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The Nation

In Chicago Alley, a Rat Has a Field Day

As the convention season approaches, there is only one clear winner in the city's compensation battle with trash collectors.

October 08, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — At the peak of a shoulder-high mound of refuse, on a shredded and fluffy mattress, a rat stood Tuesday morning like the king of all he surveyed -- pizza boxes, banana peels, sofa cushions and beer bottles, trash of every kind spreading out below.

The vermin's empire was in an alley behind not an abandoned tenement but rather a collection of brand new condominiums in one of this city's pricier neighborhoods -- across town from where a federal mediator was meeting with striking union garbage workers in an attempt to end a weeklong walkout.

In a place that likes to call itself "the city that works," and which once ousted a mayor, Michael Bilandic, in part because his administration was slow to clean up after a blizzard, the failing of public services is taken very seriously. And Mayor Richard M. Daley, who has focused for years on beautifying Chicago while working closely with unions and expecting them in turn to work with him, is fast losing patience.

With the long-suffering Cubs hosting the Florida Marlins in the National League Championship Series and thousands of tourists in town for the games, Daley has dispatched city trash haulers to pick up refuse that is not in containers, saying those workers aren't crossing Teamster picket lines.

"Any garbage in the public way is our jurisdiction," he said earlier this week, "no one else's."

Forced to pay overtime to city trash haulers -- who usually handle the garbage only at homes and small apartment buildings -- he has threatened to sue the union for reimbursement.

About 3,300 Teamsters who collect garbage at high-rises, shopping centers and other large buildings in the city and suburbs went on strike after their contract ended Sept. 30. The Teamsters -- who make between $10 and $21 an hour -- want a 30% increase in wages, health benefits and pensions over the next three years. On Sunday, the Chicago Area Refuse Haulers Assn. made a "best and final" offer of 24% over five years.

Union spokesman Rob Black said that offer fell short and would leave many members without proper health coverage. "If anybody needs health care, it's people who stick their hands in piles of trash," he said.

Association spokesman Bill Plunkett, meanwhile, accused the union of "holding the city hostage."

As the two sides negotiate, the detritus of modern life is accumulating in the streets and alleys at a rate of about 15,000 tons a day, according to the city. And people are finding novel ways to deal with their trash at the same time they're hoping for an end to the strike.

In the suburb of Oak Park, volunteers are trolling the alleys in old garbage trucks left over after the city privatized its trash collection in 1994. Some Chicago apartment owners, learning that city crews would pick up trash on the ground but not that sitting in union Dumpsters, are hoisting trash bags from overfilled bins and tossing them into the roadway, city officials said.

At Murphy's Bleachers, a watering hole next to the Cubs' Wrigley Field, co-owner Beth Murphy was full of praise Tuesday for the down-and-out during this crisis of dreck.

"The homeless guys that recycle cans have been a great help," Murphy said. "They've been taking away about half our garbage. And fortunately for us, their union's not too strong."

For a mayor who has lined the city's main thoroughfares with planters -- changing the foliage for each season -- and ordered that trees be planted along every new sidewalk, willy-nilly trash collection does not sit well.

Daley, a mayor so powerful that he watches many of his motions pass the 50-member Board of Alderman without a single "no" vote, did not comment Tuesday on the dispute. Instead, he dispatched Department of Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Al Sanchez to deliver a terse message suggesting that the parties hammer out their differences, the Teamsters get back to work, and the union reimburse the city.

"We are aware that both parties to this garbage strike are sitting down with a mediator to hammer out their issues, but to date, their inability to work things out has presented us with issues of much greater importance," Sanchez said. "We are responsible for protecting the health and safety of the people of Chicago, and to us that is most important."

Paul Green, a political scientist at Governors State University in the suburb of University Park and the author of several books on Chicago politics, said the strike was precisely the right issue at the right time if the union wanted to really annoy a powerful mayor.

"Chicago is a tourist convention city, and we're entering a high time for conventions and events. Having trash piling up is not a way to welcome tourists," Green said. "This is clearly bugging Daley, his sense of order, his sense of cleanliness. If this goes on another week, I think he's going to erupt."

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