Trash trouble: Workers return to picket lines as latest Republic Services offer rejected

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SAN DIEGO – No end is in sight to a sanitation workers’ strike in its third week after members of Teamsters Local 542 Thursday rejected the latest offer from waste-management company Republic Services.

Ricardo Gonzalez, a striking Republic Services employee, says union workers ultimately are fighting for a better way of life with the recent trash strike. (FOX 5 photo)

More than 250 union workers walked off the job last month to strike for higher wages, better benefits and improved safety conditions. But as negotiations with Republic have yet to bear fruit, workers returned to the picket lines this week while residents and some elected officials are growing restless about the trash piling up in San Diego County communities.

“We’re not gonna settle for less,” union worker Ricardo Gonzalez said. “We gotta’ get what we want.”

Gonzalez, who is striking along with his fellow workers, said the effort is about more than his job. A husband and father, including to a 2-month-old infant, he said he’s ultimately fighting for a better way of life.

“It’s overwhelming because I just had a newborn,” he said. “She’s 2 months … but it’s a sacrifice — not just for me — but it’s a sacrifice for the people that want to be here. It’s not just for us now; it’s for the future.”

In a statement Thursday to FOX 5, Republic Services said it’s “disappointed” that the union rejected its latest offer for a new labor contract to end the strike.

“Republic and the union had met for negotiations 15 times, including five with a federal mediator,” the company’s statement reads. “The company’s offer featured a highly competitive wage and total compensation package and had the support and encouragement of city partners and leadership. Until further notice, Republic’s Emergency Operations Plan will continue to be implemented.”

One of those measures includes using so-called Blue Crew relief drivers — essentially replacement workers — “to make progress servicing our customers,” according to the company. Gonzalez said the relief crew doesn’t compare favorably to him and the other striking employees.

“They can’t do what we’re doing,” he said, “so it just goes to show just because they know how to drive doesn’t mean they can do what we’re doing.”

Republic Services also thanked its municipal partners and customers for their patience amid the ongoing strike. But it’s also clear that patience is waning as the strike drags on.

Chula Vista City Manager Maria Kachadooria addressed the strike in a statement Wednesday, acknowledging it has taken “a toll on our residents.” An update on the strike is slated to be on the agenda at next week’s Chula Vista City Council meeting to discuss proposed measures if the strike keeps going.

“Please know that City leadership is very much involved in this matter, including the City Attorney’s office,”  Kachadooria said. “We are currently working directly with Republic Services to ensure that, at a minimum, trash is picked up and properly disposed of while they are working out their labor issues. I have directed our Parks and Public Works crews to address any trash that is being placed in the public right of way, particularly near our storm drains.

“We are also working on getting recycling and green waste removal services reinstated, with alternatives mapped out if adequate service resumption does not occur this week. We do not have the staff or equipment to pick up the containers and take on the services provided by Republic Services.”

Last week, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said he’s been in talks with the company and its workers, noting the city is examining its franchise agreement with Republic “to determine enforcement options to address non-compliance with its terms.”

In the interim, Gloria urges trash customers to contact the company directly to request trash pickup. That can be done by phone at 619-421-9400 or via email at CustomerServiceSD@RepublicServices.com.

Others speaking out about the strike include San Diego County Board of Supervisors Vice Chair Nora Vargas and now-former California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez.

Despite the rounds of failed negotiations, employees speaking to FOX 5 Thursday said they just want to get back to work.

“We’re hoping that hardened hearts become soft and we can get back to work and service our community,” striking worker Michael Bernardo said.

Gonzalez even apologized to the community for the way the prolonged strike has impacted them.

“Just bear with us and eventually we’ll be there back at it again,” he said.

FOX 5’s Dillon Davis contributed to this story.

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