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[walkoffs + refusing trash]

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In Pittsburgh, garbage workers walked-off the job, blocking city buildings with their trucks. They’re saving lives by taking away that vivid matter  in which mingles what our bodies touch. They’re dumping that matter into a sort of shadow-polity–the dump, where we come together less than six ft apart. 

And though sanitation workers are saving our lives by taking away a disease vector, they’re not protected from the disease. So they walked off the job. And they may continue to walk-off the job if they’re not protected as clinical waste piles up. On one day, February 24th, Wuhan, China produced 200 tons of medical waste.

Crisis is a sort of new sun. It’s light at a different spectrum, its position and incandesence revealing the striations of surfaces that had remained smooth, throwing into relief the cracks in what seemed whole. The sun burns through the night. And then those cracks widen.

In sanitation strikes, workers often demanded things so necessary and mundane that it’s almost unbelievable they don’t have them in the first place. Pulling a few files: Isidro Gutierrez led sanitation workers on strike in Lubbock, TX in 1968. Part of their demands? Uniforms, gloves, drinking water.

Gloves that work, a thin layer of plastic or weave of fabric.That sanitation and sterilization workers don’t have these speaks to how deeply their labor has been devalued. I also suspect that the devaluation of waste remediation work is the reflection of the value system of not just a capitalist society but of a capitalist setter-colonial society. Rather than value workers which allow society to reproduce itself  (waste remediation being crucial to this), a settler-colonial society values workers who violently enforce and expand borders and workers who extract resources. It erases people to create internal and external frontiers for extraction and it pays and protects those who guide and perform the work of clearance, eradication, and extraction. A settler-colonial society doesn’t value waste works because it is designed to move away from and forget its messes, its waste, its shit, in pursuit of the production new frontiers.  Anyway.

Lubbock’s mostly Mexican-American sanitation workers struck because without department provided uniforms, the work destroyed their clothes. Without water, they were forced to drink from water houses in yards, and without toilets at the landfill they were forced to shit behind piles of garbage. So, organized by Isidro Gutierrez, they struck. 

As Wendi C. Thomas’ historical journalism reminds us, the famous 1968 sanitation strike involved a public works department that refused to protect its workers from the waste they managed. A racist city policy forced black garbage men in bad weather into the backs of the trucks, where garbage was fed into the compactor.The policy killed two workers on Feb 1, 1968 when on an “especially rainy Thursday afternoon, city sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker took shelter in the back of a garbage truck when it malfunctioned.” Their deaths precipitated the strike where MLK took his labor turn. Sanitation labor action sits at the crux of some crucial chapters of American history.

Sheldon White in Pittsburgh 2020: “We want better equipment, better protective gear, we have no masks.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports one worker claiming “The gloves they currently use don’t protect their hands and allow water and liquids to drain down inside.” The New England Journal of Medicine article every one has been citing finds the coronavirus can last up to 24 hours on cardboard, on plastic for up to 3 days. It doesn’t mention how long it can last in wet mixture of the two plus food scraps and tissues smeared with body.

A friend in healthcare gives me stats that haven’t reached the paper yet: over dozen sick at one workplace, Buffalo hospitals filling up and scrambling for masks, clinics asking ppl to sow masks and gowns. 

A British colonial administrator in the 1878 Times of London after breaking a strike of garbage carters in Mumbai: “The men may perhaps have some grounds for their complaints, but cannot be permitted to endanger the public health by way of bringing their claims forward; and we understand that none of the ring-leaders will be again employed by the Municipality; and in fact none of the employes who do not at once return to their duty.” I don’t know what the ruling class is saying to themselves about these walkoffs yet. I guess I should read the Financial Times.

Give the sanitation workers, the insta-carters, the Whole Foods clerks and stockers, the warehouse pickers and packers what they want; give them what they need. Garbage strikes forever.

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About the Author

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Joe Hall is the author of five books of poetry, including Someone's Utopia (2018) and Fugue & Strike (forthcoming). His poems, reviews, and scholarship have appeared in Poetry Daily, The Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, Postcolonial Studies, Peach Mag,, PEN America Blog, Poetry Northwest, Ethel Zine, Gulf Coast, Best Buds! Collective, and Eighteenth-Century Fiction. He has taught poetry workshops for teachers, teens, and workers through Just Buffalo and the WNYCOSH Worker Center.

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