April 21, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – Workers at Allstate Power Vac in Brooklyn descend into the sewers to clean electrical equipment—and they’re calling their employer a rat for not giving them their first union contract.
The about 75 employees voted last November to join Teamsters Local 813, but Allstate has been “stalling, not committing to anything,” says operator-driver Reginald Riddick. He was one of about four dozen people who picketed April 20 outside the company’s offices in the East Williamsburg industrial zone.
“They’re not bargaining in good faith,” said Local 813 President Sean Campbell. Allstate will send over its proposal barely 24 hours before a negotiating session is scheduled to start, he explained, and then walk out when the union bargaining committee spends 45 minutes to an hour discussing it, telling them, “you took too long.” The committee members are then docked for not being at work, he added.
Allstate’s spokesperson was unavailable for comment. The company calls itself a “leader and innovator in industrial and environmental services, helping to solve America’s toughest waste problems.” It has facilities in nine states, from Maine to Wisconsin.
The Brooklyn workers operate flush trucks that power-wash and vacuum underground electrical equipment such as transformers to prepare them for maintenance by utilities, particularly Con Ed. They also clean up hazardous waste such as oil spills, as well as oil tanks and boilers.
Many work more than the federal Department of Transportation maximum of 70 hours a week for truck drivers, says Riddick—sometimes more than 16 hours a day. Operator-drivers earn around $17-18 per hour, while technicians, the workers who go into the sewers, make $12-14.
“They have a very dangerous job,” says Campbell. “Lead, toxic material, high voltage.”
Last year, one worker was “shaken up” when water hit a high-voltage cable he was working on and set off a small explosion, says Riddick. Another one, from a temp agency, was shocked when his clothes snagged on a wire. Con Ed told Allstate not to use temps any more after that, according to Riddick, because “they were not trained to be in those holes.”
The company has also been trying to undermine the union by offering some workers $2 an hour pay increases and then telling them “the union won’t let us give you a raise,” said Campbell. “They want to pick and choose who they give raises to.”
“The reason we’re here is bringing the waste industry up to the standards of Teamsters in New York,” organizer James Curbeam told the crowd, an almost all-male mix of Teamsters in black and gold jackets and sanitation workers from Local 831 in green. “We’re here to shine a light on the rats of this industry.” State Senator Jose Peralta (D-Queens) and City Councilmember Rory Lancman (D-Queens) also spoke.
Low pay, hazardous conditions, and lack of respect from employers are “endemic among sanitation companies,” Campbell said in a statement put out by Teamsters Joint Council 16. Field technician Josh Morris, who has worked at Allstate for six years, said the company demoted him and threatened to fire him after he joined the union negotiating committee.
“We’ve come to the table respectable,” Campbell told the crowd. “We’re going to follow them to every manhole, every sewer cover.”