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An Ode to Sanitation Workers

Without them, the factories would stop, the cities would empty, and civilization itself would collapse. An appreciation of sanitation workers — our whole lives depend on them.

A sanitation worker flanked by police in Chinatown, New York City. Marcela / Flickr.

Last August, sanitation workers in Atlanta went on a one-day strike for a fair contract with their employer, the multibillion-dollar Republic Services corporation. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution gave the workers an opportunity to lay out their demands — adequate health benefits, annual raises, an end to non-union subcontracting — but the paper also chose a telling headline: “Sanitation workers striking for bargaining rights could affect Atlanta businesses.”

This is true on the face of it. Indeed, “affecting business” is the lever that striking workers pull to force concessions from their employers. But in the bigger picture, a headline focusing on the strike’s interruption of business as usual — standard fare in mainstream strike coverage — gets the emphasis all wrong.

Strikes only affect normal operations insofar as the labor being withheld is integral to those operations. The real story isn’t the adverse impact of labor’s temporary absence, but the fact that its continual presence is so badly needed. The question that strikes raise is how important workers’ contributions are to society, and what quality of life they deserve in return.

Capitalism’s ingenious deception is to make labor seem mundane, instead of what it really is: the miraculously complex bedrock of human civilization. As Eugene Debs wrote in 1894, “But for labor no keel would cleave the waves nor locomotives speed along their iron tracks. The warehouses would stand empty, factories would be silent, ships and docks would rot, cities would tumble down, and universal ruin would prevail.”

Sanitation work is case in point. The labor performed by sanitation workers is all but invisible to people going about their daily lives, but it’s indispensable to nearly every aspect of our society. The workers at Republic’s Atlanta facility, for example, service hospitals, universities, major grocery chains, the entire Atlanta public school system, and the Atlanta International Airport. Republic’s distinctive red five-pointed star logo can be seen on trucks, bins, and neon vests across the nation. There’s a decent chance you’ve seen that logo and thought nothing about it at all.

It’s easy to forget, stuck behind a garbage truck, that the truck is a tool in an elaborate choreography of labor. Every day sanitation workers drive, lift, climb, toss, catch, empty, sort, maintain, repair, calculate, pump, pour, dig, monitor, dispatch, calibrate, and navigate their way across our towns and cities. Trash collectors can run up to twenty miles a day behind their trucks. They lift eighty- or hundred-pound cans, sometimes heavier on days when it rains. And the rain doesn’t stop them, nor does the snow or the heat. The show goes on, because the public depends on it.

Imagine a world in which sanitation work suddenly stopped. Residential streets would overflow with household garbage. Offices, hospitals, and schools would fall into dysfunction as their premises piled high with trash. Construction would stop, since the absence of workers to clear waste from construction sites would make building and major repairs impossible. Production would halt, as factories would have no process for discarding materials off-site. Food systems would break down as edible and inedible biomass commingled, the fresh amid the rotting.

The sewers would back up with urine and excrement. The water would become contaminated and undrinkable. The air would become toxic and unbreathable. The odor would be unbearable, driving people to madness. Overwhelmed by uncontained debris, non-human species would begin to die off and new imbalances would augur ecological disaster. Pandemics would break out. Refugees would flee cities, their contest over unspoiled land leading to violence.

Without sanitation work, society would literally collapse.

Humans have been performing sanitation work for millennia in order to stave off disease, degeneration, and disarray. In the Indus Valley circa 2600-1900 BC, laborers installed toilets in individual houses, built sewer drains that led refuse to distant basins, and cleaned out the basins at regular intervals.

In the ancient city of Lothal, workers built garbage chutes in houses that led to public bins. They built clean-water tanks for public use, and fitted water drainage pipes with wooden screens that blocked solid waste from flowing into the estuary as it left the city. All of this work improved life in the Indus Valley, which allowed its denizens greater freedom to develop other innovations that pushed civilization forward, like dentistry, rulers, and weighing scales.

The sanitation labor force is the thin green line that keeps our civilization from devolving into chaos. It simply must happen in order for society to continue. The questions that remain are how to arrange and value it.

Under capitalism, sanitation work is arranged in one of two ways: either it’s publicly provided and paid for by taxes, in which case capitalist-driven austerity perpetually threatens budget cuts which usually fall on workers, or it’s (increasingly) privatized, contracted out to a company like Republic that has a mandate to maximize profits, which involves suppressing labor costs, as seen in Atlanta.

The result is that sanitation labor is consistently devalued, alongside most other work under capitalism. This devaluation is out of alignment with the absolute necessity of the labor itself. As compensation for keeping society from teetering into the abyss, the average American sanitation worker makes $35,270. Private sanitation workers make significantly less than public sanitation workers. And, as ever, those without union representation fare worse than their unionized counterparts. Thanks to the tireless efforts of capitalists and neoliberal politicians, union density in sanitation work has plummeted since the 1970s.

In addition to being of critical importance to the maintenance and reproduction of the human world, sanitation work is also extremely dangerous. Sanitation workers can be hit by cars, crushed in compactors, pricked by needles and cut by broken glass. It’s the fifth most dangerous job in the United States, more dangerous than being a police officer. The more privatized, the more dangerous, as companies maximize profit by cutting costs on safety measures.

In 1968, the brutal deaths of two sanitation workers sparked a strike in Memphis, in which 1,300 trash collectors and sewer workers, mostly black, walked off the job to demand better pay and an end to dangerous and degrading conditions. Visiting those striking workers was the last thing Martin Luther King Jr. did before his assassination. He delivered in Memphis perhaps the most pro-labor speech of his life, exhorting them to strike, march, and boycott until they won. This speech was also his last; he was murdered the following day.

The strikers, King said, were “thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out.” Their low pay and miserable working conditions were an affront to justice. The strikers’ slogan reflected their refusal to be treated like expendable objects: hundreds of sanitation workers held aloft white signs bearing stark black letters that spelled out “I AM A MAN.”

Right now Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the world, makes over four times the average American sanitation worker salary every minute. The capitalist justification for this state of affairs is that Bezos himself is driving innovation through a game-changing enterprise, Amazon. But Amazon would not be possible without the workers in the warehouses who sort and pack shipments, the workers who transport and deliver those shipments, and indeed the sanitation workers who clean up the sites where the products are made, the warehouses where they’re organized, and the streets where the packaging for those shipments is discarded.

Because capitalism requires business owners to compete with each other to maximize profit, it relies on driving down labor costs, which means it will always compulsively devalue labor, no matter how essential. As a result, the sanitation worker under capitalism is exposed to unnecessary danger and often receives (especially without a union) low wages — this as compensation for preventing the complete breakdown of social order and the collapse of human civilization.

Socialism aims to put labor in its rightful place, to draw the necessary conclusions from the fact that society would not exist without it and to arrange and value it accordingly. Under socialism, sanitation workers would be properly understood as guardians and sustainers of civilization, just like teachers, drivers, nurses, food growers, homemakers, and mechanics. And for making the world run, they would receive the world in return.