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At Long Last, LA County Sanitation Employees Secure a Fair Contract

Photo by: Tuachanwatthana, Getty Images
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After two years of negotiations and member actions, several hundred workers joined together through AFSCME District Council 36 have secured a five-year contract with the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts (LACSD).

The sanitation districts, which protect public health and the environment through cutting-edge wastewater and solid waste management, has one of the most intricate governance structures of any local agency in California. 

After joining AFSCME in 2017 with over 85% of the employees signing cards, the members faced an uphill battle in getting a favorable contract. It had to be signed by no fewer than 97 board members serving 76 cities throughout the sprawling county. They were successful this year thanks to the members' commitment and dedication. Members ratified the contract in July.

Mohamed Bina, a senior engineer at LACSD who has been with the county for 20 years, said the victory was a "monumental shift at the agency."

"We have not been unionized since 1970 and have been fighting just to keep the status quo," Bina said. "Sitting back and taking what management gave us ended. In order to make change, we had to get more involved and creative."

One such strategy involved members going out to every Los Angeles City Council meeting in January to make their voices heard.

"We started getting involved in reaching out to the decision-makers by attending the city council meetings for all 76 cities that we serve to educate people on our issues," said Greg Agee, a chemist at LACSD. "I'm happy that we now have a real say in our future."

By sticking together, the members won many favorable provisions, such as:

The new agreement takes effect immediately and runs through June 30, 2022.

One of the main issues that members wanted to protect was the cost of living/pension contribution "swap" that was started in 1982, under which workers accepted no cost-of-living adjustment in exchange for LACSD paying the 7% employee contribution to CalPERS. In 2017, LACSD management proposed reducing pension contributions and paying workers less. Those unfair proposals helped galvanize the workers, who fought hard for a contract that preserves the pension contribution and guarantees fair wage increases.

"When we went out to meet with city council members, our catch phrase was 'Stand up, speak out, push back' and that's what we did," said Earle Hartling, a water recycling coordinator and president of the LACSD members. "We stood together and did things that we haven't done in decades. The solidarity was amazing."