Liar's Poker
How serious is the city about sanitation workers' problems?
By Alex De Grand

Sitting among the approximately 100 people gathered for the Living Wage Rally held Labor Day at Triangle Park, City Councilman George Brown mused over the situation of the sanitation workers.

Representatives of the sanitation workers spoke at the rally to make their case for better pay and working conditions.

Brown, who chairs the city's subcommittee established to review the sanitation workers' complaints, stressed the difficulties facing them.

"[The sanitation workers] are preaching to the choir," Brown said, referring to the crowd of mostly activists and sympathizers. "The people they need to be addressing are not here today."

Among those people the sanitation workers need to be reaching are the city leaders who have priorities other than rectifying the problems of poor city employees. Brown noted previous issues - like completing a list of public works projects in poor neighborhoods - where the city leadership had fallen behind.

The sanitation workers need to understand how the process works and build effective coalitions, Brown observed. He added the sanitation workers will have to wind their way through the system and that takes time.

And over the course of two subcommittee meetings, a variety of issues have surfaced suggesting the city may not be able to answer all the complaints. For example, the sanitation workers' call for hazardous duty retirement may end up becoming an issue for the General Assembly to address because the state - not the city - determines who is eligible for such a benefit.

But some are questioning whether the city really intends to do something about the grievances that are within its jurisdiction.

"The [urban county] council is just screwing with them," said Ted McCormick, a local labor activist who has periodically spoken to representatives of the sanitation workers about their problems.

Since Brown's committee began meeting, the city staff has come forward with reams of information that tend to blunt the sanitation workers' charges.

For example, the Division of Human Resources has produced surveys of other Kentucky cities that show only a handful of other governments pay their sanitation workers better than Lexington.

City staff repeatedly deny that their numbers are skewed to prove any particular point.

Yet, councilman Al Mitchell questioned why the survey focuses on places smaller than Lexington - like Paris and Winchester - when typically city leaders consider issues by looking at municipalities of similar size in the region like Knoxville.

Mitchell also complained the numbers are not consistently presented in terms like percentages that make for clear comparisons.

"Politics is always a liar's poker," McCormick said of all the facts and figures. "[The sanitation workers] will never win the argument of whose figures are correct."

Several sanitation workers have discussed the possibility of forming a union that would be organized enough to enhance their bargaining position.

John Williams, a solid waste department employee for 31 years, said while he supports a union, he doesn't know whether the rest of the sanitation workers would.

Williams said it might help if someone from a union spoke to the employees.

McCormick said he has talked to sanitation worker David Sams, a visible leader of the movement, about unionization. Sams hasn't prepared for such a move yet, McCormick said.

"[Sams] needs to build an organization beyond just himself and Williams," McCormick said. "We can't do anything unless they respond."

At the Labor Day event and an August 30 meeting of Brown's subcommittee, there were signs that the sanitation workers could form a broad community coalition.

Those two events drew representatives from groups such as the Council for Peace and Justice as well as University of Kentucky students who protested sweatshops last spring.

"People have to be treated with dignity and respect," said Amanda Lewis, a UK student activist who explained how the sweatshop protesters have come to support the sanitation workers. "It doesn't make a difference where they live. A worker exploited here is just as bad as a worker exploited in Mexico or Nicaragua."

Lewis suggested the sanitation workers' cause has the potential to enjoy even more support than the sweatshop protests.

"With the sweatshop protests, we had to make people believe there was a problem," Lewis said. "With the sanitation workers, people see them twice a week picking up their garbage."

The sanitation workers have also gained out-of-town support from the likes of Rev. Louis Coleman, director of the Justice Resource Center in Shelbyville.

Coleman called on the community to join the cause to raise the standard in Kentucky for lowly paid workers, including sanitation workers.

"You can be the hammer and hammer out justice," Coleman said. "Or you can be the anvil and take the blows."

The next meeting of Brown's subcommittee is 5 p.m. September 13 on the fifth floor of City Hall.

Alex De Grand can be reached at 225-4889 ext. 232 or