March 18, 2023
From The Militant

CAMDEN, N.J. — Joanne Kuniansky, Socialist Workers Party candidate for New Jersey state Senate, along with Chris Hoeppner, SWP candidate for mayor of Philadelphia, and this Militant  reporter, visited the sanitation workers picket line here in solidarity March 4. The members of Teamsters Local 115 were glad to talk to us. The workers walked out Jan. 31 against Waste Management over wages, health benefits and bosses’ increasing use of disciplinary measures. On March 5 they voted to accept the latest contract proposal.

The bosses “didn’t want us to strike and set a precedent for other workers,” Bob Klein, a driver for 26 years, told Kuniansky. “Working people do support the unions and appreciate when we fight,” she said.

Many workers talked about how the bosses try and force them to do unsafe jobs. “They will say, ‘Well, Billy did this, so why can’t you do it?’” striker Rhashik Mathes told Kuniansky.

“We have the right to go home at the end of the day in the same shape that we started the day,” Kuniansky replied. “We need workers control over safety and all aspects of what we do on the job.”

Striker Bill Atkinson told the SWP candidate that the bosses really don’t care about maintenance or making equipment safe, “but we should say, ‘see something, fix something.’”

Driver Joe Gallagher pointed to a huge mirror above the entrance where the trucks enter and leave the yard. “We’ve been asking them to repair that mirror for a year,” he said. “Someone is going to get hurt.”

“It’s not just a question of money for the companies,” Steve DeCecco, a driver for 34 years, said. “They’ll throw money at us all day to keep us down. Years ago, the union had the right to approve safety and rule changes, then they gave us over $1,000 to take that away.”

“That’s what we call ‘blood money,’” Kuniansky said. “It’s a bribe. Whenever a boss has tried to buy me with some ‘bonus,’ I tell my co-workers I’m giving the money to my party to strengthen the labor movement.”

DeCecco talked about the disaster of the recent rail derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. He said he has a friend who lives in Paulsboro, New Jersey, near the bridge where a Conrail train derailed in 2012, spewing 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride — the same toxic chemical as was showered on the water and soil in the Ohio derailment. “We, the people, always have the right to know what’s causing any pollution,” he said.

“The volunteer firemen in Ohio weren’t told about the chemicals spilled or provided protective equipment,” said Klein. “We know about this too, because as sanitation workers we weren’t provided protective equipment during the COVID pandemic.”

Importance of unions

Gallagher talked about the importance of having unions. “Some people say the unions are only for ‘disgruntled employees’ or when a worker is facing discipline for an infraction. We’re picking up trash — how much of an ‘infraction’ could we have?” he asked. “And what about company ‘infractions’? Who’s going to fight those?”

“Why is it that we can’t leave work to go home when there’s a problem with our children or family?” asked a striker named Moe. “The company thinks, the hell with your children.”

Kuniansky showed the strikers the new Pathfinder book, The Low Point of Labor Resistance Is Behind Us: The Socialist Workers Party Looks Forward  by SWP leaders Jack Barnes, Mary-Alice Waters and Steve Clark. Moe said he liked the picture of the Frito-Lay strikers on the front cover holding a sign saying, “Forced overtime: No family time.” He said, “This is a worldwide problem.”

“Yes, the capitalist system ensures that profits come first all over the world,” said Kuniansky.

Hoeppner, who is a rail worker and member of the SMART-TD union, talked with strikers about the grueling conditions they face. And how the Joseph Biden administration led a bipartisan Congress to use the anti-labor Railway Labor Act to impose on workers a bad contract that they had voted down.

“It made me sick when I heard Biden did that,” said Teamsters Local 115 shop steward Ivan James.

“We have to stand up for our rights,” said Hoeppner. “We can look at other examples in struggles by the working class and emulate those fighters.”

Kuniansky said workers need to form our own party, a labor party based on our unions, that can reach out to all workers, farmers, and others to break from the Democrats and Republicans.

“I really like that idea!” James said.