Striking workers at two of Montgomery County’s trash-hauling contractors will return to work Wednesday, one group of employees with improved pay and benefits, the other saying it has made its point about the importance of forming a union.
About 50 drivers and helpers with Potomac Disposal of Gaithersburg voted Tuesday to accept a three-year agreement, according to the Laborers’ International Union of North America. The deal includes pay increases of as much as $20 per day, three sick days and three vacation days for helpers, and the first paid holiday for all workers: Christmas Day.
The workers at Potomac and at Unity Disposal and Recycling, a company in Laurel, had drawn considerable attention and support from political and religious leaders in a county where private labor strife is unusual.
But the two-week strike left Potomac workers short of their main objective: reasonably priced health insurance. The company plan costs a family of four about $260 a month, more than 10 percent of many employees’ take-home pay. Drivers make about $30,000 a year, helpers between $20,000 and $25,000.
Brian Petruska, the union’s general counsel, said it became apparent in negotiations that less-costly health care would be prohibitive for the company, which is in the third year of a seven-year, fixed-cost contract with the county. It picks up trash, recycling and yard waste in parts of Potomac, Chevy Chase, Bethesda and other down-county communities.
“Our determination is that health care would be too big of a lift to do under that agreement without some intervention from the county,” Petruska said.
Dennis Martire, a Laborers’ International vice president, was critical of County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) for not doing more to help Potomac improve health insurance for the workers.
“We’re disappointed that the Montgomery County Executive wasn’t willing to support a plan to offer the workers affordable health insurance,” Martire said in a statement. He said the union plans to work with the County Council on a legislative solution.
Patrick Lacefield, a spokesman for Leggett, said the county executive called in all sides of the dispute for meetings and did what he could given that the strike was a private labor matter.
He said the county was concerned about making “sure people’s garbage got picked up,” Lacefield said. “We wanted to make sure the companies respected workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively.”
But Lacefield added that there are “hundreds of contractors doing valuable work” and that it would be difficult to justify opening up an agreement with Potomac to underwrite health insurance without giving consideration to other firms.
Petruska said that some Potomac workers would be able to use the state exchanges under the new health-care law but that others may make too much under the new contract to qualify for subsidies.
Still, Potomac workers said they were pleased to have their first contract since joining the Laborers last year.
“It’s a good start,” said Potomac driver Jacob Alvial, 24. “We didn’t get everything we wanted, but it’s a good start.”
Potomac officials could not be reached to comment Tuesday.
Potomac is one of three contract trash haulers that serve about 200,000 households, mostly in the southern part of the county. About 50 Workers at Unity walked off the job two weeks ago, claiming that the company was trying to intimidate employees who wanted to unionize.
Laborers’ International has filed a series of complaints on the workers’ behalf with the National Labor Relations Board. Martire said that the Unity workers “feel they have made the statement they wanted to make” and would return to the job “while continuing to work within the company for union recognition.”
Jerald Boyd, Unity’s chief operating officer, said the workers would be welcomed back but referred other question to the company’s human-resources director.