As garbage piled up during the Teamsters strike earlier this month, city and county government officials could do little but hope that the private contractors and the striking workers would reach agreement.
The functioning of what many consider to be a key municipal service lay in the hands of private businessmen and their employees--beyond the effective control of local authorities.
As a strike, it was a short affair--settled four days after it began. But it was the first garbage strike in the area in memory, affecting more than 675,000 people, 15 municipalities and three areas of Los Angeles County.
Despite general satisfaction with company efforts to collect garbage during the strike, some city officials say the work stoppage made them ponder plans to deal with the next strike.
"It did make us think in terms of contingency plans in case such an event would happen again," said Dennis Courtemarche, city manager of Pico Rivera, where the city's contract with the struck Metropolitan Waste Disposal Inc. contained no strike protection clause.
Municipal or Private?
The strike also re-opened a politically charged debate about the contracting of municipal services--whether private enterprise can do the same job more cheaply than public employees and who should be in charge of providing service.
Charles Coffee, chief sanitarian for Los Angeles County, was caught off guard by the strike. More than 280,000 people in several unincorporated areas were affected by the strike. Despite that unpleasant surprise, Coffee said he believes that contracting with a private firm still is the best and cheapest way to collect garbage.
Officials of smaller cities say that the problems of buying and maintaining a few garbage trucks outweigh the benefits of having a city sanitation department.
"On the one hand, we would have more control," said Maynard Law, director of community services for Cudahy, one of the cities affected by the strike.
"But the cost factors of starting and maintaining our own system would not be cost effective. I don't think we want to be in the trash business."
Ecodata Inc., a New York research firm, recently compared public and private municipal services, including garbage collection, in a number of cities in the greater Los Angeles area. The study was done for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"The main conclusion," Ecodata president Barbara Stevens said, "is that refuse collection by private firms under contract to the city is significantly less costly and provides service of an equal quality" compared with the service provided by city employees.
The data on garbage collection compared Commerce, Bell, San Clemente, Costa Mesa, Lakewood, Sierra Madre, Glendora, Corona, South Gate and Huntington Beach--where private firms collect garbage--with Port Hueneme, Covina, Manhattan Beach, Oxnard, Ontario, Santa Paula, Culver City, Beverly Hills, Pomona and Burbank--where city employees pick up trash.
Stevens said the data showed that it cost between 28% and 42% more to use municipal employees than a private garbage hauling firm.
"Municipal workers received significantly higher wages and fringe benefits than did the refuse collectors employed by the private firms. The municipal refuse collectors received $1,418 a month, compared with $1,237 a month" for contractor employees, she said.
The wage comparison was based on 1982 statistics but appears to hold true today.
Torrance, for instance, pays its garbage collectors between $9.54 and $11.05 an hour. The City of Los Angeles pays the bulk of its trash collectors between $9.61 and $11.95 an hour. Both wages are well above the $8-an-hour wage accepted by the striking workers (who generally get more overtime than municipal workers).
Fringe benefits such as retirement, where municipal workers often get more than private employees, were not included in the Ecodata comparison. Many of the striking workers complained bitterly about the lack of retirement pensions.
In addition, Stevens said, the study showed that private employees had lower absentee rates--7.9% versus 13.4% for public employees, and that they were more likely to load their trucks twice per shift.
The study also found that the repair record of private firms was better. Garbage trucks of the private haulers spent less time being repaired--6.2% versus 16.2% for the city-owned trash trucks. Private firms, Stevens said, were more likely to have one brand of truck and, consequently, more accessible spare parts and fewer idiosyncrasies for mechanics to deal with.
Strikes Not Compared
Despite the statistical endorsement of contracting, Stevens conceded that the study did not compare the effect of strikes. "I don't recall anybody saying there had been any labor disputes," she said.
In this area, a key argument in favor of municipal garbage collection--limits on strikes by public employees--was recently erased by the state Supreme Court, which ruled May 14 that public employees have the right to strike.
Among cities affected by the Teamsters strike, the contractual arrangements differed.
In Bell, where revenues generated from the Bell Card Club pay for waste collection from buildings with less than five units, the city's contract with Systems Disposal contains no strike protection, according David Meyer, Bell community development director.
Pico Rivera, Huntington Park, Maywood and Cudahy officials said those cities had no strike protection written into their contracts.
Times staff writers Eric Bailey, Carmen Valencia, Virginia Escalante and Keith Owens contributed to this story.