In December, restoration technicians at the company Garden Cycles voted 13-0 to unionize in order to fight for health care and retirement benefits. The workers, whose company contracts with the city of Seattle under the Green Seattle Partnership, care for the ecosystem by clearing invasive species, such as Himalayan blackberries, and restoring native plants in Seattle’s parks and greenspaces.
According to Samuel Edson, a restoration technician who works for Garden Cycles, they work under grueling, difficult and sometimes even dangerous conditions. Restoration technicians often work on extremely steep slopes, operate heavy machinery and administer toxic herbicide. Seattle has also asked forest technicians to clean up garbage, including human waste and needles, despite it not being part of their main job requirements.
Workplace safety was one of the main factors that encouraged Garden Cycles staff to unionize, Edson said.
“There’s an incredible amount of danger in what we do,” he said.
Because the company operates under thin margins, Edson said that they can’t afford proper blackberry cutters and instead operate more improvised machinery.
“I don’t see us getting the machines that can handle these blades anytime soon,” Edson said. “That [blade] could come flying off, and that could lacerate someone. And that was something that never sat square with anybody on the crew. Everybody [had] big red flags.”
Edson said that management did not adequately take into account the safety risks of the job and that restoration technicians are not compensated proportionately to the risk and skills the job demands. He said his wages are currently just over $20 an hour.
Another restoration technician named Mike Dunne said that it’s a priority for him to get health benefits through the negotiations.
“I think the biggest thing, for me at least, is health care,” Dunne said. “I’m turning 26 in October, and so I’ll be booted off my parent’s health care. And at that point, I’m really going to have to make a decision of how to go about that, and it may very well look like finding another job — probably one that I would be doing that doesn’t align with my values the way that this job does. And that would be kind of a bummer.”
Dunne also said that he wanted more stability at the job so that workers know that they will receive consistent hours and pay each week.
According to Edson and Dunne, restoration technicians are doing the job because of their passion for restoring the natural environment and not for the money.
“I’ve always loved being outside. I wanted to do something that had a more positive impact,” Dunne said.
Under Washington state law, workers who are contracted by the government have to be paid a minimum prevailing wage. In 2018 the state legislature passed a law mandating that prevailing wages be set based on collective bargaining agreements signed by unions and their employers, which led to a big pay bump in prevailing wages for certain industries.
The law faced opposition from private employers as well as cities. Washington Labor & Industries allowed cities to classify workers such as restoration technicians as landscape maintenance workers — whose prevailing hourly wage in King County is $17.87 — instead of landscape construction workers, whose prevailing wage is $42.08.
Workers at Garden Cycles say that their work is misclassified since they do things like apply herbicide, plant shrubs and grasses and clear land, which falls under landscape construction according to the state’s administrative code.
Together with their union, Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) local 242, Garden Cycles workers have been trying to negotiate higher wages and benefits. However, they say that negotiations with the owner, Steven Richmond, have stalled due to the boss’s refusal to bargain with the workers.
Jerry Ball, who is the lead organizer with the Washington and Northern Idaho district of LIUNA, said that they filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that Richmond and his company have engaged in unfair labor practices including not bargaining in good faith, retaliating against workers who brought up safety concerns and making disparaging remarks against the workers’ decision to unionize.
“I think he’s been dragging his feet so he can hire a new crop of people,” Ball said. “He’s got a [high] turnover rate; they don’t last over 2-to-3 years with him.”
In an email to Real Change, Richmond wrote that while he was not “knee-jerk anti-labor,” he has come to regret the “level of union bureaucracy that heaps institutional requirements” as a result of unionization.
Richmond said that paying health benefits would put Garden Cycles out of business and that he has started paying a $2 an hour stipend to go toward employees’ own self-managed health plans.
He also disagreed with the desires of workers to see the whole forest restoration industry unionized.
“Employee efforts to unionize all contractors, limit volunteer competition, and limit advantages needed by training programs are themselves unfair labor practices, indeed monopolistic,” Richmond wrote in an email.
“Union demands for twice my average earnings border on strongarm theft of my 27-yr investment,” he wrote.
A spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation wrote in an email that they were aware of the unionization efforts and that the city’s “contracting process has a variety of expectations around how contractors treat employees, including safe work conditions and prevailing wage.”
As local governments seek more and more to return to sustainable management of the environment to combat climate change and ecological devastation, labor concerns around programs such as the Green Seattle Partnership may become more frequent. Progressives who champion the Green New Deal affirm the need for green jobs that are paid well and protect worker’s rights.
Edson hopes that ultimately unionizing will lead to all restoration workers being able to make a living doing what they are passionate about — caring for the ecosystem.
“You know we’re idealists,” he said. “Our boss is an idealist, right? We want to see people who get out there and work hard and really devote themselves to making a living out in the elements, out in Seattle’s sweltering summers and rainy season — that they get a fair shake. That they get their worth.”
Read more of the Jun 8-14, 2022 issue.