More than 30 Durham sanitation and public works employees rallied outside city hall Tuesday evening before delivering a petition to the city council with demands for fair pay and immediate $5,000 bonuses, asking that officials acknowledge the extra workload brought on by ongoing staff vacancies and ameliorate wages that were largely stagnant during the first two years of the pandemic.

The petition, signed by around 300 city employees and community supporters, comes several months after the council passed a budget that workers say failed to address the step pay increases they did not receive in 2020 and 2021.

The council voted for a 2 percent raise and an additional 4 to 6 percent merit-based pay increase for all city employees this year. But workers say their current wages and their net earnings since the onset of the pandemic are low to the point where they can no longer afford to live in Durham and have to work second jobs.

“We should be able to live in the city we take care of,” says Willie Brown, a driver for the public works department who lives in Knightdale and commutes 45 minutes to and from work every day. On the weekends, he works at Taco Bell. With the bonus outlined in the petition, Brown could catch up on bills, he says.

“Then maybe I could take my wife out to dinner, after I finish paying the bills,” he says.

The petition also demands that employees be paid accordingly for work that falls outside of their job descriptions. Before receiving the official title of driver, Brown spent nearly six months working as a driver while employed in a different department, he says, and was just compensated for that work yesterday.

City council candidates Shelia Huggins, Bonita Green, Carl Rist, and Shanetta Burris attended the rally, as did sitting council members DeDreana Freeman and Javiera Caballero, who are running for mayor and reelection to council, respectively, and Jontae Dunston, a mayoral candidate.

“This is the core of our community,” Burris says. “We don’t think about the invisible hands that make things work. They deserve to be able to purchase homes in the city in which they work, and they deserve respect.” 

Dunston, meanwhile, said workers need to take a more drastic action if they want to spark change.

“Strike,” he shouted, at least a dozen times, on the downbeats of the group’s “What do we want? Fair wages” chant. 

“Pull those vehicles out,” he said, “park them in the middle of the street, and strike.”

A few minutes before 7 o’clock, the group filed into city hall. Mayor Elaine O’Neal forfeited her own three-minute announcement period to allow a solid waste worker, Chris Benjamin, to speak briefly about the petition.

“Thank you for being committed,” council member and mayoral candidate Leonardo Williams said after Benjamin spoke. “I want you to know that we’re committed as well, and we’re gonna find a way to get there.”

Caballero followed with an anecdote about the 1973 Chilean coup. Next week is the 50th anniversary of the coup, she said, an event that led “a lot of labor organizers” to flee the country “because they were being detained, tortured, killed.”

“These things are reminders of how important it is to vote, how important it is to participate, how important it is to show up, and to protest,” she said.

When Caballero finished speaking, a worker in the crowd raised his hand. O’Neal said time was up but encouraged workers to sign up to speak at the council’s Thursday work session.

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