The Durham City Council is deeply divided over the demands of our striking sanitation workers.
Though sanitation workers announced Monday they would head back to work, the core issues remain. Strikers were asking for $5,000 bonuses — not cushy working conditions or enough extra money to buy a second home. They just don’t want to have to work a second job to pay the bills. Sanitation worker John Burwell, who has kept our city clean for 14 years, works four jobs just to make ends meet, and he still can’t afford to live in Durham.
As Solid Waste Department Maintenance Tech Antonio Smith told WRAL last week, the aim of the strike is “so we can actually live in the city that we keep clean.”
This is a profound statement about how much Durham has changed. When a largely African-American group of municipal employees can’t afford to live in the city that used to be home to Black Wall Street and renowned activists like Pauli Murray and Ann Atwater, we should ask ourselves how we can best carry forward the legacy of our proud city. Do we want to be a city that fails to treat our own sanitation workers with dignity? Do we want to be a city where only the wealthy can live? Do we want to push every working-class Black person out?
The sanitation workers’ strike is important to me; many members of my blue-collar family have strong careers and good salaries thanks to their unions. I am a history professor at Duke and one of the academic fields I engage in is discard studies, the critical analysis of everything we discard or treat as without value. This field calls attention to the human tendency to disregard and disdain the people who work with things we think of as “trash” or “filth” — garbage collectors, custodians, burial workers, etc. We must consciously work against this subconscious equation to keep our policies and beliefs in line with basic human rights for all.
Scholars and activists in discard studies also assert that waste work is care work, meaning that basic maintenance of any community requires a lot of attentive care, and the task of carrying away and processing waste is a core part of that. We need only imagine how our homes might look and smell if trash accumulated for several weeks to know that sanitation workers are essential workers. They care for our city, and our city has a responsibility to care for them. As sanitation worker Herman Moore said Monday to Durham city council members, “We’re called essential workers. Treat us like essential workers.”
Mayor Elaine O’Neal and two other council members support the strikers, but they are in the minority. Mark-Anthony Middleton, Mayor Pro-Tempore and Ward 2 council member, says the city can’t afford the $5,000 bonus the strikers are asking for without dangerously depleting its resources. While it does seem like unwise fiscal policy to cover the salaries of essential workers with a rainy day fund, we might move beyond this disagreement by thinking of this payment not as a bonus, but as regular payment of salary in arrears. That’s effectively what it is, a structural adjustment to make up for lost pay as cost of living has risen 23% while wages have only risen 15% since 2019.
This kind of structural adjustment — essential for our city’s essential workers — could be supported with an increased assessment on homeowners and businesses for municipal trash pick-up. Rising costs of living should result in rising fees for services, so that the people who perform those services don’t have to face the brunt of the financial squeeze alone.
Our city council members should work with the Public Works Department to consider implementing a graduated fee assessment so that those of us in higher income brackets pay more than lower-income households. If we value our sanitation workers, our payment for their essential services should reflect that.
Nicole Elizabeth Barnes is an associate professor of History and Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Duke University. She lives in Durham.