PHILADELPHIA — Garbage workers began returning to their jobs before midnight Friday, attacking the mountains of refuse that have accumulated during their 18-day walkout.
Bright yellow trash trucks moving through city streets signaled a respite for a city that has been steeping in rotting garbage and embroiled in a bitter labor dispute.
Earlier Friday, Mayor W. Wilson Goode announced that the striking workers had agreed to return after a judge found them in contempt for refusing to end their strike, which began July 1.
The returning workers, who the mayor said will be paid under the terms of their old contract, will be assigned to work throughout the weekend in the cleanup of thousands of tons of reeking rubbish at about 15 temporary dumps, Goode told a news conference Friday afternoon.
Firing Kept as Option
At the same time, Goode continued to warn that if the workers reneged on the agreement, they would be fired, and the city would assign contracts to private haulers.
The mayor said he would be reluctant to take that step "because of the potential of violence, but the public safety and welfare must be protected."
The city earlier this week succeeded in getting a judge to order the workers back to work because of concerns that the mountains of garbage might endanger public health. The strikers, however, ignored the order, and Common Pleas Court Judge Edward J. Blake Friday found them in contempt.
He gave the workers until Monday to return to work. If they did not, he said, he would fine their union $40,000 per day. If the returning strikers continue to work, the contempt ruling will be moot. Nevertheless, the union has vowed to appeal it, apparently on principle.
Makes Plea to Residents
Goode asked city residents not to set garbage on the streets until the temporary dumps have been cleared, adding that he would give further instructions Monday.
City officials did not know if the returning workers would continue to work after they have cleared the temporary sites.
Goode said two officials of Local 437 of District Council 33 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees informed him of the agreement by the 2,400 garbage workers to resume their duties. The union officials, business agent John Dykes and president James Sutton, told him they earlier "had tried to persuade the workers to return to work," Goode said.
But while the two local officials apparently were willing to deal with the mayor, the president of the union's District Council 33, Earl Stout, who had not been heard from for days, resurfaced in a television interview during which he criticized the back-to-work agreement. "I'm very disappointed that the sanitation workers went back to work," Stout said. "I wished they had waited until they got a contract."
Philadelphia's central business district was relatively free of refuse Friday because merchants and businessmen had organized and paid groups of youngsters to collect their garbage. The striking workers took no action against the temporary trash collectors. This seemed to contradict the garbage haulers thinly veiled threats of retaliation against any temporary workers brought in to collect trash or against other union workers who might cross the strikers' picket lines.
The agreement announced Friday does nothing to advance stalled negotiations between the city and Stout's 13,000-member blue-collar union.
At his news conference, Goode said he was willing to resume talks any time, but he stood by his demand that any contract must give the city a right to an independent audit of the union's health and welfare fund, which gets $40 million a year from Philadelphia.
"The taxpayers have a right to know where their dollars are going," Goode said. Stout has rejected this provision and has asked for a $48-million payment to the fund, contending the city has under-funded the health plan for 10 years.
The union also is asking for a one-year contract with a 13% raise for the garbage workers, who earn an average of $16,000 to $17,000 a year. The city wants a multiyear contract and at one time was willing to offer 12% raises.
Throughout the nearly three-week-old strike, Goode and other city officials have been extremely careful in their dealings with the strikers, emphasizing the high stakes and instability of the situation.
In the wake of the ill feeling generated by his handling of the police bombing of the radical group MOVE's headquarters last year, Goode needs to build up political capital for his reelection campaign next year.
During the contempt hearing, Louis Wilberman, an attorney for the union warned Judge Blake that if he imposed his contempt order immediately he would be "throwing gasoline on the fire."