Providence Journal-Bulletin

Fired Trash Workers Take On Laborers Union

Six employees of the firm hired to haul trash in Providence say they were dismissed after refusing to work overtime without pay.


Journal Staff Writer

Nov. 16, 1998

PROVIDENCE --- In a bare challenge to one of the state's most powerful labor unions, six Hispanic laborers have accused the Laborers International Union of North America and a private garbage hauler of firing them from city trash collection because they refused to work overtime for no pay.

Further, the fired employees say they were told their dismissals came with the blessing of Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. and that a union steward told them "to go back to where (they) came from." The men are immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Guatemala.

The workers have filed a complaint with the union's highest office, imploring General President Arthur A. Coia to investigate their charges and help regain their jobs.

According to the complaint, Sanitation Services Corp., the firm employed by the city for residential garbage collection, and the union's local leadership tried to coerce the laborers into accepting illegal working conditions. When the men protested, they say, the company and the union prevented them from punching their timecards the next morning, and then terminated them on the grounds they had not reported to their shifts.

The complaint, backed in part by a taped recording of the meeting at which the men were told of their dismissals, marks a rare public uprising from within the Laborers International, whose locals represent workers who perform some of society's most back-straining tasks.

"I have been a punctual and responsible hard worker," wrote Lino Alejo, who composed the letter and signed it with his fired co-workers. "The reason for this letter is that I believe that I along with others have been treated unfairly."

Alejo said he is especially embittered about the hours dispute because a Laborers official, Manuel F. Sousa, used to follow the workers on their routes, urging them to slow down and pad their paychecks.

Both the company and Sousa, the business manager of Laborers Local 1322, deny the allegations.

Sousa said workers' unrest arose when the company and the union cracked down on employees who had been "doggin' their routes" and that the dismissed workers are trying "a power play" by charging ethnic discrimination.

He also says the audiotape of the meeting that contradicts his version of events has been altered - particularly a portion in which he appears to say that the men had been fired with Cianci's approval, and another section in which he appears to taunt the workers.

Sousa: Now that you lost your job, you want to work. Now you'll work 56 hours to get paid for 43, won't you?

After being a showed a transcript of his alleged remarks, Sousa shrugged.

"People can fool around with a tape, you know that," he said. "I didn't say none of that."

The dispute

The dismissed workers are Maynor Enriquez, 25; Sergio Alvarez, 29; Moise Gonzalez, 29; Armando Alvarez, 38; Julio Alvarez, 36; and Lino Alejo, 38, all of Providence.

Their complaint arises from the city's relationship with Sanitary Services Corp., a Manchester, Conn., firm with an office in Johnston. The company provides curbside refuse pickup in the city, and hauls the loads to the Central Landfill.

To do so, Sanitary Services Corp. operates a fleet of trucks and rents an office on Plainfield Pike. The workers, in turn, are represented by Laborers Local 1322. The men report to their shifts each weekday at about 3:30 a.m., and are paid an average of $12 an hour.

The dispute began two weeks ago, soon after the city exercised its option and extended the trash haulers contract for another year.

Sousa says that the company's local operations manager, Daniel J. Capuano, told him the firm was having financial problems and would have to tighten up on overtime. So Sousa agreed to talk to the men about getting paid a guaranteed 43 hours each week: 40 hours at the base rate and three hours at time and a half.

In return, the laborers would also get a pay guarantee for picking up yard waste around the city that Sousa says would give them up to $75 extra each week.

"The employer indicated that they needed some kind of understanding - that they were going in the red," Sousa said. "So I put a proposal together that is far better than what they had."

According to both Sousa and the dismissed employees, Sousa gathered about 30 trash workers and drivers for a meeting after their shifts on Wednesday, Oct. 28. Sousa presented the 43-hour pay proposal to the laborers, and 13 of them objected, saying that the city's trash routes take as long as 56 hours to collect.

"No matter how many hours of work, we only get paid for 43 hours," Alejo said. "I told him I'm not working 56 hours for 43 hours pay."

Sousa said a majority of the workers signed a paper agreeing to the pay, but the 13 others signed a sheet of paper protesting it.

As the argument escalated, the men say, a shop steward said to them: "Why don't you guys go back to where you came from," which the men took to be an ethnic slight. Sousa says he did not hear the comment.

The next morning, the dissenters say they reported to work and found their timecards missing and strangers preparing to work their shifts.

"He replaced us," Alejo said. "He called in other people the same night."

As the men stood outside the lot in the pre-dawn darkness, a supervisor told them to see Sousa at 9 a.m. at the Laborers office at the Gateway Building on South Main Street. The meeting that followed is a source of controversy - especially because Alejo wore a tape recorder under his shirt.

The tape

According to the tape, the union stood by the company's charge that the workers had not come in for work that morning. And Sousa can be heard arguing with Alejo about the 43-hour pay arrangement.

Sousa: How come you guys didn't show up to work?

Alejo: We did.

Sousa: You came a half an hour late. Let's call it as we see it. No (expletive). I laid it out for you guys. The company don't want none of you back. . . . Lino, they say they wouldn't hire you if you was the only truck driver around.

Alejo: Hey, I didn't have nothing to do with this, you know what I mean

Sousa: You didn't sign the paper, you didn't want to work for the wages, did you?

Alejo: No, I wouldn't work 56 hours for 44 or 45 hours.

Sousa: You said you didn't want to work it. You signed the papers. There's not a (expletive) thing I can do now. You guys put my back to the wall. . . . So don't come here crying to me now. I bended over backwards to get you the job in the first place, and you tried to (expletive) me.

As the meeting progresses, Sousa can be heard accusing the workers of not arriving for work, and brushing off his union members' insistence that they were locked out.

Sousa: . . . Hire a lawyer, sue whoever you want. You're late going back to work. I can't get you back, you understand? And by the mere fact that they didn't show up -

Alejo: Everybody showed up to work.

Sousa: Nobody showed up.

Alejo: Everybody.

Sousa: (expletive)

Alejo: You had all these guys at the gate, and you didn't let them come in.

Sousa: You guys wanted to power play. What the (expletive) did you do that for?

Another portion of the tape involves Cianci.

Sousa, in explaining the workers' predicament, can be heard saying that the men were fired with the mayor's blessing, and suggesting that the workers are now black-balled.

"You know what the (expletive) mayor said to me? The mayor called me yesterday, last night, 11 o'clock. He said, "Manny, they don't show up, they're gone. And if there's no trucks on the (expletive) road, we're going to put the city workers there. I'm sick and tired of these (expletive) guys."

I can tell you this: If I can get you back, it's definitely not Providence. I don't think I can do it.

The workers' complaint, as well as the audiotape and its contents, have angered the mayor, the union and Sanitation Services Corp.

Daniel J. Capuano, the local operations manager for Sanitary Services, disagreed with the facts laid out in the workers' letter to the union's general president. For instance, Capuano said he keeps records of truck weights and route times, and that none of his crews needs 56 hours to do a week's worth of Providence garbage routes.

"I know from doing the stats that . . . between 80 and 90 percent of the crews can get finished in 40 to 45 hours," he said.

In City Hall, Cianci was incensed when the workers said their firing had been justified by using his name. In a three-way phone conversation with Sousa and The Journal, he heatedly denied any involvement in the workers' dismissals, and told Sousa to confirm it.

"Manny, if I get involved in this, you're not going to like what I do,"

Cianci said.

"You're not involved in this, mayor," Sousa said.

Then Sousa quickly said: "The mayor had nothing to do with this."

Upon hearing the contents of the workers' audiotape, Cianci was even more angry.

"Amateur Hour at its best - that's not how to handle the workforce, " the mayor said. "As far as I'm concerned, if that's his voice and he said that, he's trying to use the clout of the mayor's office to intimidate the workers."

In interviews at the Gateway Building, Sousa and two members of the union executive board - President John A. Anderson and board member Henry A. Pilloni - joined Capuano in rebutting almost every aspect of the worker's charges.

And Sousa said the audiotape was doctored, although he turned down an invitation to listen to it.

"I have no reason to lie," Sousa said. "I don't need to listen to it because I know what I said.

"In 42 years in the labor movement, I've never had something like this," he added.

In spite of the sour dealings, Sousa, Anderson and Pilloni also said they had filed a grievance with the company to try and get the fired men reinstated.

So far, Local 1322 has had some success: Of the 13 men who left the Sanitary Services Corp. parking lot on Oct. 28, grumbling about the pay arrangement and prepared to resist it, 7 have been rehired.

But six others remain out of work, and five of them met in Alejo's home last week to commiserate. All have been without an income for two weeks. All blame Sousa.

"He's supposed to represent us," Alejo said. "But instead he just throws us on the ground."

Sousa bristled at the criticism from the rank and file, saying he had worked hard to get his men high wages and health insurance, and resents being cast as a traitor. Members of the Local 1322 executive board backed him.

"I think you can go around the state and you'll find Mr. Sousa's reputation is impeccable," said Local 1322 president John A. Anderson. "What he has done for unions is impeccable."

Alejo and his fired peers disagree. Now that they have contacted the union's general president, Coia, Alejo said they await action.

"I don't fear the union, because I didn't do nothing wrong," Alejo said. "If I did something wrong, that would be different."

* * *

Lino Alejo, one of six trash haulers who say they were fired for refusing to work overtime without pay, talks with a reporter at his home.

Journal photo / WILLIAM K. DABY

Lino Alejo, second from left, and five fellow trash haulers gather in the kitchen of his home on Burnett Street to discuss their dismissal. The others, from left, are Julio Alvarez, Armando Alvarez, Moise Gonzalez, Maynor Enriquez and Sergio Alvarez, with his 15-month-old daughter, Kimberly.

Copyright © 1998 The Providence Journal Company

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