By Stan Santos
A conservative cabal of Fresno City Council members and city executives, including Mayor Ashley Swearengin and City Manager Mark Scott, are determined to privatize traditional city services. They have framed their arguments with volumes of documents, containing data and complex calculations of dollar amounts that will purportedly resolve the debt crisis and enrich Fresno coffers. It is a totally unproven act of blind faith. But there is another side. There is a human side—one with a rich historical context.
Somewhere around 1946, a farmworker from Firebaugh returned from Europe with shiny metals, campaign ribbons, photos and memorabilia from the events surrounding D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and Germany’s inevitable surrender. Besides running a 155mm Howitzer crew, his other skills included driving a tractor, irrigating and leading crews of farmworkers as they attacked the orchards and fields of the San Joaquin Valley’s west side.
Former farmworkers and soldiers, many of them Mexican nationals with names like Perez, Castillo and Santos, made the move to Fresno. It was during that time when thousands of veterans were settling into new jobs in an economy that rode the waves of industrial creativity and invention following World War II. It was a bright future ahead for the returning warriors, with plenty of growth, infrastructure investment, public works projects and jobs, particularly in the local government sector.
It was in this environment, rich with promise, that the heroic figure of the “GMan” emerges. They were part athlete and part gladiator, as they attacked trashcans, bins and mountains of garbage. A background in farm labor proved to be an asset. There was no sorting or recycling. They manhandled crumpled cans, bags and boxes, chucking everything into the tail end of the dump truck as it snorted and rumbled down streets and alleys like a huge, iron buffalo.
It was grueling work, at times rewarded by a customer who would leave a six-pack of Lucky Lager in a brown paper bag on top of their trash can. The GMen would go through work boots almost like they changed their socks, if they wore them. The pace and constant motion was torturous but brought the rewards of a steady income and a comfortable home for their families. Times were good.
In 1974, the optimism and hope of postwar America gave way to another time when the nation suffered the effects of more than a decade of war, with hundreds of veterans occupying the Veterans Administration, protesting the failed promise to make them whole. The economy strained under the weight of inflation, recession, an energy crisis and questions of financial stability. The people suffered from an even deeper sense of despair and loss of hope.
The President of the United States, obsessed with the possibility of losing his reelection, was charged with using government security assets to spy on the opposition and undermine the electoral process. The Executive Branch reeled and stood on the verge of toppling. Richard Nixon was the embattled President. Ronald Reagan was the governor of California. Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) had survived a bloody, violent strike against powerful agricultural interests and the hired guns of a corrupt section of the Teamsters.
Seven Days in July
In the streets and executive offices of Fresno, the battle lines were drawn and the two sides faced off. On one side were Mayor Ted C. Wills and the Fresno City Council, and on the other almost 350 blue-collar employees, including water and sewage plant workers, shop and park maintenance, and most prominent among them, the GMen. They stood proud, strong and willing to fight for better wages and working conditions. The city offered 9.6% plus cost-of-living adjustments. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees demanded a minimum of 14% in raises.
On July 1, 1974, the workers declared an impasse and went out on a strike that would last seven days. Pickets went up at the City Corporation yard and the dump sites, where the workers defended their livelihoods with sticks and their bodies. The grainy Fresno Bee photos show the images of African Americans, Mexican and White workers united in militant determination. Some picket signs evoked Martin Luther King and the striking Memphis garbage collectors with their affirmation, “I am a man!”
Dump trucks manned by supervisors and scabs ground to a halt, and trash began to accumulate throughout the City. On the third day, the city sought a court order to force the striking workers back to their jobs, followed on the fourth day by dozens of arrests. Soon, however, community groups including the UFW, La Raza Unida Party and the Teachers Association came to their support, and although scattered trash removal began, the tide turned in favor of the workers.
On July 8, 1974, the first municipal labor action in the history of the City of Fresno ended in victory for the blue-collar workers and their families. They returned to work with huge concessions, including at least 10.7% increases in all categories, with some gaining up to 16.5%. It was a historic moment and a tribute to the highest ideals of organized labor, alongside the Harlan Kentucky miners’ strikes and the lopsided struggle of the UFW movement. It reaffirmed the message that the collective action of workers can determine their destiny.
Blue-collar jobs in the maintenance and garbage collection departments in cities like Fresno were once the path to the middle class and prosperity for generations of immigrants, veterans and working-class families. Under union rules, there were guarantees of upward mobility that allowed laborers and minorities with minimum education to become technicians and heavy equipment operators. That was the road that carried the family of a farmworker from Firebaugh to a future that included a home, health care, education and a share in the American Dream. Today, the Fresno City Council’s road to privatization represents a race to the bottom.
The Struggle of the GMen Continues
There are no guarantees that the irreversible outsourcing of traditional city services will be sufficient to close the projected budget deficit of $16 million. And it is an insult to the community to cheapen the human side of this calculation with the promise of a short-term reduction of 15% in residential solid waste collection rates. What is certain is stated in the consultant’s feasibility study. Information Services, Facilities and other departments will be reduced and “certain assets could be sold to the private franchisee(s) at a below market price.” In other words, cascading events will result in further losses beyond the Solid Waste Division.
The feasibility study also states that “a decision to franchise the RSW function will result in the elimination of 177 positions used to provide RSW collection, Operation Clean-up and Litter Control services.” This means that the yearly cleanup that once relieved many neighborhoods of the glut of urban waste that comes with modern consumption will be on a cash-only basis, as it is in the county areas currently served by Allied Waste.
The feasibility study further states that “some of these employees will have the option to remain in City service, others may retire, while others would be hired by the private franchisee.” It concludes that “those persons leaving the City’s service and going to work for the private franchisee would experience a 21% to 26% hourly wage reduction and a reduction in benefits.”
In real terms, that means that a city employee who once earned more than $25 per hour will earn the current rate paid by Allied Waste, which is $17 per hour. Although their jobs are union, even the might of the Teamsters International is not sufficient to extract a living wage from Allied Waste, which was declared by Forbes magazine as “the top solid waste company of America.”
The privatization of traditional city services will cause families to lose their homes, and the promise of the American Dream will be once again denied. More than that, this represents the triumph of cold, calculating capitalism over working-class culture and values. In the end, the target is collective bargaining and the potential power that was evoked in the 1974 strike. Only the massive outcry and opposition of the majority of the community can force the City Council to put this decision to a referendum before the people of Fresno and defeat it once and for all.
Stan Santos is an activist in the labor and immigrant community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.