NEW YORK, N.Y.—Pedro Garcia was 17 when he started working at Sanitation Salvage, the Bronx commercial-trash hauler that closed abruptly last November after it failed to cover up the death of Mouctar Diallo, a 21-year-old Guinean immigrant who was working off the books as a helper.
The workers there supposedly had a union, Local 124 of the Recycling, Airport, and Industrial Service Employees Union, sometimes called Local 741, but when Garcia asked a representative why they hadn’t gotten a contract for two years, he got a surprising answer.
“He told me with a straight face, ‘We’re trying to come up with something that’s good for the company,’” Garcia, now 21, told LaborPress after a rally at City Hall Jan. 29. “I told him, ‘Bro, you’re supposed to work for us.’”
The rally hailed the introduction of three City Council bills intended to crack down on “sham unions” in the private sanitation industry. Intro 1329, sponsored by Councilmember Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn), would expand the city Business Integrity Commission’s jurisdiction to regulate unions operating in the industry as well as businesses, and give it the power to bar unions or officials connected to organized crime. Intro 1373, also sponsored by Reynoso, would require the BIC to report violations of wage and hour laws to state and federal authorities. Intro 1368, sponsored by Francisco P. Moya (D-Queens), would require private trash haulers to inform workers about their rights.
The existence of “fake unions” is “something we have to start changing in this industry,” Reynoso told the rally. “We can make this right by allowing for the right representation at these companies.”
Company unions exist in other industries, says Lou Pikani, president of Teamsters Local 456 in Westchester County. There’s one there, he told LaborPress, that represents concrete workers who “don’t even know they belong.” In 2016, when Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ was trying to organize workers at Airway Cleaners, a contractor at Boston’s Logan Airport and Reagan Airport outside Washington, Local 124 intervened as a competing alternative—but 32BJ won the election, 92-2.
They’re particularly common in private sanitation, however. The Teamsters, who represent workers at several private haulers, has identified seven in the industry in the New York area, “independent” groups not affiliated with any recognized labor organization, as what Joint Council 16 head George Miranda has called “phantom unions.”
They include Local 124, which ousted Laborers Local 108 at Sanitation Salvage in a 2012 election after company officials threatened to fire Local 108 supporters. LIFE 890, run out of a row house in Bay Ridge, ousted Teamsters Local 813 at Planet Waste in Maspeth in 2017 under similar circumstances, and represents workers at Five Star Carting and Boro-Wide Recycling, two of the city’s largest commercial-waste haulers. United Workers of America Local 660 is based in a private mailbox in Great Neck, according to federal court records from 2015, and was listed as “employer” in the Airway Cleaners case, according to National Labor Relations Board records.
Their sole purpose is to keep out legitimate unions and protect the employer. — Local 813 President Sean Campbell
“Their sole purpose is to keep out legitimate unions and protect the employer,” Local 813 President Sean Campbell told LaborPress before the rally. They don’t give workers representation or benefits, he said, and many officials come from organized-crime backgrounds. The investigative-journalism site ProPublica reported in 2018 that two top officials in Local 124 and LIFE 890 were affiliated with the Cosa Nostra, including one who collected a salary from Local 124 while in prison.
“Real unions don’t work with their employers to lower wages,” Miranda told the rally. “Real unions don’t operate out of a townhouse or a post-office box.”
Sanitation Salvage closed owing its employees back pay, according to former workers at the rally. But they have been placed in jobs at unionized carters. Garcia now works at Royal Waste, and is a member of Local 813.
Most said they started at Sanitation Salvage as teenagers, working off the books as helpers, with no training beyond being told to pick up garbage bags and throw them in the back of the truck. Alex Amante was 16. Manuel Matias was 17, making $65 for an overnight shift with 1,000 to 1,500 stops “in all kinds of weather.” John Carlos Rojas, 24, said he made $70 to $80 working from 7:30 at night to 11 the next morning, six days a week.
“We got hurt, we didn’t think about going to the doctor,” says Amante, now 28. “All we knew is we had the job tomorrow.”
Anthony Carmona spent five years in a company-union job at Viking in Brooklyn. “No matter how many hours I worked, I made $120 a night,” he told the rally. The company didn’t provide gloves, and he would have gotten fired if he’d called in sick.
He now works at Waste Connections, a Laborers/Teamsters shop in Brooklyn. “Now I get paid $24 an hour, for eight hours,” he said, and the company has given him a hat and sweaters for winter work, training, and medical benefits.
“The job would be a lot easier, a lot safer, if no one was trying to take advantage of you,” he told LaborPress. “Union equals safety.”