RALEIGH — To understand Raleigh -- its size, its growth, its taste in beverages -- is to see it through the windshield of a recycling truck.
After 12 hours walking asphalt, sweat forms thick beads on Felix Butler's temples, and his work suit is wet from shoulders to knees.
It's 7:30 p.m. on a blistering August night, and the 52-year-old is still toting bins of beer cans. He compares the job to being boiled alive, and he pauses to cough up fluid on a Glenwood Avenue corner.
Such work conditions helped feed Wednesday morning's protest, when workers in all areas of solid waste refused to take out their trucks. They demanded that the city address a work environment plagued by a short-handed staff, 14-hour days and what they call empty promises from management. They are tired of taking the blame for a steady rise in complaints about missed pickup, now more than double where they stood in February.
Some, such as Butler, commute from Harnett County, where decent-paying jobs are few. Others drive from Henderson or Rocky Mount, logging more than 100 miles a day to make $11 an hour.
Their workdays increasingly stretch past sunset, and by the time Butler finishes his half-hour commute, it's time for bed.
"My dog doesn't even know me," said Butler, a three-year veteran earning about $23,000 a year. "He barks at me when I get home."
Garbage collectors, who mostly work alone driving new trucks equipped with a mechanical arm that picks up cans, sweat through the same marathon days.
"Ten hours is enough for one day," said Ronald McClain, an 18-year veteran from Knightdale. "If you do 1,000 cans a day, they might have 300 or 400 cans waiting on you when you get through. If you work past 5:30, you don't get no more money."
The cost of efficiency
Recycling crews spend whole days navigating the cul-de-sacs and dead-end streets of North Raleigh, sometimes making three-point turns to collect a single bin.
The new recycling system, which requires less sorting at the street and allows more items to be left out, was supposed to make the job easier. That efficiency would allow six fewer laborers on the recycling crew, city leaders reasoned.
But pass an hour on a typical route, and it is clear that Butler's job is still a slog.
Often, residents have stuffed wads of paper among the cans, and it takes Butler longer to fish it out with heavy gloves.
One North Raleigh family recently piled so many cardboard boxes at the street in August that it took Butler and his driver four minutes to break them down.
When he addressed protesting workers Wednesday, Assistant City Manager Lawrence Wray told them he worked in Raleigh sanitation long ago and had ridden with crews more recently.
"You've got one of the hardest jobs in the city to do," he said. "It's a hard job. It's not a clean job."
Workers still value jobs
Many workers, Butler among them, are 40 or 50 -- happy to have the work, worried that they couldn't find another that pays as much or comes with health insurance and other benefits.
Many are also illiterate. Butler tells of the time a supervisor lined up all the crewmen and asked those who couldn't read to face the wall. About a third did.
Others are temporary workers who earn no benefits, such as Fred Jackson, a three-year veteran from Raleigh.
"I can't even get shoes," Jackson said of the required steel-toed boots others are issued.
Some city workers say they will happily work long hours. They even want the chance to work extra time on Saturdays or Monday, off-schedule days that pay more.
But they want to make the choice themselves, and they want some consistency in how they are compensated.
Last month, Butler and his driver finished their day at 5:30 p.m., a normal 10-hour day in their four-day week. When they got to the yard on West Peace Street, he said, a supervisor told them to turn around and pick up unfinished routes or be fired.
Those hours came not only during blistering heat, but also during the driving rain of Tropical Storm Ernesto.
"I'm like a duck playing in water," Butler said as he picked up recycling through the storm.
Complaints all around
Knock on a few doors around the city, and you'll hear the other end of the workers' complaints.
On Gardner Street in West Raleigh, residents say they have seen bins stay out four or five days past the collection date.
"There was kind of a mini-rebellion out here," said Sonnya Quinn, who lives there and works in real estate. "People just left their stuff out. If this is a new system, the system is broken down."
Crewmen say citizens have a right to complain. They pay taxes and deserve better service. But they also say they hope people understand the job is tough and pay is small, and that a tired worker will eventually get to their door.
Butler called on a Tuesday night to report his progress, wrapping up work at 8 p.m. when Raleigh's streets had gone dark.
"We still out here, man," he says.