It’s time for New Orleans to pick up the trash
On Tuesday, September 14, after reading – once again – the city’s claim that at least two-thirds of New Orleans had at least one garbage collection tour since Hurricane Ida, we had decided to see if we could independently verify this claim. To our eyes and noses, two-thirds seemed exaggerated. We live in Upper Ninth Ward a few blocks from each other and maybe we thought our part of town might be outdated.
We decided to create a poll.
In five days, the survey collected more than 1,300 responses. The results were clear and unequivocal: over 60% of the city reported no pickups from Ida. There are important questions to be asked about the origin of the number of two-thirds of the city; why it kept repeating itself; and how the performance of its subcontractors is verified. These questions need to be asked. But the most pressing questions are: how did we end up in this rubbish heap; how to get out; and how to prevent this from happening again?
Our survey found that more than 70% of the people who have not reported any garbage collection since Hurricane Ida reside in a part of the city designated as Service Area 2. Metro Service Group serves that area. Service zone 2 covers the neighborhoods downstream from Avenue Esplanade and east of Boulevard Wisner. Even though Service Area 2 experienced the worst service, many residents of Service Area 1, which is served by Richard’s Disposal and covers Uptown, Mid-City and the West Bank, had yet to see their waste picked up. more.
As early as two days before Hurricane Ida, Mayor Cantrell said the city knew Service Area 2 would have a problem. She told residents they would not have to rely on Metro Service Group for garbage collection after the hurricane, especially as the company struggled with labor shortages before the storm.
In market economies, the price of goods and services often increases and decreases depending on supply and demand. And waste management workers are in demand. Thus, hoppers and drivers can order more for their work in the sanitation sector, its adjacent industries and the wider market. The result is upward pressure on Metro, which is unwilling to offer competitive salaries for a service needed to honor its contract and offer.
Metro Service Group appears to be hoping for either a bailout for New Orleans taxpayers or, perhaps, the magical reappearance of an unorganized workforce unable to negotiate. A Metro Service Group lawyer told city council that changes in the job market “weren’t factored into the offer initially. Otherwise, they shouldn’t apply to that contract, as you can’t add additional costs without providing additional income to cover that. Metro’s lawyer appears to be suggesting that the company’s failure to forecast financials is the problem of the city and its residents. The position implies that the city signed a contract which guaranteed a certain profit margin, rather than a contract to collect certain quantities of waste from certain parts of the city according to certain schedules. Metro Service Group gets an A for effort, but an F for economics.
Across the economy, there is no shortage of labor for companies willing to pay competitive wages. If a firm’s margins are so dependent on a price for labor so low that it cannot compete, well, to use a phrase from Milton Friedman, it is “business business.” “. In this case, Metro Service Group and Richards’s Disposal have contractually agreed to provide services in exchange for a specific payment. If it ends up costing them more money to honor their contracts, then from a business perspective, they have miscalculated the cost of providing these services. But they are still required to honor their contract, even if it means they lose money. Reluctance to cut profits and reluctance to pay market rates for labor are no excuses for breach of contract.
Metro Service Group, in particular, has demonstrated a continued reluctance to provide fair compensation to its employees. In 2019, the waste hauler settled a federal labor case with its sanitation workers over several cases of repeated violations of federal minimum wage laws. Faced with an organizational effort by its hoppers in spring 2020, the company called on prison work. They reportedly denied their workers the democratic right to form a trade union through threats and coercive acts. (A complaint against Metro and its staffing service provider People Ready filed with the National Labor Relations Board was dismissed in December. The NLRB found that after first notifying the strikers that they had been fired, the companies distributed a letter to them asserting their right to organize and telling them that they could return to work after the strike.)
These companies need to be held accountable in every way possible. They should be fined for every missed pickup; and there should be a mandatory review of truck GPS data to assess the extent of any non-compliance. It would help recover as much money as possible for the customers and the city. The city must make it clear to Metro, Richard’s and any other company in the event of a municipal contract breach that it will cost more not to pay the going wages than to pay them.
Mayor Cantrell has repeatedly indicated that he is unwilling to bind Metro Service Group under its contract. Since 2012, she has received at least $ 5,000 in donations from Metro CEO Jimmie Woods, a relatively paltry sum in Woods’ political donation scheme, which also included a $ 5,000 donation to her main opponent in the race. at the town hall of 2017.
The long-term answer is not to relaunch contracts or bring in other sanitation companies. On the contrary, the city of New Orleans needs to get back to the garbage collection business as quickly as possible. As soon as these contracts end – ideally due to termination for non-compliance – garbage collection should once again become a public good just like firefighting and public libraries. Municipal garbage collection systems have many advantages over our current system. They can be held accountable to our representatives and voters.
At the end of the 19th century, cities began to offer garbage collection as a city-run service. Streets free from festering waste have become an important public health asset for citizens and a symbol of good government. Failure to dispose of waste led to the downfall of many municipal governments. In the 1980s and 1990s, many places, including New Orleans, began outsourcing garbage collection to private contractors. The result is a scheme where the city hired three private companies to dispose of household waste.
Like our fire department, municipal garbage collection is not for profit. It is dedicated solely to the service of all residents. Municipal sanitation systems can be managed in-house with efficiency and high levels of public satisfaction, such as our libraries, parks and recreation centers, and our fire department. City-run sanitation services can easily and efficiently pivot to deal with situations like ours.
As city workers, the hoppers and drivers will be essential personnel entitled to things like emergency housing in the event of another hurricane, allowing for a quicker return to work and faster waste disposal. , a danger to public health. And it is profitable. In San Antonio, which has a municipal garbage collection system, residents pay seven dollars less a month for more services than we receive. More importantly, in a municipal system, the hoppers and drivers who literally do the dirtiest work in our city will be entitled to all the wages, benefits, safety equipment, and work rights of other city employees.
The current administration did make its point when it brought in city workers to help Metro pick up trash in its service area. The city’s action made it clear that due to its wages and benefits it does not have such a shortage of manpower. The city’s Operation Mardi Gras revealed a simple fact: the public health and quality of life issues that stem from a lack of garbage collection, as well as the well-being and safety of these most essential workers. , are too important to be entrusted to entrepreneurs. . We agree!
In front of the outcry, the candidates who seize on this question; demand that these contracts be honored immediately; and call for municipal garbage collection in the future – regardless of the cost to politically connected entrepreneurs – will likely find themselves able to deliver on their promises. It’s up to the rest of us to remember that moment and put on a stink to make sure our leaders do too.
Thomas J. Adams is Visiting Professor at the New Orleans Center for the Southern Gulf at Tulane University. Suzanne-Juliette Mobley is research director at the Monument Lab.