Image: Roland Bell
David Friedman  /  msnbc.com
Roland Bell, a driver for the Wilmington, Del., sanitation department, collects trash on Friday, March 25, 2011, in Wilmington, Del. (David Friedman / msnbc.com)
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/5/2011 9:35:14 AM ET 2011-04-05T13:35:14

Roland Bell, a sanitation employee in Wilmington, Del., has to make sure he steps to the side of the garbage truck after he chucks trash into the back because if he forgets, and the blade is running, “things break and spray up in your face. Garbage, feces, whatever you can think,” he said. “You wipe it and keep moving.”

Bell, 44, has been a sanitation worker for the city since December 2006, and faces challenges on the job that would make most of us retch or spend a week in bed with aches and pains. There’s the smell of rotting garbage; the heavy cans and repetitive motion that’s hard on his back; and the fall he took this past winter on slippery ice while hauling trash from the curb. His pay of $18.10 an hour — about $38,000 a year — has been frozen since last year, there has been no overtime pay for the past three years and he is paying more into his health insurance plan.

But the one thing that’s got him upset lately has nothing to do with his pay or the trash, it's the trash-talking about government workers he’s been hearing in Wilmington and across the country. “They don’t know half of what our jobs entail,” he said. “We make $35,000 a year, and they want to throw stones at public workers.”

Despite what he sometimes hears about overpaid government workers, Bell said doesn’t even consider himself part of the middle class. His paycheck isn’t quite enough to make ends meet, especially with an unemployed wife who is looking for work and a 9-year-old son at home to support, he said.

The family lives in a two-bedroom apartment in the city that costs $600 a month. He drives a 2005 Chrysler and his wife has a 2004 Honda Accord. Both cars were bought used, and he makes monthly payments of $448.47 on the Chrysler. He pays $120 a month for his son to go to a private Christian school, and he helps support a daughter, 12 and son, 13, who live in California with their mother. He doesn’t remember the last time he had a vacation, and the only money he manages to save is $50 a month toward a college fund.

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With the cost of everything going up, including gas and food, and a paycheck that’s not, he’s considering getting a second job part time. He suspects he and his fellow union employees are going to be asked to give up more when the city sits down with them at the negotiating table this year. He’s prepared to make some sacrifices because he knows the city is struggling financially, but he wishes people would stop using public employees a punching bags. “I’m not getting rich off of this,” he said.

Anger at public workers
Government workers across the nation have been the targets of a growing political backlash symbolized by efforts in Wisconsin and elsewhere to eliminate their collective bargaining rights. Workers in Wilmington, a small city with about 72,000 residents, sandwiched between Philadelphia and Baltimore, are feeling it. Unemployment in the city is 13.1, according to the Delaware Department of Labor, and the city is facing a deficit of as much as $4 million.

This past winter, the city’s sanitation workers came under fire for not picking up trash on a particularly cold and rainy day. The union’s contract includes a safety provision that they can reschedule pickup when it’s raining and the temperature doesn’t break 45 degrees by 5 a.m. during the coldest months of the year.

The use of the provision this year angered some residents and politicians, prompting one council member to call the workers “spoiled” in a local newspaper story last month. “Budget time is coming you all and we are going to remember that. This is not a threat, this is a promise,” Republican Councilman Michael A. Brown Sr.told the Wilmington News Journal.

“The public employees in Wilmington have been blamed by the city for a lot of financial problems, and they felt really pressed by the city to take wage freezes and provide benefit cuts,” said Roger Horowitz, a historian with Wilmington’s Hagley Museum and Library.

“There can be resentment for people doing better than you are,” he added. “The public workers have been protected for the most part against layoffs; but public employees are making less in real terms than they did 10 years ago, and they haven’t been respected.”

Trash collectors hold “one of the lowest-status municipal jobs,” he continued, and they have found little support when they’ve tried to fight for better wages and working conditions.

Wilmington's cold-weather trash pickup provision has been in the contract since the 1970s, but this year was the first time there was such a dust-up about it, and the feeling among many Wilmingtonians is that public workers shouldn’t be making waves right now.

“Each and every employee of city government who is lucky enough to have a position of employment ought to be very grateful,” said John Rago, communications and policy director for Mayor James Baker.

“There are people out there struggling to keep and find a job, and we’re announcing your trash is not collected because it’s 43 degrees and raining,” he said.

“We’ve never argued in any way against the safety of employees,” he continued, “but citizens say we’re not running the government properly, and it’s their money.”

More with less
John Ashe, president of Local 320, Bell's union, doesn’t quibble with the fact that his workers have to sacrifice. Sanitation workers, among other city employees, have been asked to do more with less already, and last year the number of garbage trucks on the road was cut to nine from 12, he said.

Ashe suspects city contract negotiators could propose layoffs, a continued pay freeze and a bigger contribution by workers for health coverage. Workers now pay $15 every two weeks toward premiums with co-pays of $5 for primary care visits and up to $30 for specialists.

Rago, the mayor’s spokesman, wouldn’t comment on specific concessions the city will seek from its unions but said, “we’re looking at a deficit for next fiscal year of $3 (million) to $4 million. When we sit at the bargaining table the message is clear: ‘Figure out how to reduce the deficit.’”

Fred Sears, board president of the Wilmington Economic and Financial Advisory Council, an independent group that reviews the city’s financial stability, said salaries and benefits of city workers are a big chunk of the budget. He sees reductions in staffing, benefits and services as inevitable.

Bell's sanitation crew already seems stretched as it makes the rounds in downtown Wilmington. Bell is constantly jumping in and out of the truck he drives to help his crew of two men as they rush to drag refuse in trash bins tucked between cars parked on narrow streets of the inner city. “I’ve had drivers cuss and beep at me,” he said as he descended for the hundredth time from the cab of the truck on one cold March morning.

Bell, who has a high school diploma and was once certified as a cardiogram technician, is good at what he does but he laughs when asked whether it’s his dream job. “I think I stopped dreaming about jobs,” he said. “If a man don’t work, he don’t eat, and I’m working to provide for myself and family.”

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