On a warm September evening, dozens of city workers, donning their blue uniforms and yellow safety vests, gathered outside of Durham’s city hall. Residents carrying signs that read “FAIR PAY” and “Our workers deserve a living wage” filled the plaza in anticipation. After brief remarks, a group of sanitation workers was ushered to the front of the crowd.

A man introduced himself, grinning from ear to ear.

“My name is James Davis, a.k.a. the Number One Can Slinger,” he said. 

But his tone quickly switched from jovial to impassioned. He was fired up standing shoulder to shoulder with his fellow Solid Waste Management Department employees, who were demanding immediate $5,000 bonuses and salary increases for city workers in next year’s budget.

“During COVID, everybody you see up here worked. Every day!” Davis shouted through the PA system. “While the people that sit behind that podium was at home on their computers shooting emails out, we was in here at five o’clock shooting our head with the laser, checking our temperature, putting these masks on our face, putting gloves on, and sticking us on the truck by ourselves because they said they don’t want us ridin’ with nobody else. People don’t see that.”

Davis, a Durham native, worked for a private maintenance company doing HVAC, electrical, and carpentry work prior to taking a job with the city. He has worked for the City of Durham for 14 years and is currently employed as a maintenance technician in the solid waste department.

“It actually took me about four or five years to get on with the city,” he says. “Every year, I kept getting little letters coming back to me saying I was overqualified. I never did understand that. How can you be overqualified to dump a trash can?”

On September 5, solid waste employees delivered their demands to the city council. Feeling their concerns were not adequately addressed, workers walked off the job the next day. Elected officials, in the heat of a contentious election season, expressed sympathy with the workers, and in mid-September, city manager Wanda Page brought forth a proposal that gave bonuses to all city employees. The council deferred the original proposal, requesting that Page’s staff allocate more money to lower-salaried workers. This weekend, Page returned with a counteroffer that will likely result in onetime bonus payments of $5,000 to the city’s lowest-paid workers and $3,500 to those who make less than $70,000 annually. Additionally, an upcoming pay study will likely recommend salary increases for all city workers for the next fiscal year. In what the public employees’ union is calling a major win, the council is poised to approve the bonus payments this month. 

Durham sanitation workers call for fair wages and stable jobs Credit: Photo by Lena Geller

Sanitation workers go on strike 

The discussion about city workers’ wages reached a boiling point in June when the city passed its 2023–24 fiscal year budget. At the beginning of the meeting, city firefighters and police officers made a last-minute bid for pay raises in addition to the 7 percent salary increase and $300 bonus for all sworn employees already in the budget. Mayor Elaine O’Neal, with the support of councilors DeDreana Freeman and Monique Holsey-Hyman, motioned for a vote to grant the first responders’ request, a move that caught her remaining colleagues off-guard. 

“We had no advance notice of this,” said councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton during the meeting. “I’m hard-pressed to see this as anything other than posturing on behalf of our colleagues since this matter is already on the agenda.”

The mayor’s motion set off a raucous discussion about the budget that lasted over two hours. The council eventually voted 4–3 in favor of passing the budget with no additional pay for workers.

The first responders’ demands didn’t come out of nowhere. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, pay increases for all city workers were suspended due to financial uncertainty and the first responders had been vocal during the budget negotiating period for the 2023-2024 fiscal year.

But it’s not as clear why, suddenly at the September 5 council meeting, sanitation workers, who had far less representation during the budgeting cycle negotiations compared to their public safety colleagues, brought demands for higher salaries and bonuses before the council.

With no immediate action from the council on the workers’ demands, employees from the city’s solid waste department went on strike for five days. UE Local 150—a union that represents public workers and has chapters across the state with the goals of securing “better wages and working conditions and protection from unfair treatment”—helped organize the workers and guide them in their negotiations with the city. UE Local 150 aims to eventually establish collective bargaining rights for public employees in North Carolina.

“When workers delivered their petition at the council meeting, they were hoping for there to be some concrete movement to implement that,” says Dante Strobino, a UE International representative. “Instead they just got ‘supportive’ political platitudes and nothing concrete. That night after the council meeting, frustrated and seeing this dragging on endlessly, they decided to take some determined action.”

City functions

North Carolina General Statute 95-98.1 prohibits public employees from striking, making the sanitation workers’ strike an illegal one. The statute applies to employees at any level of government within North Carolina. While council members say they’re understanding of the workers’ plight, many of them have said their hands are tied when it comes to raising salaries off-budget and are wary of actions the state may take against them if they’re seen as being too sympathetic toward the striking workers.

“Somebody [in state government] sent us an email, and sent us the statute that talks about what you’re supposed to do when you engage in collective bargaining,” Middleton said during a September 21 work session. “It talked about what happens to employees who engage in the strike. I invite you to Google that. So they’re watching what we’re doing here. They’re watching Durham.”

Engaging in a strike is a Class 1 misdemeanor in North Carolina, and employees who walk off the job are not legally protected. They could be fired on the spot. And while city officials didn’t take such drastic action in response, they’re still at the mercy of state law. 

Instead of terminating workers during the work stoppage, the city hired contractors from Waste Industries, a subsidiary of GFL Environmental Inc., to collect city residents’ trash and recycling. That’s not an uncommon practice for cities like Durham, according to city attorney Kimberly Rehberg.

“Cities provide public services in a range of methods,” Rehberg says. “Some cities have people fully employed in-house to provide a wide array of services. Some of them use private contractors to handle many of their governmental activities and functions.”

Rehberg adds that certain jobs that fall under the city’s purview may require specific skills that its workers don’t have, or the volume of work may be too high for just city staff to manage. Citywide emergencies, like the storm that ripped through the Triangle in August, are situations where the city might contract out additional support.

“A lot of it tends to be based on the size of the municipality,” Rehberg continues. “A city the size of Durham, or Raleigh, or Greensboro, or Charlotte is going to have a lot more capacity but also a much larger population to service, and given the scale, it is going to make more sense to have employees employed by the city. Still, even the largest cities routinely use private contractors for specialized activities and exceptional service needs”

Still, the move angered the sanitation employees, who felt the money spent on contractors could have been put toward the workers’ demands.

But Middleton said the council has a responsibility to the city’s residents.

“When the strike started and garbage was on the street, the government has no choice,” he said, “because it is now an emergency situation, to do whatever it has to do to make sure disease is not spread through the city, to make sure that the garbage gets picked up.”

By the numbers

At the direction of council, city manager Page proposed onetime bonuses for all employees across four salary tiers: salaries less than $57,000 would receive $3,000 bonuses; salaries between $57,000 and $90,000 receive $2,500 bonuses; salaries more than $90,000 receive $2,000; and part-time employees receive $1,000. The bonuses would be administered from the city’s fund balance.

Durham’s General Fund, which provides funding for core city services, is $281.5 million for the 2023–24 fiscal year. The city is required to have at least 16.7 percent in its fund balance—the city’s savings, to operate in case of emergency. According to city staff, Durham operates at around 25 percent savings.

The total fund balance isn’t set until after the previous year’s budget is already adopted. Additional revenues come in that the city can’t fully account for prior to its annual budget deadline in June, so that money is added to the fund balance. From there, the city manager and their staff can make recommendations for how to allocate the extra funding that is left after meeting the 25 percent threshold. Those extra funds can only be used for onetime expenditures. In previous years, the city purchased things like new trucks and other equipment upgrades.

Christina Riordan, the interim director of budget and maintenance services, explained at the September 21 council work session that the money for the bonuses would come out of the city’s reserve funds and, accordingly, why the city can’t raise salaries outside of the last budget cycle. 

“Fund balance and reserve maintenance are important because they provide financial safety nets in the event of emergencies, economic downtowns, or other unforeseen circumstances,” Riordan said. “Fund balance and reserve maintenance are also major factors considered by bond rating agencies when evaluating the city’s creditworthiness.”

But the council didn’t approve the proposed bonuses, and at the end of the work session, members directed Page and her staff to rework the structure so that employees at the lower end of the pay scale would receive more in bonuses and those at the higher end would receive less.

This weekend, Page returned with three options, on which the council will vote this month. The updated proposal offers onetime bonuses to employees based on Durham’s area median income (AMI). All three options include $5,000 bonuses for employees making under 60 percent of the AMI, which is calculated to be roughly $42,480 for one person.

The workers’ other demand, an increase in annual compensation, will have to wait until after the city conducts its pay study and proposes market-based salary adjustments in the budget for the next fiscal year. City staff conduct market studies on a regular basis to assess whether the city offers competitive employee compensation packages. The pay study is scheduled to begin this month.


It will take months to complete the pay study, and any raises likely won’t be approved until the new budget is adopted next summer. And while city employees are likely to get their bonuses in November, it’s time that they say they don’t have. The cost of living has increased exponentially, workers say, and many say they can’t afford to live in the city limits.

“Just about everyone lives abroad,” says solid waste employee John Burwell. “Very few live in Durham. Different places, they’re spread out. You can barely afford Durham. It’s outrageous.”

The property tax rate in Durham is 55.77¢ per $100 of assessed value, meaning a house valued at $244,538, the median in Durham, would generate a tax bill of $1,364, according to the Durham County website.

Outgoing city council member Jillian Johnson says that once the pay study wraps, it’s probably a good time for the city to consider raising taxes.

“Taxes in this community are really low,” Johnson said during the budget meeting back in June. “Property tax … hits lower-income residents harder than higher-income residents. So raising the property tax rate in a housing crisis is a really difficult decision and really hard to sell to a community that’s already struggling.”

While raising taxes is a hard sell, as Johnson said, the results of the pay study will likely indicate a need to also raise salaries. And in order to provide those salary increases, the next city council could be looking at having to increase property tax rates, a decision that could prove to be politically unpopular.

Still, some council members are trying to leverage the workers’ strike and demands for salary increases into a campaign issue.

“Let’s stop playing who’s for it and who’s not for it. Everybody has seen who is for it,” said Holsey-Hyman during a city work session.

“It’s really hard, especially what I’ve been through, to sit here and say, ‘Oh yes, we care about you. Oh yes, we support you,’ but then you’re not moving in the direction you could have moved in a long time ago.”

Willie Brown, a public works employee and UE Local 150 member, worked with other city employees to host a candidate forum last week at Lyon Park where workers could ask questions about issues that are important to them. Brown was a CDL truck driver for years before joining the city over a year ago. He and his wife settled in the Triangle to help raise their grandchildren. Brown remains concerned that life in Durham is becoming increasingly harder.

“As a disabled veteran, my wife has to go to the VA department in Durham, so we tried our best to get a home in Durham, but we were unable to afford a house,” says Brown. “I live in Knightdale, and I travel 45 minutes every day to work in Durham. I actually love it, but it’s too far.”

Montrell Perry, a Durham solid waste department employee, asks Durham City Council candidates a question during the recent city council and mayoral candidate forum. Credit: Angelica Edwards

At the candidate forum, workers shifted between cracking jokes with one another as they enjoyed the catered Alpaca and listening intently to candidates as they made their cases for election. One by one, workers approached the stage to ask their questions to the group. 

George Bacote, a solid waste employee who moved to Durham from New Jersey in 2014, asked the panelists about their experience engaging with federal and state agencies, as these are the ones with the power to most directly impact workers’ rights.  

Bacote moved to Durham after his sister relocated to the Triangle to pursue degrees at NC Central University and UNC. He said this experience with the city has been stressful but that he’s learned to “hold people to their word, and listen closely.”

Bacote says he didn’t engage with politics much before. 

“Nobody in my community, neither. Nobody in the neighborhood,” he adds. “I mean, we were always taught to vote Democrat. That’s pretty much it.” 

Now that he’s seen how it impacts him more directly, Bacote says he’s excited to continue participating in the process. 

“I’m here for the long run.”

The crowd was mostly in good spirits, even as folks asked candidates tough questions. But James Davis sat in the back of the room with his arms crossed, unimpressed with the candidate’s answers. He couldn’t resist firing back after mayoral candidate Leonardo Williams finished responding to one of the prompts.

“Wasn’t you against us?” blurted Davis, referring to the 4–3 vote in favor of passing the budget in June. 

On the brink of securing a major victory, workers like Burwell, Bacote, Brown, and Davis have been clear that fair pay has been at the center of the ongoing tension between the city and its employees. But to these workers and their union counterparts, it’s only part of the equation. There’s also the question of what paying workers a fair wage represents: dignity for those who do some of the city’s least appealing, physically challenging, and most dangerous—but ultimately crucial—jobs. 

It’s a matter of respect.

“Money ain’t everything,” Davis says. “It’ll help you live, but it ain’t everything.”

Durham Solid Waste and Public Works department employees attend a forum at the Community Family Life & Recreation Center at Lyon Park in Durham. Credit: Angelica Edwards

Follow Reporter Justin Laidlaw on Twitter or send an email to jlaidlaw@indyweek.com. Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com

Support independent local journalism

Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.