Half of Seattle garbage truck drivers didn't show up for work today, prompting Waste Management to call in replacement workers from across the nation, with the first drivers expected to land in Seattle at any minute.

“We are activating our contingency plan,” company spokesperson Jackie Lang said. “The first step is bringing in professional waste management drivers from other parts of the country. We’ll bring them in in waves.”

The strike began yesterday morning (check out the Seattle Times article), although the union voted to authorize a strike at the end of March. In response, Waste Management flew in replacement workers but sent them home again when no strike materialized. Now the process will begin again, with the first replacement, or “scab,” workers due to arrive today. Lang says that she expects it to take “a few days” for the company to get back up to its full capacity.

They’d better hope so. Waste Management’s contract with Seattle and other cities around the region requires the company to collect garbage strike or no strike. In Seattle, the company will be subject to heavy fines, and potentially a city takeover if they do not resume services in a week (although such occurrences are extremely rare). The Teamsters are counting on this pressure to use as leverage against the company, as I reported last week.

The garbage strike, which affects one million residents in King and Snohomish counties, is the culmination of a multi-week long labor dispute between the transnational trash company Waste Management and its Seattle King County area workforce, represented by Teamsters Local 174. The conflict centers around contentious contract negotiations: Management has offered an incremental five year wage hike coupled with weakened health and pension benefits, while the drivers insist that their contract should match those offered by other regional trash companies.

Both sides claim they are willing to negotiate again. “We are engaged and very much interested in going back to the bargaining table,” Lang said. “The last, best, final offer is where the conversation begins from our perspective.” Lang says that Waste Management has flooded the Teamsters with letters offering to meet in good faith, the latest sent this very morning, all to no avail.

Teamsters spokesperson Michael Gonzales disputes this account. “We offered to bargain with them on Tuesday of this week, but they declined the offer,” Gonzales said. “They said they already had ‘a previous engagement’. I don’t know what’s more important than providing service to a million people in King and Snohomish counties.” He says that the letters the Teamsters receive describe the company as willing to sit down and meet, not sit down and bargain “which is what they are required to do by law.”

King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn issued a joint statement to the Teamsters and Waste Management yesterday, urging a swift resolution to the dispute.

“We believe a solution can best be reached at the bargaining table. We urge both parties to redouble their efforts to negotiate in good faith to achieve a fair, just, and sustainable contract so that service may recommence immediately while bargaining continues.”

Waste Management’s contract with the city covers northwest and south Seattle. Both sides have websites that offer updates on the action. The Teamsters have Seattle Trash Watch, while Waste Management a “strike information” page with details about service interruptions.