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Privatization questions rankle union, expose rift between commission and city staff

Friday, March 11, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

A resolution that would explore the idea of a public-private partnership for collection of residential garbage, recycling and yard trimmings stalled out Wednesday night at the Zero Waste Advisory Commission, where commissioners opted to table the resolution and take no action.

But even the specter of the resolution caused problems.

Carol Guthrie, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), advised the commission to look through the city’s budget for cost-saving measures if that was its goal.

“This should not be on your agenda at all,” said Guthrie. “Employees have seen this. This has had a huge impact on morale, as you might imagine, when someone is talking about taking away your job.”

Chair Gerry Acuna tried to clarify that the resolution “was never intended to put anyone out of work, ever.”

Acuna explained that the commission respected the city’s front-line employees but that the Austin Resource Recovery Department “has budget issues,” and the commission is not receiving the information needed to make “simple decisions.” He said the resolution was an attempt to get at how the private sector manages collections and to figure out what the city might be missing.

“We’ve asked simple questions here. We are trying to figure out a budget – not just for next year but for the next five years,” said Acuna. “I’ve tried to figure out a way to diplomatically get this commission the information and the work that we need to make these decisions.”

Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert concurred, kind of.

“There is a disagreement between the chair and myself, and I don’t think we should hold the employees of this department hostage because of that disagreement,” said Gedert. “I’ve looked back on the last eight, nine months of this commission, and I have answered every question that has been asked. I cannot, for the life of me, understand what you are stating there.”

Gedert also read from a prepared statement that explained that he and the city manager “strongly oppose” the resolution, which he said had “no known cause or explanation.”

Gedert said that private collection services would displace 400-plus city employees, who could lose health insurance and pension benefits even if they were rehired by another company. He also noted that the department is a “second-chance employer” that offers employment to disadvantaged Austinites who would not be considered for employment in the private sector, where the same wages and benefits offered by the city would not be available. He also stressed customer satisfaction with existing services.

After that, Acuna offered to “personally table the item,” saying that the conversation was intended to be about the well-being of the department’s employees.

“Maybe I am absolutely out of line here,” he said, “and I will be absolutely gracious and tell you I was wrong, and you are running a wonderful program here. But until we can figure out what’s going on, that transparency and accountability is something that we are asking for.”

Tabling the item seemed to sit well with Commissioner Kaiba White.

“The idea of privatizing any public asset or service is a very dramatic step to take,” said White, who added that seeing the item on the agenda without knowing the reasoning behind it gave her “a bit of angst.”

Rick Cofer, who is a former member of the commission and a current member of AFSCME, said that he did not believe there was any bad intent but asked the commission to reject the resolution. He said that he saw no sense in considering the privatization of an “essential city service” and that the concept was “detrimental to the morale of the employees of this department.”

Cofer explained that the last action performed by the commission while he was chair was a resolution about hazard pay for ARR employees, driving home the point that having the jobs under the aegis of the city is appropriate.

“The front-line employees at ARR have very dangerous jobs. In fact, statistically, the injury rates are higher for trash and recycling equipment officers than they are for public safety first responders,” said Cofer. “This is very serious work, and it is a profession.”

Texas Campaign for the Environment’s Andrew Dobbs told the commission that his organization was “formally neutral” on the idea of whether collection should be public or private. However, he explained that it was largely because his organization operates statewide, where private collection is the norm in many communities. He stressed the import of unionized, worker-owned companies in those cases, though.

“Poverty is a form of pollution,” said Dobbs. “It is not sustainable to have a zero-waste program that is in any way short-changing the people who are on the front lines working. … You have to make sure that we examine costs to ensure that these workers get a living wage and that they get strong benefits … and that they have a right to organize,” noting that city sanitation workers currently enjoy all of those things today.

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