Garbage truck drivers for Republic Services in Fort Mill have joined the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
The drivers voted 30 to 24 earlier this month to become members of Local 71, which is based in Charlotte. They are believed to be the first unionized garbage collectors in the region.
Drivers who advocated for the union said they sought outside help because the company did not respect them and would not listen to their concerns when it came to safety, health and pay issues.
Republic Services said in a statement from its company headquarters in Phoenix, Ariz., "we are disappointed that our employees chose to join a union but we respect their right to do so.
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"Our goal has been, and will remain, to treat all of our employees with respect and dignity, and to address their concerns. Republic has one of the best safety records in the waste industry and has made safety one of our top priorities."
Republic driver Sean Burland, who lives in Rock Hill, said, "we are not asking for crazy things. We want what is good for everyone. This is a new day for everybody and change can be difficult. But we are making changes that should have been done a long time ago."
The newly organized drivers are forming their collective bargaining unit, said driver Rayford Harris Sr., who has worked for the company or its predecessors for the last 26 years. The union team will have six members and will represent 55 drivers.
Specific demands are being developed and will be presented to the company through the Teamsters. Negotiations could start in March, he said. Harris said the drivers' relationship with management has been strained since the union vote.
Harris was one of the drivers who pushed for the union. He said he went to management on numerous occasions to discuss compensation, fair discipline standards and health concerns, "but I was ignored."
"This has been a bad situation for years," he said. "We now have a voice and can make things happen. We are not here to break this company."
The union certification came just before Gov. Nikki Haley's comments that state's anti-union status is her best tool in recruiting businesses to South Carolina.
Earlier this week, Republican legislators proposed increasing the penalties for unions that break state law, and requiring unions to submit their financial data to the state. Unions already file most of the data with the federal Department of Labor.
Haley has signed an executive order to ensure striking workers won't get unemployment benefits.
South Carolina law already disqualifies unemployment insurance for striking workers. The order is designed to ensure the state's unemployment agency knows when workers are striking, and to prevent companies from having to fight a claim for benefits.
As a right-to-work state, employees cannot be required to join a union as a condition of employment.
The certification of the Fort Mill election was the fifth successful union election in South Carolina in a year's time, according to the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees union elections. Since November of 2010, about 530 workers have joined unions statewide.
Harris said his union dues will be about $600 annually and worth the expense, he said. "This was a mountain that had to be conquered. It will give the union a chance to enhance all of us."