The waste and recycling industry is like most industries when it comes to labor relations. The companies don’t much like the unions, and the feeling is mutual.

This year the industry suffered several high-profile strikes by the Washington-based Teamsters, the predominant union organizing waste and recycling workers. In the spring Phoenix-based Republic Services Inc. faced a work stoppage of a little less than two weeks at two of its Alabama facilities and then enforced a short lockout in Indiana. In the first case the issue was health insurance; in the latter, pensions.

Then this summer Houston-based Waste Management Inc. suffered a strike of about a week in the Seattle area regarding salary increases. Theo Galoozis, vice president, labor relations, for Waste Management, says the company tries hard not to let it get to that point. “If you ever hear of a strike with us, I guarantee the other side isn’t being reasonable,” he says. “We have to live together afterward.”

Galoozis says one challenge for the waste industry as opposed to some other fields is that customers just want their garbage taken away when it’s piling up, and they don’t care so much about who does it or the reasons behind a problem.

Mary O’Brien, chief marketing officer with Jacksonville, Fla.-based Advanced Disposal Services Inc., agrees with Galoozis that good waste companies aim to differentiate themselves, but the old adage can apply: “When we’re doing our best job you don’t know we are there.”

With labor relations, the waste industry is competitive and changing from a technology perspective, Galoozis says. “Collective bargaining process law was written for a different day. Things go slow. [Companies] want to make the right decision, but they don’t want to take a year to do it.”

Waste Management didn’t say how much of its workforce is organized; at Advanced Disposal the number is small – less than 10 percent. But that will increase with its just-completed purchase of Veolia ES Solid Waste Inc., which has operations in several union states in the Northeast and Midwest.

While the company would rather not have a union, O’Brien avoids putting it in those terms. “First and foremost, what we’re looking for is professional drivers, mechanics, employees that have a strong work ethic, want to do a good job and want leave the environment clean.”  
Galoozis agrees. “People think you’re antiunion. On the contrary, we’re pro-employee,” he says. “Your first responsibility is that your employees are properly taken care of, gainfully employed and are safe. If you do that everything else is going to take care of itself.”