“Stand Down” Action and Community Support Win $6.5 Million in Bonuses for Durham City Workers

October 6, 2023

A month after solid waste department workers “stood down,” refusing to load their trucks for six days to protest low pay and income lost during the pandemic, the Durham City Council voted yesterday to approve $6.5 million in additional bonuses for city workers.

“This is a huge victory for all city workers,” said John Burwell, a solid waste operator and a member of UE Local 150’s Durham City Workers Union chapter. “$6.5 million in the pockets of the city workers is a major step towards economic justice that we all deserve.”

During and after the stand down, city workers demanded a $5,000 bonus for all city workers, to make up for income they lost when the city suspended its step pay plan for two years during the pandemic. “We came up with the $5,000 because it is reasonable given our circumstances,” said George Bacote, also a solid waste operator and Local 150 member, during the public comment period of yesterday’s meeting. “The truth of the matter is that there are a handful of guys in my department that are homeless, that are living in hotels with their wife and children.”

Montrell Perry, a solid waste worker and Local 150 member, also spoke at the meeting, pointing out that “Durham is currently one the lowest paid municipalities in North Carolina, particularly for sanitation workers.” He cited figures indicating that the $39,141 starting wage for sanitation workers in Durham is lower than in other cities in the state, including many smaller cities such as Rocky Mount, whose starting wage for sanitation workers is $40,516. Sanitation workers in nearby Raleigh start at $41,117, while those in Greensboro start at $43,000 and those in Charlotte start at $45,760.

Under the plan approved by the city council, all workers earning under $42,800 per year will receive the full bonus of $5,000 demanded by the union. Workers who make between $42,801 and $56,650 will receive $3,750, and workers who make between $56,651 and $84,970 will be awarded $2,500. Those earning above $84,971 and below $106,210 will receive $2,000, and those over $106,211 will receive $500. All part-time workers will receive $1,000.

“We didn’t get what we asked for, but we got a victory,” was the common refrain among city workers after the meeting. They are also hopeful that Mayor Elaine O’Neal spoke about the possibility of finding the additional $1.2 million to award everyone under $75,000 the full $5,000 in the near future.

The six-day stand down, which began on September 6, garnered widespread community support. After trash, recycling and yard waste piled up for 6 days, workers agreed to return to work on September 12 out of solidarity with the community.

During the stand down and in the weeks following, the union and allies in the Durham Workers Assembly (part of the Southern Workers Assembly) built community support for the workers’ demands through meetings and canvassing door to door.


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