by Linda Solomon for The Vancouver Observer
Dahlia braces herself for a job she dreads. In the alley behind her newly purchased Cambie home, she drops the kitchen garbage into big green bags. Then she lifts the big bag into the back of her SUV. She continues this process until she’s filled the back of the car with garbage, the waste that a middle-class family of four creates in a week, including the pungent diapers the toddler has produced.
“Yuck,” her toddler cries, pinching her nose and getting into the back seat. As Dahlia straps her younger daughter into her child seat, she braces herself for the ear splitting wail that the smell of the rotting food and marinating diaper elicits, a Pavlovian response perhaps to the weekly trips that have taken place for three months, the sitting in the car with the contents of the family garbage can.
There it comes. “EEEEEEE.” To the sound of her daughter’s complaint, Dahlia closes the trunk, gets into the driver’s seat, and turns all the windows down. It’s got to be done.
Rain pelts the car, but better to get wet than to shut oneself into what smells a garbage can on wheels. Dahlia pulls out of the alley and heads onto Cambie Street, slowed by another of the city’s snafus her neighbourhood seems to be bearing the unfair brunt of: the Canada Line construction project. Traffic inches up to King Edward, where two lanes become one before a worker flags cars through the intersection.
Mercifully, traffic gets going and Dahlia proceeds.
She drives for fifteen minutes, a little recklessly, because she really wants it to be over. Then, feeling a little guilty, she gets out of the car tosses the first bag into her mother-in-law’s garage. IT doesn’t seem like it should be her in-law’s job to absorb all of her garbage. She has to get rid of it somehow, though, she reminds herself, as her father-in-law comes out of the side door into the garage, waving and holding his nose.
Ask any Vancouverite about how they’re coping with their garbage these days and unless they live in a condominium or in one of the wealthier postal codes, you’re going to get a colourful story of odors and unexpected journeys to the homes of friends, relatives, or the all-vulnerable dumpsters posted behind grocery stores and in alleys. It's the story of a city strike dragging on into its fourth month.
Woven into it are instances of cunning, conservation, and creativity as well as expressions of anger at the city, a sense of being cheated out of services tax money should pay for, the feeling that the city is all too happy to save millions of dollars and let private citizens deal independently with private vendors, and, as a city bus driver commented “let the poor and lower middle class sit in their garbage until the day they die.”
That the impact of the halt in city garbage services cuts so neatly across the socio-economic divide may not surprise the cynical, but it does manage to get even the most jaded taxpayer mad. “If this were happening in the United States, people would be out in the streets with pitchforks,” commented a UBC genetic researcher from Seattle at a Rosh Hashanah gathering last week. “They’d be piling their garbage on Sam Sullivan’s doorstep. They’d never leave him alone.”
Mayor Sullivan Doesn't Have Steps
The problem is, Vancouver’s mayor doesn’t have “steps.” He lives in a Yaletown condominium serviced by a private waste removal firm. It’s just one of the reasons it’s possible for the mayor who seems accountable only to the city’s elite to weather the strike and sit on the sidelines, or, as it where, look down from on high.
“There was some garbage on the steps of City Hall some weeks ago and the APC dumped stuff at his apartment building on the Yaletown’s Gold Coast,” the a government source said.
The source, who asked not to be identified, tried to offer more context for why the mayor hasn’t settled a strike which now “has his name written all over it.”
When talking the strike over a few weeks ago with Councilman Raymond Louie, a clearer picture of Mayor Sullivan’s role in why the strike has come to be branded “Sam’s Strike” emerges.
“My sense of it is that Sullivan waded in at the beginning, trying to be mayor to the rescue, but took sides on the administration management side, calling for the final offer vote, which is taboo in the labour negotiation realm,” Louie explained.
“He forced the issue early with a final offer, when they were nowhere close. That set an early tone of negotiating through the media with bombastic technique and political interference. So right away the thing just left the normal sequence of labour negotiation and resolution. He got yanked back out of the picture after and has stayed in the background since, even when the strike progressed to the point where it does require political leadership to call for mediation and settlement. Now that’s working itself through. There are mediators involved, but it doesn’t sound like it’s progressing very well. Only one of the three mediators are from the provincial labour relations board.”
“Then there is the fact that the city benefits from a protracted strike,” he said. “It’s cheating the city workers out of their compensation and cheating the citizens out of the services we’re paying for out of our taxes.
“It’s hard to ascertain exactly what the outcome will be the outcome will be in 2007 in terms of overall factors. There are lost revenues, no revenue from the public golf courses, but they have to be maintained. Reduction of parking revenue, loss of theatre income. There are a number of losses on the income side. But there’s an overall savings of money, of less money. We can look at past experience in 2000 and 1997. In 1997, there was an overall savings of approximately $2 million. Both the inside and outside workers went out on strike and there was a savings overall of about $2 million, and the strike lasted about seven or eight weeks at that time. In the year 2000 it came out to $2.3 million in overall savings.
“What’s different about this particular strike is that management has learned from past experience in handling a system wide strike. There’s more effort in collecting monies from parking meters and parking enforcement and for the first time in a long history of Vancouver City Libraries they are on strike. There was a savings of several hundred dollars previously when they shut down the library system for one week. Now we’re in week ten or week nine, so we’re talking about two million dollars right there (that the city is saving). I suspect that we will be talking about savings to the city of in the $4 or $5 million range. This is a net calculation we’re talking about. Settlement, working overtime for the exempt staff, because they are being paid overtime, for 60 hour work weeks.
“In the end, what will happen is that there will be a reduction of taxes by the commensurate amount of tax savings in 2007. That’s being done as a result of something I moved in council meeting in July. I moved a motion that we reduce taxes by the amount of the savings that is saved by the dispute. Citizens are paying to keep the city functional and you’re not getting the services. You’re only getting a portion of your tax monies back. That was the motivation for my motion. If you’re paid, you should be getting service. But unfortunately that’s not the way that governments work and there are other costs involved as well. It’s not a strict pro rating.
“I don’t know what people are doing (to get through the strike). Hopefully people aren’t illegally dumping. There’s no doubt in my mind that people who have less financial resources available to them are being more challenged by this labour dispute. If you have the money you can go to a private gym. If you don’t have the money you can’t go swimming, you can’t take your fitness class, this is what we as elected officials are supposed to provide. It bothers me a great deal that this strike has focused on garbage, but child care, senior facilities, its creating great disruption to people’s lives.”
“We just came back from Victoria, and, indeed, I almost tripped over, and definitely growled at, our behemoth-pile of recycling now blocking my way into the house,” Robbie, the mother of two, said. Robbie and her family live east of Main.
“ I just dumped our 'greens' bin and filled it with garbage. I have room for another week or so of bags. There are 2 bags of 'dry' garbage in our downstairs office, and we have been composting a lot which equals fat and happy rats!, and trying to buy less packaging.
“I am also Pollyanna in assuming that, once the strike ends, this town, with high-social-covenant running through its veins, will also pick up the backload of our crap that has piled up all summer.”
“Why, do you want some garbage?”
Robbie’s friend, Jenn, doesn’t let the garbage sit around. My parents live in a condo so I bring it there every so often. I also bring a small bag to work every day ("Bring your garbage to work day!") When my son has hockey practice in Richmond, my husband takes a bag to deposit there. When friends who live in condos come over, I usually send a bag home with them. The strike started the day our garbage was to be collected so my container was already full. It's a real pain in the ass--and I obsess about it constantly. I won't even go into the piles of recycling collecting in my yard.”
Other people told the Vancouver Observer about compacting garbage and freezing it, taking it to Ladner’s landfill, and dumping at sites around West Vancouver and North Vancouver, where garbage pick up proceeds as usual.
But in some areas of Vancouver, residents don’t have in-laws conveniently located in the suburbs where they can dump their trash. They don’t have friends in condominiums where they can dine, and do garbage drop off. They don’t even have vehicles.
“The homeless are just being left to rot in it,” said Frank, a fireman, who answered a call in the downtown eastside last Saturday night at a nightclub on Carrol Street “some guy tried to torch.” Garbage was “spewing out of the dumpsters,” Frank said. “It was unbelievable.” His buddy put his finger to his lip. As the firefighters fell silent, they heard what sounded like “hundreds of rats running to and fro among nests in the piles of rotting stuff.”
When two reporters from the Vancouver Observer walked the alleys of the downtown eastside today, however, they didn’t see geysers of garbage spewing from dumpsters. Things looked relatively clean. The receptionist at the Carnegie Centre on Hastings and Main explained that private contractors did their garbage pick up. “In the areas that are visible, they’re taking pretty good care of things,” she said. “But if you look a little further, you’ll see that it’s a big mess.”
And so the city waits for resolution. If it’s not worked out soon, it'll just stink.