The Montgomery County Council is considering a labor-union-backed bill that would guarantee pay increases for workers who haul trash, recycling and yard waste in exchange for assurances that no strikes or lockouts would disrupt service to county residents.
The bill, sponsored by council members Marc Elrich (D-At Large) and Tom Hucker (D-Silver Spring), is championed by the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which represents about two-thirds of the private sanitation workers the county uses for trash pickup.
Elrich, who is the Democratic nominee for county executive, and Hucker, who is running for reelection, were endorsed by LIUNA, which asked whether candidates would support such legislation on its endorsement questionnaires, distributed before the Democratic primary.
“I think this is going to add a lot of sustainability and predictability and let people sleep a little easier at night,” Hucker said.
Outgoing County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has described the bill as irresponsible, saying it “will unnecessarily increase the price for these contracts.”
“Basically the county would be approving an automatic wage increase for workers,” she said. “Those contracts are supposed to be competitive. We’re supposed to be getting the lowest price for the best service.”
But Elrich said politics had nothing to do with it. “I have a good record on labor in general,” he said. “I’ve been endorsed by a lot of unions that we do no business with. I think people generally support that I believe in social justice and I believe in fairly paid employees.”
The bill would require the county’s procurement director and chief administrative officer to consider whether the contracts with companies that haul trash or recycling should require a “labor peace agreement” — essentially a pact to resolve disputes with binding arbitration rather than strikes or lockouts.
If the county decides such an agreement is required, it would pay the contractor automatic yearly price increases to cover employee raises, matched to the wage increases that unionized county service workers get.
The measure also would add sanitation workers to the county’s Displaced Service Workers Protection Act, which says a new contractor needing workers for a county contract must offer jobs to those who were let go by the old contractor.
“The whole thing is just enabling,” Hucker said. “This is intended to be one more tool in the toolbox [officials] can use to attract potentially a reliable company to bid on the contract.”
Brian Petruska, general counsel of the Laborers Mid-Atlantic Regional Organizing Coalition — the organizing arm of LIUNA area locals — said the measure would allow low-wage sanitation workers to get pay increases from contractors who might otherwise balk at the cost.
He said the measure provides a level of control for the county — by tying increases to those county service workers receive, the county can decide how much it wants to spend on wages. “When you’re talking about increases of 2 to 3 percent annually for the workers, the cost actually to residents is pretty small,” Petruska said.
Alexander Colvin, a professor at the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., said labor peace agreements are sometimes used in government contracts and are “of growing importance in the public sector, as more outside contractors are used.”
The District, for example, can require labor peace agreements on hotel projects in which it has an interest, allowing the city to avoid labor unrest on projects it deems important for tourism.
Montgomery lawmakers had planned to vote on the bill last week but delayed the move until next week after council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) proposed several amendments, including a provision that would more directly specify that the contractors must use the price increase for employee wages.
Leventhal, who ran for county executive in the Democratic primary, said on the LIUNA endorsement questionnaire that he would support a labor peace agreement bill. Now, he says, he is having second thoughts.
“It stacks the deck very much in favor of LIUNA,” Leventhal said. “It appears to be steering contracts toward companies that are represented, and I don’t think we’re supposed to do that.” He said he was drafting another amendment that would require the wage increases for all trash contracts, not just ones that use labor peace agreements, but hasn’t decided whether he’ll offer it.
Hucker said the motivation was worker justice and service reliability. “This is a solution to a problem that emerged like three years ago,” he said. “I think this is going to be a big relief to people in Silver Spring and Bethesda and elsewhere that didn’t have their trash picked up.”
The bill has support from at least one council member who was not endorsed by LIUNA. Sidney Katz (D-Gaithersburg) says the county saves money overall by using contractors to haul trash, rather than buying garbage trucks and employing workers directly.
“If we want those businesses to stay in business, we have to make certain they are getting a fair profit and are paying their employees a wage so their employees will stay,” Katz said at the meeting last week.
In a fiscal statement accompanying the legislation, the county’s finance and budget departments estimated that every 1 percent increase in trash and recycling collection contracts would cost $293,800.
Even without the legislation, trash and recycling contracts increased by more than 30 percent this year — from $23.1 million in fiscal 2018 to $30.8 million in fiscal 2019. The county attributes those costs to several factors, including a decision to negotiate five-year contracts to address “deteriorating performance” seen by contractors with seven-year contracts, and increased labor costs stemming from higher demand for commercial drivers as well as the county’s growing minimum wage.
The bill proposed by Elrich and Hucker would not change the current practice that allows trash and recycling contractors to request price increases equal to that year’s rise in the consumer price index, provided they can show evidence of increased costs.
Leggett spokesman Patrick Lacefield said the county has “hundreds and hundreds” of contracts with private companies, and the county executive is concerned about the possible precedent the measure could set.
“You’re doing this for one group of workers who have a contract with the county,” Lacefield said. “But does this basically open the door for all people who have contracts with the county?”