Recycling Respect

Rebecca D. O’brien

Once you finish reading this newspaper, if you decide to recycle it, the paper will be trucked by Harvard to a Charlestown factory at the heart of an ongoing labor controversy. The factory is run by recycling company KTI, owned by Casella Waste Corporation. KTI, which also processes recycled material for the cities of Boston, Cambridge and Somerville, pays its employees only about $6.75 an hour, does not compensate overtime work and does not provide adequate or affordable health insurance. Numerous employees have raised complaints about the company’s health and safety violations, as well as racial and sexual harassment by supervisors. For example, workers have testified that they are exposed to glass particles and not are not provided with protective clothing. The wages and conditions at KTI violate the laws applied to city contractors by Boston, Cambridge and Somerville. But so far, KTI has successfully strong-armed Cambridge and Somerville into granting it an exemption from those laws, and is now trying to do the same with the city of Boston.

In 1997, the city of Boston passed a living wage ordinance. Among the first municipal ordinances of its sort, it required that all major city contractors pay workers a living wage—now set for Boston at $10.54 an hour and adjusted frequently to meet the rising cost of living. Many other cities followed suit, including Cambridge and Somerville. In much the same spirit, and modeled in part on Cambridge’s ordinance, Harvard last spring raised the wages it pays its workers to a level it deemed appropriate to the cost of living. Harvard’s changes apply to all on-campus employees, directly employed or employed through a contractor.

KTI’s request for an exemption stands as a test of the enforceability of those ordinances. The company has previously received exemptions from Boston, but with its contract up for renewal it now must request one again. If KTI receives an exemption, its success at avoiding the regulation could well inspire others to also refuse to comply, making the hard-won living wage ordinances completely ineffectual.

The goal of living wage statutes, of course, is not to put companies like KTI out of business and their workers out of work, but to ratchet up labor standards, forcing companies to pay a living wage in order to get lucrative public contracts. It is up to Boston, as a major customer of KTI, to use the power it has as a contractor to pressure KTI to comply with the statute.

In addition to Boston, Harvard is one of KTI’s largest customers. Without having to cut their contract or even do much more than write KTI a letter, Harvard could add significant power to efforts to improve the lives of those who work at KTI. Harvard has taken a stance against such labor abuses on its own campus; it should encourage companies over which it has influence to follow suit.

Without support, workers at KTI have very little power to improve their treatment. KTI’s employees are largely immigrants, many of whom do not speak English. They are poor, and lack access to legal services. They lack job security and union representation, and are forced to work several jobs to make ends meet. Boston and Harvard are in a unique position to help.

For its part, KTI claims it would face “economic hardship” by complying with the statute, the basis for its initial exemption. This is hard to believe, given the financial clout of Casella. Boston also has a history of refusing to grant exemptions on the basis of “economic hardship,” most prominently in the recent case of several day-care companies, and should not be afraid to refuse an exemption to KTI. Boston’s refusal would go far in alleviating the economic hardship of the people who work at KTI—people whose interests should be of more pressing concern than the interests of a large waste processing corporation.

By no means should Boston or Harvard stop recycling, and environmental concerns should not be pitted against labor concerns. Boston and Harvard should, though, explore alternatives to KTI so that they can legitimately threaten to cut their contract with KTI. Even if other seemingly viable recycling companies don’t appear much better than KTI, if companies were genuinely competing for Boston and Harvard’s contracts they would all have an incentive to improve.

Harvard has power to improve the working conditions for employees of many of its contractors. Even if not technically required to contract only with companies that pay a living wage, Harvard can make a company’s treatment of its workers a criterion for deciding contracts, in keeping with the standards to which Harvard holds itself on campus. Doing so, in this case by letting KTI know that the university cares about how it treats workers, would put significant pressure on companies to improve—pressure that they might not feel otherwise. Being a responsible customer is simple. Boston and Harvard must not only set standards for wages and working conditions but also hold all companies to such basic standards.

Sara T. DiMaggio ’06 is a first-year in Canaday Hall. Emma S. Mackinnon ’05, a Crimson editor, is a social studies concentrator in Dudley House. They are both members of the Progressive Student Labor Movement.