Pittsburgh’s municipal workers have a long history of using their power as a union to try and preserve their labor rights. According to PayDay Report a group of predominantly African American sanitation workers from Teamsters Local 249 walked off from work in a wildcat strike (that’s a strike action undertaken by unionized workers without union leadership’s authorization, support, or approval) on Wednesday. They are demanding better protective equipment and hazard pay as the U.S. deals with outbreaks of the coronavirus. Beginning at 8 PM on Monday night, Gov. Tom Wolf issued a stay-at-home order for seven counties: Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Monroe, Montgomery, and Philadelphia. Like many similar orders around the country, city garbage collectors are expected to continue coming in to perform their essential work.
Speaking to WPXI, one worker explained the very simple—and reasonable—demands saying, “We want better equipment, protective gear—we have no masks. We want hazard pay. Hazard pay is very important. Why? Because we have high co-payments on any kind of bill. We risk our life every time we grab a garbage bag.”
At the same time, Pittsburgh city officials announced that a garbage collector’s wife had a “presumptive positive test” reported yesterday for COVID-19, and had been quarantined. The city of Pittsburgh gave a statement saying that they are taking “all due precautions to protect refuse workers from the Bureau of Environmental Services who were sent home today due to fears over COVID-19 exposure.” According to the statement they have been providing “protective glasses and gloves.” The city says it has also “encouraged workers to wash their uniforms daily.” WPXI’s Liz Kilmer reported that the city also said they were “staggering” employee shifts in hopes of diminishing the interactions between workers.
Doing heavy duty laundry every day is not simply time-consuming, it is expensive and there is no mention of masks in that statement. This wildcat walkout mirrors a similar walkout by workers at a Fiat-Chrysler assembly plant in Pennsylvania the previous week after it was discovered that one of their coworkers had tested positive for COVID-19.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, there are officially 1,127 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the state, as of March 24, 2020, and seven people have died from the virus.