Garbage Collection – A New Peace Corps?

I have been listening to candidates – at every level – talk about spending problems. In every election, there is a candidate whose main platform is that, “We pay those darned union workers too much. We need to outsource the services so we can pay less!!!!!”

I must say, each time I hear this argument, I better understand why the unions are so defensive about giving up anything. Were I a member, I would take as axiomatic that any time I let down my guard, someone will freeze or reduce my salary and benefits, contract be damned.

Still, I think that the “spending problem” is not based on agreements with the unions. I believe the spending problem is structural. It has to exist based on the structure of the civil service. I believe a structural change can ease or eliminate the spending issue, while driving immensely greater immediate and long-term value.

I will use the example of garbage collection to discuss this concept.

Let me state some assumptions first. Please let me know if you believe these assumptions are incorrect.

  • Outsourced, contracted garbage collection is cheaper that that provided by municipalities using unionized workers
  • Non-union garbage collection workers earn less and have lesser (if any) benefits than unionized garbage workers
  • Turnover of non-union garbage collection workers is higher than of unionized municipal workers
  • Workers want to earn more each year
  • Workers will push for higher wages and benefits
  • Unionized sanitation workers expect to continue working a longer period of time, including a possibility of retirement from the position
  • Older sanitation workers are slower than younger workers
  • Older sanitation workers are more prone to occupational injury than younger workers
  • Manual or less skilled jobs are populated by workers with a lower level of education (high school graduate or less)
  • Manual or less skilled jobs are populated by immigrants who are will to do less pleasant jobs
  • Young people are less likely to apply for sanitation jobs as they view them as beneath them and/or dead end jobs.

There are some other assumptions which more reflect conventional wisdom. Are they right? Good question.

  • The jobs of the future require greater education
  • Many people are unready or unsuited for university or college at 18
  • Many do not have the money for university or college
  • Many have other responsibilities (i.e. family) which prevent their attending university

Assumptions being stated, here is my idea. I will try to be concise.

What if we changed the structure and concept of garbage collection from a career with the city to a way to enhance oneself? More specifically, what if restructured municipal garbage collection so that it reflected:

  • Municipal garbage collection is not meant to be a career;
  • Municipal garbage collectors will earn a decent living;
  • Municipal garbage workers are expected to work no longer than 10 years, during which they are expected to complete a degree or certificate in a specified educational stream.

Imagine that we set the expectations that most municipal workers will be replaced after 10 years. Except for a very small group which is needed to refresh the management ranks, everyone else would be released after 10 years.

The core of the idea is that each garbage collector would be required to carry a course load toward a degree or similar recognition of higher education while they are working. And the courses would be subsidized or paid entirely by the municipality. So a worker could carry 1-2 courses per year and finish their stint with the municipal service with a valuable education and real work experience.


  • The worker gains a valuable education
  • The city gains a potentially much more valuable worker
  • The city gains a potentially loyal supporter
  • The province and country benefit
  • The city does not have to address long term workers in the garbage collection service
  • Effort saving devices are not required, as younger collectors need them less
  • Reduced health coverage costs for older workers
  • Reduced pension requirements
  • Reduced likelihood of strikes as workers are not benefiting purely financially

Is this fair to older workers? I say yes. I don’t believe that there is a right for a worker to stay in a job where he/she is continually becoming less physically capable and earning progressively more each year. That way lies higher costs and strikes.

The idea right now is not fully formed but I think it is food for thought. I believe it would be much more nourishing than the recurring theme of “Fire them all and outsource the service!”

Thanks in advance for your feedback.


  1. High-minded (idealistic) principles, but:

    1. the system won’t be able to deliver step-up jobs after training/education has been completed; the perceived risk of this will kill recruiting; actual failure will be fatal

    2. not everyone does aspire to better work thru effort, be it intellectual or physical or knowledge; many are quite happy to stay put; work is an not important part of their life except to pay bills – this is true human nature of a sizable portion of work force, even white collar

    3. world is changing, but unions are not, they are intrinsically hostile to change; they’re the last bastion of out-moded thinking and rigid attitudes, only hopes are generational (ie, old guys gradually die out) & technology IMHO

  2. Thank you for your feedback. I would like to address your points in the context of the suggested strategy. I would be pleased to receive any additional feedback.

    1. I do not suggest that these trained/educated will be given step-up jobs in the municipal service. Quite the opposite, I expect that they, like other graduates, will be qualified for jobs in private or public industry. Additionally, I think that the quality of graduate, having real-world work experience, will be quite high. The value of the education will be quite high and the graduate will be in an optimal position for employment and with no student loans.

    2. not everyone does aspire to better work thru effort, be it intellectual or physical or knowledge; many are quite happy to stay put; work is an not important part of their life except to pay bills – this is true human nature of a sizable portion of work force, even white collar

    2. You are quite correct. Many people are quite happy to stay put, earning a basic living. What I suggest is that we change this municipal service so that it is not a place where such workers are welcomed. This is a big change.

    3. The unions will likely not wear this suggestion well. However, they are facing increasing public pressure for this service to be contracted out, eliminating their members from this municipal job. I believe this idea would have positive public response and a large application base. After all, it suggest a job paying decent wages combined with a post-secondary education. A high school graduate could earn a living, gain independence and get an education which would then provide opportunities for even greater gain. And private industry would gain an educated worker with a proven work ethic. I believe it to be a win, win, win idea.

    Worker – Win
    City – Win
    Private Employers – Win

    Finally, the union need not be supplanted. They still play a part in protecting the workers pay and benefits. They would have to learn to do so within the new paradigm.


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