Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Berkeley Recycling Workers at Odds After Consultant Report

By Judith Scherr
Wed, Mar 9, 2011 at 11:06 AM

City workers sporting Service Employees union shirts filled seats on the east side of the Berkeley city council chambers, while sign-bearing supporters of the Ecology Center, Community Conservation Center and Urban Ore sat on the other side at Tuesday evening’s council workshop, where the focus was on how to erase a $3 million deficit in the city’s refuse fund.

What set the two sides against each other was a consultant report that said the city should take over work now carried out by the Ecology Center, and some of the Community Conservation Center and Urban Ore functions. Workers at the Ecology Center and CCC are represented by the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies).

Currently, the nonprofit Ecology Center manages a city contract to pick up paper, glass and plastic. The Conservation Center, also a nonprofit organization, is charged by the city with processing and buying back recyclables. Urban Ore, a for-profit business, salvages and sells reusable items. City workers pick up garbage, and green and food waste.

The city paid the southern California firm Sloan Vasquez $85,000 to figure out how to plug the deficit. The consultants said in taking over the recycling, the city should replace the Ecology Center’s two-person trucks with one-person trucks, except on hilly and narrow roads where one employee working alone would be dangerous. Reducing the number of drivers and overhead incurred by the nonprofits would save millions of dollars, they said. They also recommended layoffs in the city’s solid waste division.

The Community Conservation and Ecology Centers' supporters were angry because the consultants never asked for their input. They said the recommendation to get rid of a recycling coordinator position was unrealistic, that the consultants underestimated costs the city would bear in taking over the work, and that dollar amounts in the report should have reflected a new, increased rate structure for waste pickup. All sides appear to agree that there needs to be a new rate structure to pay for collection as people recycle more and throw out less garbage.

“We were never contacted; we weren’t invited to be part of the process,” Bruce Valde, a Wobblies organizer, told the council. “We prefer to be stakeholders rather than gate crashers.”

The city’s Zero Waste Commission also said consultants ignored them and claimed they wrote their report without environmental goals in mind. “There was no discussion of upcoming, mandated recycling,” said Nashua Kalil, committee chair.

Arguing the city could do the job for less, city workers' union representatives said that the recycling contracts to the nonprofits had never gone out to competitive bid. They were concerned, however, with layoffs recommended by the consultants.

The point where the city and nonprofit workers agreed was that outside profit-making companies such as Waste Management should not have the commercial franchises, as they do now, to pick up recyclables from Alta Bates Hospital, UC Berkeley, Bayer Corporation, Kaiser Permanente, Pacific Steel Casting and more. Ricky Jackson, a rep for the government employees' union, said the city could make money taking on this work.

Faced with a room full of politically powerful organizations, the councilmembers were a long way from making a decision on who will do the recycling work. They wanted input from the nonprofits, city workers and the city’s Zero Waste Commission considered at their March 22 meeting, when they will also discuss the full budget and how to make up a $9-to-$11 million citywide deficit.

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