As Clyde Clark tells it, he started to turn his life around in 1998 when he got a job collecting trash for the Town of Chapel Hill. He had grown up in public housing, dropped out of high school in 11th grade and had worked service jobs all over the area. He had mopped floors at McDonald's, served food in UNC's Lenoir Hall and bussed tables at Franklin Street bars, but never for very long.
So when he was hired by the Chapel Hill Public Works Department, he knew he had a chance to start over. "Getting that job was like a bright light. It gave me a sense of self-worth to have a good job to go to every day and a consistent check. It was the best thing that had ever happened to me." For the next 12 years, Clark picked up, hauled and dumped trash for the Town of Chapel Hill.
That job ended last fall when Clark and a co-worker, the Rev. Kerry Bigelow, were fired. Public Works Director Lance Norris says that they were fired for insubordination and threatening behavior toward co-workers and residents. But to Clark and Bigelow, who are African-American, the firings were retaliation for filing race discrimination grievances with town and federal officials, for speaking out on work and safety conditions in the public works department and for joining a union. They have fought unsuccessfully for almost a year to get their jobs back, and on Oct. 4 they sued the Town of Chapel Hill and Town Manager Roger Stancil for wrongful discharge and for violations of their free speech and civil rights.
Clark and Bigelow worked as collectors, men—and they're almost always men—who ride on the back of sanitation trucks, one on either side, standing on an 8-inch ledge and steadying themselves by grabbing a handlebar on a truck that can travel up to 45 miles per hour. When the truck stops, collectors jump off and haul garbage into the loader, which carries and dumps it into the crusher at the back of the truck. It is grueling and demanding work, but the hours allowed Bigelow to be home when his daughters arrived from school every day. For Clark, who has a 20-year-old son, it was the first job he ever had with benefits and a retirement plan.
But it was dangerous, too. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, sanitation collection is one of the 10 most dangerous jobs in America, with a fatality rate of 30 per 100,000 workers. Sanitation workers risk being injured by malfunctioning equipment, which can crush them, and by cars when impatient drivers pass the trucks. They may be exposed to hazardous waste or slip and fall beneath the truck's moving wheels. Last week, a sanitation worker in Fayetteville died after he fell off the back of a truck while it was reversing; the driver didn't see him fall and accidentally ran over him. In the last year, sanitation workers in Louisiana, California and Massachusetts have died when the trucks they were working on backed over them; in Pennsylvania and New York, two sanitation workers were killed when they were struck by other vehicles. And in Virginia, a worker was crushed to death when trying to fix malfunctioning equipment.
During the 15 months that Clark and Bigelow rode the Chapel Hill streets together on the back of a trash truck, they wrote numerous grievances to the town over alleged safety violations. "We challenged some very dangerous practices," says Clark. "We were trying to make a better workplace. Not just for us, but for all workers."
At first glance, Clark and Bigelow seem like an unlikely pair. Bigelow is a tall man with a big personality and booming voice. Words flow out of him easily; he can quote 17th-century philosophers, civil rights leaders and biblical passages all in the span of one impassioned elocution. Clark is a dapper dresser who favors sweater-vests and flat caps and has a quiet demeanor. He says he is more comfortable at home reading history and civil rights books than he is socializing with people.
Civil rights figures prominently in Clark's family history. His late great-aunt, Rebecca Clark, led the UNC Housekeepers Association and was instrumental in procuring voting rights for African-Americans. His uncles, John Clark and A.D. Clark, were active during the civil rights movement and pivotal in the founding of A.D. Clark Pool, the first swimming pool in Chapel Hill for African-Americans. Growing up in the Craig-Gomains public housing projects in the Northside neighborhood, Clark felt the realities of segregation, but he says it was something that he was inclined to live with, as opposed to fight. "I knew that there were civil rights leaders in my family, but I never felt called to do the same," Clark says. "As a black man in Chapel Hill, you get used to how things are."
Clark's first job was selling sodas at UNC football games at Kenan Stadium. He was 12, and it was the only time he and his friends would venture near the university, largely considered a white area. "We never went north of Franklin Street, not without our parents," Clark says. "There was just a line you did not cross." But on game days during football season, he and his friends from the neighborhood would band together and cross the campus to the stadium, where they would line up in hopes of being one of the few picked to sell sodas inside.
Clark attended Chapel Hill High School in its early years of integration but dropped out in the 11th grade. "I was lost and drinking a lot. There was a lot of hopelessness in the projects and people were self-medicating. I saw crack running through the projects like a devil station," he says. "The basic core of the guys I grew up with were either cracked up, in jail or dead. Eventually I knew that I needed to do something with my life. I never grew up wanting to be a trash collector, but I was lucky to get this job."
Clark met Bigelow on the back of Chapel Hill Sanitation Truck 209. Clark had been reassigned to Bigelow's crew, and on the back of the sanitation truck, known as a rear-end loader, he got to know him. As they got to talking, they discovered that they had a lot to say about the conditions of sanitation workers in Chapel Hill. "We knew it was a dangerous and dirty job," Bigelow says, "but we still expected respect on the job."
Bigelow had always dreamed about driving big trucks. He grew up near Highway 119 in the northern part of the state and lived with the sound of big rigs whizzing by on their way to and from Virginia. "I just loved everything about those trucks and knew that was what I wanted to do." After graduating from high school, he attended trucking school but later abandoned plans of becoming a long-distance driver in order to marry his high school sweetheart and stay closer to home. But he felt hemmed in by a series of factory jobs, so when he got a position as a sanitation truck driver for the city of Burlington, he felt he had the best of both worlds. Over the next 18 years, he raised three daughters with his wife, Angela, bought a house and saved for his children's college education.
It was during this time that Bigelow had what he calls "an encounter with God. I started seeking and trying to understand God, because once my heart had changed, I wanted to learn, so I decided to go to divinity school. I have not been the same since." Bigelow began attending Shaw University Divinity School at night while working full-time. He was ordained as a Baptist minister and now heads a small church in Burlington called The Lord's House of Prayer.
In 2007, after almost two decades driving trucks for the city of Burlington, Bigelow decided to apply for a job with the Chapel Hill public works department, which he had heard offered better wages and benefits. He applied for a driving position, known as an operator, the same position he had held in Burlington. Operators are seen as a step up from collectors; they earn more, face fewer physical risks and don't have to endure inclement weather like collectors do. Bigelow was told at the time that no operator jobs were available but that he could apply for the next position that came up. He took a collector's job in the meantime.
At the end of 2009, after Bigelow and Clark had been working together for a few months, an operator position opened and Bigelow applied. Recruitment for the position was limited to "qualified internal applicants" and Bigelow was among them. Bigelow was confident. He had a strong application. He had the most truck-driving experience of all the applicants and had received "outstanding" reviews in his annual performance appraisals by his supervisors. According to notes from the interview for the promotion, his supervisor, Larry Stroud, said of Bigelow, "Kerry is a great person for the job. Kerry has a good attitude about the job."
According to town documents, another applicant was a fellow collector who had begun working for the sanitation department just a few months before Bigelow. Prior to working as a collector, the man had driven a recycling truck for waste management for four and a half years—a total of 54 months of driving trucks. Based on his level of experience, the man's starting hourly wage was $12.75—$26,528 annually—and one of the lowest wages for collectors. Bigelow, however, started at the top of the pay scale, $14.43 per hour, or $30,000 per year. The higher pay rate was explained in an internal memo that cited Bigelow's 18 years of operating heavy equipment for solid waste departments and his certificate from heavy-truck driving school, described as an asset to the department. In total, Bigelow had 216 months' experience driving trucks.
The other applicant, who was white, got the promotion. Bigelow was surprised, and when he asked why he had been passed over, he got no answer. On Feb. 12, 2010, Bigelow filed a race discrimination grievance with the department, citing his superior experience, time on the job and the stellar reviews he had received from his supervisors.
Bigelow had never filed a grievance before, but a few weeks prior, he had met some Chapel Hill Transit workers who told him about the grievance process. When Bigelow didn't get the job, he knew how to redress the situation. "I wanted to know how they could justify giving that job to someone with significantly less driving and work experience," Bigelow says.
Bigelow received no response from the town. Three weeks later he filed another grievance, and still he got no answer. However, he did have a meeting with Frances Russell, Assistant Director of the Human Resource Development Department, who informed him that his grievance would be investigated as a serious incident. Several months later, Norris, the public works director, told him the same thing. According to town policy, serious incidents require a "prompt and thorough investigation," yet it would be another five months before Bigelow got any formal town response about the complaint.
Meanwhile, emboldened by the experience of filing a grievance, Bigelow told Clark about the process, and they realized that they had a mechanism by which to raise their concerns. "I never knew anything about the grievance process," Clark says. "They never had a meeting to say, this is what you do if you disagree with something. I would have filed grievances a long time ago if I had known about the process."
Over the next few months, Clark and Bigelow started reading up on their rights and began filing grievances for what they perceived as workplace-safety violations, unfair department practices and an overall culture of hostility in the public works department. Some of them were claims of racial bias, but the majority concerned safety violations that they thought should be fixed: They wanted trees cut back on narrow streets so they would not whip collectors' faces; they thought that the rear-end loaders were too big and dangerous on some of the small streets, forcing drivers to make unsafe turns and reversals; they thought the smaller trucks, called scooters, should drive the smaller streets. They also alleged in a grievance that the driver of their truck, the de facto crew leader, at times drove dangerously, which could harm them. These alleged driving practices included parking the truck in the middle of busy four-lane boulevards, forcing the collectors to drag bins across 40 mph traffic and driving in reverse while they were on the truck, in violation of American National Standards Institute and town policy.