Philly Garbage Strike
July 2021. JIM KENNEY, Mayor of Philadelphia, sits in his office. Trash bags are piled in front of his desk and loose garbage floats around the room. A RAT piloting a plastic bag flies in the window and makes a landing into the trash pile. JIM gets up and closes the window. The trash settles onto the floor.
AMY GUTMANN, President, University of Pennsylvania (Salary: $3.6 million; oversees Penn endowment of $14.9 billion)
BRIAN ROBERTS, CEO and Chairman, Comcast (net worth: $1.9 billion)
DICK HAYNE, CEO, Chairman and President, Urban Outfitters (net worth: $1.4 billion)
JIM: Amy. Brian. Dick.
ALL: Hi, Jim.
JIM brushes stray garbage off plate on table to reveal bottles of water and snacks.
JIM: Fig Newton? Koffee Kake?
BRIAN waves no. DICK takes pack of jelly Krimpets.
AMY: I’ll just have a water.
AMY reaches for bottle. Gold coins pour out of the sleeve of her suit jacket and fall to the floor.
AMY: So sorry. I was swimming my laps in the endowment pool this morning. (Quickly grabs gold coins and stuffs them in pockets)
Everyone sits down. JIM tosses a copy of The Philadelphia Inquirer on the table.
JIM: I’ll get right to the point. The Streets Department can’t keep themselves out of the news. We’re looking at a possible garbage strike. I’m trying to do some damage control.
BRIAN: Excuse me. My allergies. (Takes out hundred-dollar bill and blows nose)
JIM: You three are some of the most resourced, powerful folks in Philadelphia. I was hoping you could do me a solid and help me navigate the trash situation. Dick, you okay there?
DICK has got jelly all over his pants. He pulls out a wad of cash and wipes up the stain.
DICK: No problem, I got it. Jimmy - why don’t you just have the senior leadership of Sanitation figure it out?
JIM wipes away tears of laughter.
JIM: Okay, all kidding aside. The city’s overrun with trash. Pickups are delayed, a quarter of the trucks are broken down. Twenty percent of the staff are out on a regular basis due to injuries or work burnout. The department’s completely understaffed with so many people constantly calling out. The union’s voted to authorize a strike. We need to get this sorted before Labor Day. I don’t know if you heard, but Justin Bieber is coming for Made in America.
DICK: Sounds like a problem with company culture. You want to get the workers invested. Do you have the new hires do some unpaid training? And you shouldn’t be paying for the overtime. Let them wear fun shirts; frame it as team-building.
AMY: I can send you a twenty-two-year-old social work grad student to lead some training in good work habits.
BRIAN: What about a company fitness incentive? Get everybody a Fitbit and have a competition for how many pounds lifted per day. You can reward the winner with a social media shout-out. I’d be happy to be a corporate sponsor.
JIM: I don’t know if that will do it. The sanitation crews are complaining about working conditions. They’re not happy about having to work ten- to twelve-hour shifts six days a week with mandatory overtime. They’re asking for trucks to be reliably air conditioned in summer and heated in winter. Plus, they want us to provide their masks and boots and gloves so they don’t get poked with needles all day long. The denial of hazard pay has been an issue, too. And getting paid late. It’s just hard to keep them happy.
DICK: Have you tried Fun Fridays? Charge everybody a dollar out of their paycheck and they can wear something on theme. That will jazz up your optics.
AMY: You know, every so often I get my faculty together and we serve melon and pastries. People tend to complain less if they get carbs now and again. Let them eat croissants.
JIM: I think it’s more--
INTERN opens door, holding laptop. Trash swirls around him, along with a cloud of flies.
INTERN: Mayor Kenney? Sorry to interrupt. I’ve been doing that research like you asked so we can streamline the process for people applying to sanitation worker jobs, but I can’t find the job listing anywhere on the Streets page or city government page. I’ve been Googling for forty-five minutes. Should I keep trying?
JIM: Please don’t. Stay here and take notes.
INTERN sits. The swarm of flies heads for the jelly on Dick’s pants.
DICK: That’s smart. If somebody wants the job, they should work for it.
BRIAN: Listen, I’m happy to kick you a couple million for some ads telling the public to #BePatient. As long as the company name is a third the size of the poster.
AMY: I can get someone to put together a Trash for America program. Like Teach for America, but for sanitation.
JIM: I don’t think--
AMY: We recruit some fresh-faced, smiling college grads. They can wear special uniforms, be the face of community engagement. They’ll ride along behind the trucks in a fun vehicle, wave, hop off and chat with everyone on the block. Would it help if we made sure they were all white? The kids would want a stipend of at least 60,000 and student loan forgiveness after a year of service. Plus media attention and a sense of prestige, of course. This type of resume-builder could get some talent in the door for bigger government positions later on.
JIM: Will they actually pick up trash?
AMY (laughing): Come on, Jim.
BRIAN: I know! How about we fund a startup incubator? Bring together all the young folks to compete for a nice chunk of change awarded to the best idea to solve the trash problem. You could do a South by Southwest type of thing. The Comcast Compactor. Would you want a few million for that?
JIM: What we actually need is money to go directly into the budget, to fix the trucks, pay more workers--
DICK: What’s the salary for sanitation workers again, Jim?
JIM: Full-time guys start around 34k a year. That’s taking home about $517 a week.
JIM: I’m glad you brought up money, Dick, because that’s really what we need to look at here.
INTERN (looking up): Just to add, the Philadelphia Business Journal determined that to live comfortably in this city, a household needs to earn 82k for homeowners and 92k for renters. Sanitation workers earn ⅓ of that “comfort level”.
JIM: Can you not?
DICK: I’ve got it. You said the trash is late getting picked up, right? So what you do is, issue fines to the residents whose trash is still on the curb! That should bring in a nice chunk of change.
INTERN (quietly): They’re actually already doing that, sir.
The door opens, and a band of characters in ragged clothing and fingerless gloves appears, waving trash tickets. They sing in chorus “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two!”, rub their hands together, leap up in one movement and run off.
JIM (to INTERN): Please don’t speak again.
BRIAN: I’m sure my wife could pull together a benefit at the Barnes. Sell some tables for ten thousand each. I’m thinking a raw bar on ice served on trash can lids. Specialty cocktails like the Garbage Grasshopper, the Hefty Hurricane. I’m sure we could raise enough to pay a couple guys to run the think tank hub for a year or two.
DICK: That reminds me, I have a nephew coming out of Villanova who might be interested in some type of role… six figures, right?
BRIAN: Hey, you know, when my kids were little, there was a big theme of trash-truck birthday parties. The preschool set is very interested in this issue. Could we channel some engagement that way?
DICK: That’s a good thought. Why don’t you get some kids working on the trucks? Kids are really efficient workers. Nimble. They can squeeze into all kinds of small spaces.
JIM: Child labor is illegal in the United States.
DICK: That’s a shame.
AMY has been sitting quietly, gripping an unopened Tasty-Klair pie in each hand. She looks up, excited.
AMY: What about a bake sale? Have the guys all pitch in, buy a couple boxes of brownie mix, bring them in and sell them on the route? They’re driving along anyway, right?
JIM: Folks, I was thinking of more direct support to our struggling city budget. Along the lines of restructuring some tax agreements to put some of your immense wealth back into the municipality to take care of our essential workers. I mean, Brian and Dick, you guys are actual billionaires.
AMY clears throat, spits diamond into a napkin.
DICK: Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’ll stop you right there. That’s not the kind of message we want to send here. Dammit--this jelly. (Pulls fresh handful of cash from sock, scrubs at pants stain)
BRIAN sneezes and a Comcast stock certificate shoots out his nose. He pokes it back in.
JIM: Brian. Under the current plan, Comcast doesn’t pay any property taxes on your $1.2 billion Technology Center. Maybe we need to re-address this.
BRIAN: Pardon me, Jim. It’s time for my mindfulness meditation moment. (Puts on a pair of gold-plated noise-cancelling headphones and closes eyes)
JIM: Amy, Penn owns $3.2 billion in untaxed property, and we’ve talked for years about your refusal to pay PILOTS - payments in lieu of taxes - which would help fund not only schools but sanitation. Perhaps now would be a good time to start paying.
AMY (shaking head): Es tut mir leid. Jetz ist kein guter Zeitpunkt.
ELISE pokes her head in doorway. A walking trash pile is moving along at her feet.
ELISE: Hello? Hi.
A pair of eyes peek out from the trash pile.
ELISE: I’m Elise Hartford-Bisinger. This is my daughter Willow. She got caught in a gale on the way over.
JIM: Can we help you with something?
ELISE: Yes, you certainly can. I complained to the gentleman picking up my garbage today when he put the contents of my blue recycling container straight in with the trash. He didn’t seem to care how much time I had spent separating my Siggi’s yogurt cups and microgreens clamshell containers. He said he was told to collect recycling with the trash because of the backup. I came straight here to voice my concern.
JIM: We have a crisis we’re trying to take care of.
ELISE: Go ahead, Willow.
WILLOW straightens up and holds her head high.
WILLOW: Mister Mayor, I am here to ask you--
JIM: We really don’t have time--
ELISE: WILLOW IS SPEAKING!
WILLOW: Mister Mayor, I am here to ask you to make sure that my recycling goes to the right place.
JIM: I got news for ya, kid. Even when it goes to the right place, half the recycling doesn’t actually get recycled.
ELISE: How dare you! Do you know we’ve had to go to our mountain house every weekend, just to get away from all this trash?
WILLOW: Can I have a Tastykake?
ELISE: Absolutely not, Willow.
JIM: We look forward to having you in our schools, kid.
ELISE: Oh, we’re not sending her to school here. Our tax abatement will be up soon, and we’ve so enjoyed not paying the property taxes. We’re on a block that’s completely turned over! We’ll sell the house, probably bum around Scandinavia for a while. Come on, Willow.
WILLOW follows ELISE out the door just as CLARISSA, a suited official, comes in, followed by SUN RAY, a costumed character in baggy green tuxedo, giant sun-shaped head and sunglasses. SUN RAY is holding a can of PBR.
CLARISSA: Jim, hi! Clarissa, from Sanitation? Is now a good time? Our investment in the crisis management firm to lead some brainstorming resulted in the decision to reintroduce Sun Ray! Remember Sun Ray? The Streets Department mascot? This is the perfect solution to our image problems! We’ll just have to pay a couple people to run his social media, promote campaign appearances, wear the suit and so on!
SUN RAY, clearly drunk, stumbles forward, trips over trash bag and falls through the cloud of flies into DICK’s lap.
BRIAN: A mascot. Fun. Now that I could put some money toward.
JIM starts to push SUN RAY toward the door. The INTERN intervenes, holding JIM back, and accompanies SUN RAY and CLARISSA out of the room.
The RAT pops up from the trash pile in front of JIM’s desk.
RAT: You guys.
RAT: If I may? I’ve had my eye on this situation for a long time.
JIM: I’m listening.
RAT: Why don’t you pay your sanitation workers a decent wage and treat them with some dignity?
RAT: These workers should be making 60k a year, working reasonable hours, and be provided with safe conditions and necessary equipment. Sure, you need to figure out a new long-term system to reduce trash and collect waste more efficiently using the data and technology at hand. But while you do that, you need to treat your workers like human beings.
RAT: I don’t know why I’m even telling you this. We can’t wait for the strike. We’re already planning a family reunion. Uncle Jeff is coming in from Portland. Tons of hot garbage rotting in ninety-degree heat for days on end? We are going to be out in force. We’re going to be doing It’s Raining Men on top of the trash piles. We’re going to be chowing down like the giant in Dickens’s Christmas Carol tearing into a mutton leg. We’re going to be gorging like Templeton at the state fair in Charlotte’s Web. It’s going to be Rumspringa.
JIM: What did you say?
JIM: Before that.
RAT: I said that in a city that has the kind of wealth I’m looking at in this room, there should be a way to carry out the basic function of taking care of the people that are picking up everybody’s trash.
ALL look at each other. BRIAN, DICK, and AMY burst out laughing.
BRIAN: That’s really cute.
DICK: Well, I gotta go. If there’s gonna be a strike, I’m not sticking around here.
DICK opens window. Wind starts blowing trash around the room again as the sound of a chopper gets closer and a rope ladder is tossed in the window. DICK ascends the ladder and disappears. BRIAN and AMY head for the door.
AMY: Great seeing you, guys. Auf Wiedersehen.
BRIAN and AMY EXIT.
Trash continues to whirl. JIM takes a Fig Newton and sits at desk, resting chin on one hand. Amidst the trash hurricane, the RAT gets on his plastic bag and flies it toward the window. He’s talking on a cell phone.
RAT: Uncle Jeff? It’s me! Guess what?!