with it. This ain’t running, this is hopping. I hop off the truck, get the can, hop back on the truck. That’s it.
Are any of the people out here drivers or are they all hoppers?
All hoppers. Hoppers train hoppers. Metro does not train drivers, hoppers train drivers. Metro does not pay hoppers to train hoppers or drivers. Metro is the most inexperienced company I have ever seen in my fucking life. They do not train their own drivers but for the one day and then the hoppers take over. I’m teaching you?! I don’t even have a CDL license. I just want my pay for teaching you this shit… So many of us have been hit by trucks, knocked off the fucking trucks, all kinds of shit. They’ll knock your mirror off… it’s horrible. It needs big changes…
The majority of us, we get off and finish with the garbage truck and go other places to work because it’s not enough money. So now you put in all those fucking hours picking up trash and you still have to find time to go out and get another job. And you have to get up and do that shit again tomorrow. It’s horrible, man, it’s horrible. It’s not enough money.
The support that they give to the prison system that they spoke about, how they hire people directly after they get out of jail? Why is it so good putting them on a truck compared to someone who been standing out here every day? They break all their own rules. As the rule is being spoken, it is being broken and the supervisors know it. And if you fight them, they’ll take your truck and put somebody else on it. They’ll suspend you for a couple days—a whole week—until you come back and apologize. Apologize for what? Defending myself, dude? Are you serious? This is a job! You’re a supervisor, right? Do your job. Put me where I’m supposed to be, not where you want me to be. You feel like you giving me something because I’m working for you and then you limit it? Anybody told you how much my bills are worth? And you’re giving me just that much? And sometimes you don’t even care about that. It’s bad. It’s horrible.
How long have you been doing this?
I been doing it for a while. I love my job but if I didn’t do it again, I wouldn’t be mad. It’s time to branch out because we out here trying to set the bar.
What does it feel like to ask for what seems like the lowest bar possible, just to be replaced?
That’s all we want, you know? It ain’t that hard. Metro is real stubborn and if they going to be stubborn, we gonna continue to fight. We gonna fight the fight until they ready. I know it’s hard for them. We got 14 of the best hoppers and I’m not saying that because we [the ones] out here, I’m saying that because I know from experience. We trying to get everybody else to come over here and eventually we trying to get somewhere but if we don’t, they gotta look at themselves in the mirror, you know? All of us have our own situations—family, kids we gotta take care of.
And you have to push pause on that important shit to come out here.
This is our [seventh] week. We almost going into the [eighth] week next week. I’m one of the guys that people kept coming to like, we need to set a date. I said, we get paid on May 4th; everybody pay your rent and on Tuesday, the heaviest day, we gonna stand down. And that’s what they got. They didn’t know it was coming, that’s why it was a surprise to them. They was telling us what to do for years and we had to take it. When we finally got a chance to stand up for ourselves, everyone was serious. We had between 18 and 22 guys the first day. Some people dropped, some people came back. I don’t really have bad nerves, I could wait all day. I’ll be alright. I don’t smoke cigarettes or nothing, I don’t got bad nerves… [Before the strike], I had just got hit by a truck in the back. I was on the hopper stand and he hit me in the back with a mirror. And then after that, my truck in less than five minutes went in a hole twice.
When that happens…?
I fell off the truck.
And that’s just par for the course?
Yeah. The things we asking for, it’s basic. As a hopper, you go with the flow because it’s a hustle, you know? You make your money and if you miss a day, you gonna be behind on the bills.
Are you sub-contractors then?
We supposed to be sub-contractors through PeopleReady. They say we supposed to be making $11.19 but if you don’t work 5 to 6 days, you earn $10 during the week.
So it’s basically a bonus for overworking your body?
That’s what it is. But I think eventually we gonna get somewhere, we gonna be alright.
What is it that you like about the job?
Everything. The people. I like working. I like teamwork. Never arguing. Always have a smile. I’m a lovable person. I’m very respectful. I’m gonna give you respect to the fullest and I demand it back. God has a plan for all us. That’s the plan right now: stand up for yourself.
How long have you been at Metro?
Like two and a half years.
What does it feel like to ask for what seems like the bare minimum, just to be replaced?
It’s degrading. That’s what it feels like. I know what I do helps the environment so much. Even I didn’t know that or look at it like that; but I look at it like that now. It makes me feel less than to the certain extent. It hurt. That’s what it really does. It hurts. They make millions off our backs. They make millions. While they sit back and be comfortable, we got to try our best but it’s not right. It’s definitely degrading. They treating us like we asking for the world and all we asking is to let us make a comfortable wage where we don’t have to live check to check. Let us go home, take care of our family, you know? But they don’t look at it like that because they’re so greedy. Y’all comfortable. I been wanting to ask them, how does it feel to be able to take care of your kids without any worries? And when they tell me I say, “I wish I could feel the same.” If I’m living comfortable, that mean the job gonna get done even better, you know? Nobody wants to come to work when they feeling miserable. How does it feel to come home to your wife and she’s not worrying about a bill? She’s not worried about the lights getting turned off? How does that feel? I want to know how that feels. Basically, I’m expendable. That’s how it feels.
Up until today, I didn’t realize the hoppers and the drivers were trained separately, if at all.
Hoppers are not trained. Let me explain to you what their training is. Their training is: I’m gonna put you with two guys that know what they’re doing and they gonna show you the ropes. We’re not getting paid for this, first of all. Most dudes’ attitude when they gotta train somebody is: stay out the way and watch. I’m not that type. I’ll show them a couple of moves, little techniques, let them get a couple of cans. And when I see them getting tired then they can get on the hopper stand and relax. The training they get is either you gonna catch on or you not. That’s not training.
Somebody asked us about the I AM A MAN sign like, is that a racial thing? It’s not racial. We are men. We want to get paid like men. We gotta put in so many hours to get a decent check. You gotta put in like 80 hours to get $1000. 80 hours? For $1000? And you not gonna get the 80 hours all the time. That’s not gonna happen. Sometimes they gonna make sure you don’t get it. They came to me one day—I think I was at like 65 hours by Friday—and said, you gotta take off, you got too many hours. And even then, to work 80 hours, you ain’t got no life. By the time you get off, you’re beat up, it’s gonna be 4, 5, 6 o’clock. We clock in at 4:30 in the morning and some days you aren’t done until after 6 in the evening.
And how far do you have to drive in?
Some people drive all the way from Baton Rouge. Some drive from LaPlace. They gotta wake up at least 2 a.m. You never get enough sleep with this job because you want to still have a life.
How old are you?
I’m 38 years old. I can’t believe that. When I got here I was 31. And it went so fast. I think it’s because of this job. I’ve been enjoying myself so much it was like I didn’t have a job. But when they changed the company [that employs us as sub-contractors], we used to have a day rate. I used to get off every day at 12:30 p.m. and then I started getting off at 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. They messed it up themselves. I can’t do 80 hours. I like to go home, watch t.v., play my games, go out.
With respect to the I AM A MAN posters, what is the significance for you in stepping into that history so many years later?
By me living in Memphis I used to see that when I was a kid all the time. I just never thought I would be holding one of them signs. I never thought in 100 years. I am still shocked that it happened in Memphis in ’68 and 52 years later, it happens in New Orleans and I’m in it. That means a lot to me. It’s powerful. History is repeating itself and now I get to be a part of it. I am a man. You are a woman. It’s the same significance. There’s supposed to be no such thing as color or gender. We all equal. We all supposed to wake up and do the same thing. You can run the same equipment I run so what’s the difference? If people are finding a spark from seeing us out here, I appreciate that. I feel proud, like we inspired something. We don’t even realize how big it is ourselves. I never did a picket line. I don’t have experience with it, but I’ve learned so much. I’ve definitely learned solidarity. That’s a strong word, especially when it’s used right.
Top photo: Striking hoppers gather in front of New Orleans City Hall on June 9.
all photos by Katie Sikora