The Teamsters Union local is pushing hard to organize truckers and mechanics at two Ventura County trash hauling companies, and has plans to target workers at two other refuse and recycling firms.
"We're going to organize the unorganized," declared Scott Dennison, secretary-treasurer of Local 186 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The local represents truck drivers, warehouse workers and other employees in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
Since his election to the local's top administrative job in October, Dennison said he has waged an aggressive campaign to "clean up the image" of the local and boost its membership, which has fallen from 4,000 to 2,200 over the last decade.
As a result of those efforts, Dennison said that employees of Ventura-based E.J. Harrison & Sons, the county's largest waste hauler, and Simi Valley-based Anderson Rubbish have approached union officials about joining the local. Dennison said the union also plans to organize workers at G.I. Rubbish in Simi Valley and Gold Coast Recycling in Ventura.
"There are a lot of people who want to organize," Dennison said. "We're on a wave, just kind of surfing along."
Representatives of E.J. Harrison, which serves seven county cities, and Anderson, which serves Moorpark and parts of Simi Valley, did not return phone calls.
The National Labor Relations Board, however, has scheduled hearings this week between the two trash haulers and the union to discuss holding elections to let employees decide whether to join the Teamsters. Similar hearings have been scheduled over the next week with representatives of Lagomarsino, a beer distributing company, and Culligan Industrial Water Treatment. Both companies are based in Ventura.
Ron Paul, general manager of Lagomarsino, said it's possible an agreement to hold an election could be worked out between the company and union officials before a scheduled hearing at Ventura City Hall on Thursday. He declined further comment.
Union officials said a majority of workers at each of the four trash companies have signed petitions calling for the formation of a collective bargaining unit. The law requires that at least 30% of a company's work force sign a petition before an election can be called. Once an arbitrator verifies the signatures, then an election must be held within 40 to 45 days.
Sten Thordarson, a business representative of the union, said workers at the trash companies have complained about low wages, inadequate medical insurance and pension plans.
If employees are successful in organizing and able to win pay raises, Thordarson acknowledged it could result in higher trash rates.
"The costs might be passed on to the consumers, but that's true in all cases," he said. "These people are working for low wages. They do the dirty work. They've been kicked around and abused. We believe they should put the money where it belongs, into the pockets of the people who do the work."
Dennison said better compensation for workers means more money pumped into the local economy. He said the union is confident that an election will be called at each of the four companies, and that the local will ultimately increase its membership.
But the targeted companies are expected to wage their own campaigns to dissuade employees from joining the union, which has had its share of problems.
Just last week, the union was named as a defendant in a sex-discrimination lawsuit filed by female employees of the Nabisco Foods plant in Oxnard. The suit accuses the food maker of so restricting their restroom privileges that some workers were forced to wear diapers on the job. Nabisco denies the allegations.
The female employees also alleged in their suit that union leaders failed to adequately respond to workers' complaints about the restroom restrictions.
Dennison blamed the union's former administration for not addressing the problem. Although he previously served as president of the union, Dennison said: "I was just a figurehead. I had no ability or power to effect change."
Moreover, Dennison said while he had heard rumors of problems at Nabisco in the past, he had never seen any records of grievances filed by workers at the plant. He declined to say whether he believed the union may have failed the employees.
"I can't make a judgment either way," he said.
Since taking over the local, he said the union has been successful in hammering out an agreement clarifying restroom policies.
Dennison's rise to power in the union was also the subject of some controversy. Last July, a hearing was held in Ventura to determine whether control of the local should be handed over to an appointed trustee because of complaints filed by Dennison himself.
Dennison alleged that union leaders had improperly handled expenses, locked members out of meetings and physically threatened him. Most of the complaints were directed at Dennis Shaw, former secretary-treasurer of the local.
Shaw, who managed to keep the local out of trusteeship, denied Dennison's allegations at the time, saying they were politically motivated. However, Dennison narrowly defeated Shaw by 18 votes in Shaw's reelection bid.
Dennison said the local's problems have been resolved and that he is focused now on rebuilding its image and its membership.
"What happened in the past is past," he said. "We're here to make a change."