WASHINGTON, October 29, 2013 — Sanitation workers in Montgomery County, Maryland are on strike regarding affordable healthcare from their employers, as well as over pay wages and hours. The areas affected, according to NBC Washington, are Chevy Chase, Silver Spring, Bethesda, Wheaton, Aspen Hill, Potomac, as well as the Georgia Avenue and Dennis Avenue areas of Silver Spring. Accordingly, approximately 90,000 homes will be affected by the strike.
The workers come from two out of the country’s three waste disposal companies, specifically Potomac Disposal, where 50 employees are on strike; and Unity Disposal and Recycling, where 70 employees are on strike.
In an unusual development, the strike was bolstered by support from religious leaders: Rabbi David Shneyer of the Am Kolel Jewish Sanctuary, and Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, the senior minister of the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Md.
Rabbi Shneyer employed the use of a shofar, also known as a ram’s horn, during a protest outside the offices of Potomac Disposal. In remarks to the Washington Post, Reverend Janamanchi evoked memories of sanitation workers killed in Memphis during the civil rights movement.
The workers are represented by the Laborers International Union of North America, and have repeatedly attempted to negotiate with Potomac Disposal President Lee Levine. The efforts to bring the sanitation companies to the table have not entirely been successful, as Potomac Disposal and Unity Disposal both refused to attend a meeting organized by Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, leading to its cancellation.
The strike began in early September, and workers accuse the Potomac Disposal of engaging in intimidation tactics. Workers told NBC 4 News that Potomac Disposal used “inappropriate and intimidating immigration enforcement threats.”
The employees state that Potomac Disposal responded to initial requests for increased wages and healthcare by attaching I-9 forms to time cards of employees of Latino descent. The company denies that any race was singled out, but did not refute the allegation that they were distributing such forms to employees.
I-9 forms are typically utilized when employees are first hired to verify citizenship or other work eligibility criteria. It is not common for employers to distribute these forms again to employees, as the US Customs and Immigrations Office says “Employers are responsible for retaining completed forms.”
The instructions for the I-9 form state “It is illegal to discriminate against any work-authorized individual in hiring, discharge, recruitment or referral for a fee, or in employment eligibility verification (Form I-9 and E-Verify) process based on that individual’s citizenship status, immigration status or national origin.”
The strike was nearly resolved in September when workers attempted to return back to work, however were prevented from doing so by Potomac Disposal. In an unrelated incident, a worker on strike was hit by a sanitation vehicle. Police fined the driver for failure to control the vehicle.
Potomac Disposal’s website features a message apparently addressing the issue, on a strolling ticker “We are proud that all of our employees have always been paid well above the minimum wage and living wage requirements … Our employees also receive health benefits a 401k plan and bonuses! … We have regular scheduled pick ups this week … Thanks to our customers and friends for their continued calls of support!!”
Union Disposal’s website did not display any message relating to or acknowledging the strike.
The companies have reported that they have hired temporary contract workers to fulfill the work of the employees on strike.
County Executive Leggett has resisted calls to reconsider the contract with the two companies involved, but has expressed significant displeasure with the strike in general.
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