These signs, carried by sanitation workers in the 2012 Martin Luther King Day march, are a reminder of the ongoing struggle for economic justice in this city.

Fresno City Hall Says “Cut Back,” the People Say “Fight Back”

By Mike Rhodes

The conservative right-wing majority of the Fresno City Council (Andrea Borgeas, Lee Brand, Clint Olivier and Larry Westerlund) voted on Dec. 20 to privatize another essential government service. As a result, about 100 residential sanitation workers will lose jobs where they earned a living wage and received decent benefits.

There were more than 20 speakers from the public at the Dec. 20 meeting and they all opposed privatization, many urging that the vote be delayed. Speakers wanted to delay the vote so the community would have more time to consider this important issue, a better environmental impact study could be completed and other options could be looked into that could bring in additional revenue to the city.

Howard Watkins, speaking before the City Council said, “You are acting as if someone has a gun to your head and you have to act now or it is all over. That is not the case. There are two possibilities. One, this is an important issue—if you go forward with it tonight you are inviting litigation…you are going to end up being sued and you have a good shot at paying attorney fees for both sides. This needs to go to a vote. You can take your case to the people about why the city needs more revenue.” Watkins warned Borgeas and Westerlund, the two members on the dais who were attending their last meeting as Council members, that they should not leave this as their legacy.

Later in the meeting, Westerlund thanked Watkins for his presentation, citing him as a voice of reason but ultimately rejecting his argument. Westerlund said that many of the speakers were not looking at the reality of the situation, but that he had “to deal with the facts as they are in reality.” He continued, “I’m always amazed at how folks see things and how we can come at it from two different angles and see two different perspectives on stuff.” Westerlund said they had to privatize sanitation worker jobs to help balance the budget.

Former City Council Member Les Kimber probably received the largest applause from the well-attended meeting. Kimber said, “I’m here because I’m concerned about the privatization of one of the most essential departments of any city. It has an excellent recycling program. It is an award-winning department. I can’t understand why we would literally give away the tremendous assets of this department in order to create a monopoly in the private sector.

“This department has served the residents of this city well, and there is no doubt that the picking up of garbage is an essential service for the residents of this city. How can you gamble on the possibility that some company can do the job that has been done by this department? Well, one way you can do it is by literally giving away the assets of the City of Fresno. Example: The City of Fresno owns 360,000 containers that hold trash. This agreement calls on the city to sell those containers for $10 each. The replacement of those things is 5–10 times that much.

“That alone represents a $15 million gift to this company. You are also contemplating selling trucks for $60,000 each. They are worth $100,000–$150,000 each. That is another $5 million–6 million gift. If this agreement goes through, this will be the biggest gift of public property in the history of Fresno. The whole thing is irresponsible and it is shortsighted. You cannot fix budget problems by selling off city property. If so, why not sell Woodward Park? Why not sell the baseball stadium? If that is the route you are going to go to balance the budget, then why mess with the one department in this city that is award winning?”

A constant theme through the public comments was to delay the vote until next year. One reason for that strategy was to replace Westerlund (who was termed out) with Paul Caprioglio, who won the election in District 4. Nobody knew how Caprioglio would vote, but the hope was that he would join the other Democratic Party members of the board in January and vote against privatization.

Following the vote to privatize the sanitation department, there are two responses emerging from labor and community groups. Marina Magdaleno, business representative for IUOE (International Union of Operating Engineers) Local 39 (the union that represents sanitation workers) says they are going to get a referendum on the ballot to take this issue to the voters. They need 21,000 valid signatures and they only have until January 20 to get them. She encourages interested persons to go to their Web site (http://www.fresnotrashscam.com/), download the petition and help them get signatures. For more information on this campaign, contact Magdaleno at 559-233-0839.

The other approach is litigation. In a letter to City Council President Clint Olivier by local attorney Patience Milrod, on behalf of Diane Smith and Booker T. Lewis, II, pastor of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church, a case is made for the need of a more comprehensive environmental assessment before the privatization of the sanitation department is finalized. The letter alleges that increased truck traffic will negatively affect southwest Fresno, an area already hit hard by poor air quality.

The letter from Milrod states that “West Fresno bears the burden of the vast majority of the city of Fresno’s toxic industrial and environmental stressors…including slaughterhouses and meat processing plants, waste dumps, a wrecking yard, a sewage treatment plant, a biomass processing and recycling plant, and hundreds of contaminated sites designated as potential brownfields by the U.S. EPA. This pattern of concentrated environmental hazards is shaped by city planning decisions to zone the area for industrial uses and to constantly permit toxic facilities here.”

City Hall has voted to create a corporate monopoly that will decrease workers’ pay, increase your garbage bill and reduce the service you receive. This attack against city workers is seen by some as an opportunity for building a more powerful labor/community alliance and for showing solidarity with the sanitation workers who deserve to earn a living wage. When City Hall says “cut back,” organized labor and the progressive community say it is time to “fight back!”

*****

Mike Rhodes is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact him at editor@fresnoalliance.com.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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