Religious leaders rally alongside striking Montgomery County trash haulers

October 29, 2013

Safe to say that this was the first time managers of Potomac Disposal heard the wail of the shofar, or ram’s horn, outside their Gaithersburg offices.

Traditionally sounded to evoke soul-searching on the Jewish high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it was employed Monday by Rabbi David Shneyer to rally striking Potomac trash haulers and gain the attention of company officials.

Shneyer, founder and director of Am Kolel, a Jewish sanctuary and retreat on Darnestown Road in Beallsville, was one of two Montgomery County religious leaders who came out to support the 40 or so picketing workers, who are in their third week of a strike for affordable health care and higher wages. He was joined by Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, senior minister at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda.

Potomac Disposal is one of three contract haulers the county uses for trash, recycling and yard waste, mostly in southern Montgomery. One of the other companies, Unity, has also been hit by a strike. The firms are using replacement workers and supervisors on their trucks in order to continue picking up trash, recyclables and yard waste on schedule.

“We believe the workers have legitimate rights,” said Janamanchi, who came with members of his church community. “It’s terrible that 45 years after Dr. King gave his life for sanitation workers in Memphis that they are struggling here.”

Shneyer, a familiar figure in protests around the region (he blew the shofar in the office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’ (R-Va.) during the federal government shutdown earlier this month) met with Potomac Disposal president Lee Levine last week in an effort to negotiate an agreement.

According to Shneyer, Levine wants to see the county increase its annual contract with Potomac Disposal to help the company meet the demands of workers, who are represented by Laborers International Union of North America.

Levine did not return a phone message Monday.

Shneyer said he agrees that County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) should be playing a more significant role.

“It would seem to me that the county has to take some responsibility for meeting the grievances of the workers,” Shneyer said.

Shneyer and Janamanchi tried to present Levine with petitions signed by about 1,000 members of their two communities. A Potomac Disposal employee emerged from behind a locked door to accept the petitions, but the two clergy members could not get a meeting with Levine.

“I think we’ll send the petitions to Ike Leggett,” Shneyer said.

Leggett said Monday evening that he’s tried to bring the sides together. “The county has indicated its displeasure with the strike. We’ve pulled people in to talk to them,” he said. But he contended that reopening the contract is problematic because of the precedent it would set.

“There are a lot of [firms] that are contracting with the county and doing valuable work,” he said, referring to social service organizations whose staffs have gone without raises after years of working with the disabled, the mentally ill and other special-needs populations.

“There are large numbers of people who come to us repeatedly to ask us to increase their contracts, Leggett continued. “I’m not saying it should not be considered, but it has to be in a broader context.”

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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