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NYC Council Passes Bill To Curb ‘Sham’ Sanitation Unions

March 1, 2019

By Steve Wishnia

NEW YORK, N.Y.—The City Council unanimously passed a bill Feb. 28 that would give sanitation-industry regulators the power to take on company unions at private commercial-trash haulers.

Advocates for private trash haulers gather on the steps of City Hall to applaud passage of new regulations.

Intro 1329, approved 46-0, would mandate that the city Business Integrity Commission register labor unions representing workers in the trade waste industry. That would include information about union officers’ criminal records or whether they were the subject of a criminal or regulatory investigation. The BIC would have the power to disqualify or suspend officers with criminal records relevant to the industry or associated with people known to be connected to organized crime.

The measure is aimed at so-called “independent unions” such as LIFE 890 and Local 124 of the Recycling, Airport, and Industrial Service Employees Union, shadowy and often mob-connected organizations that have worked with management to oust unions such as the Teamsters and the Laborers from representing workers at private trash haulers. The BIC, established in 1996 to take on mob domination of the industry, has not had the authority to oversee unions in it.

“For years, sanitation companies have used fake unions to deny their employees the ability to fully exercise their labor rights and join a legitimate union like the Teamsters. Many of these so-called unions work with employers behind closed doors to keep down wages and undermine safety conditions,” Teamsters Local 813 President Sean Campbell said in a statement. “This legislation closes a loophole in the Business Integrity Commission’s authority that allowed individuals who would never be allowed to own a private carting company in the city to remain in the industry as officer of a sham union.”

“We are not talking about unions like the Teamsters, DC 37, or 1199, organizations that have a long history of fighting for their members and delivering meaningful benefits to workers,” Councilmember Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn), the bill’s sponsor, said at a Sanitation Committee hearing on the bill Jan. 29. The BIC has rooted much of organized crime out of the industry, he added, but its lack of oversight authority over “sham unions” has given organized crime a way to stay involved.

The legislation “is not a cure-all,” BIC Commissioner Dan Brownell testified at that hearing. It does not give the commission the power to oust a particular union, he said, “but by requiring the union officials to submit to our background check, we will learn a great deal about who runs the union, and can disqualify officials who should not be involved in this heavily regulated industry.”

At Sanitation Salvage in the Bronx, Campbell told the committee, workers were Local 813 members until 2005 — when they “were told to sign a piece of paper without knowing that it was that they were signing. The next thing they knew, they were members of Local 124 and didn’t have a pension.”

“They made us sign a paper saying that if we don’t sign it, you will be fired,” former Sanitation Salvage worker Donmar Patterson testified. “So, we all signed the paper in like 2005. Then we went down from 20-something dollars to like $500 a week. It didn’t matter how many hours we worked.”

“They made us sign a paper saying that if we don’t sign it, you will be fired. So, we all signed the paper in like 2005. Then we went down from 20-something dollars to like $500 a week. It didn’t matter how many hours we worked. — Former Sanitation Salvage worker Donmar Patterson

The results, Teamsters organizer Adam Henry told the committee, was that helpers who had made $22.12 an hour in 2005 got $13.50 in 2018, while drivers who had made $22.43 were getting $22. Their pension plan, severance pay, and nine paid holidays were all “gone.”

Sanitation Salvage closed last November after a number of safety scandals, including claiming that a 21-year-old helper who fell under a truck while working off the books was a homeless man.

No representatives from any of the unions in question testified at the January hearing. Steven Changaris of the National Waste and Recycling Association trade group endorsed it. “You can’t have someone else in the marketplace violating the rules,” he said.

But Kendall Christensen, executive director of New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management — a trade group whose members include Five Star Carting, Boro-Wide Recycling and Century Waste, where workers are represented by LIFE 890, and before it closed, Sanitation Salvage — said his organization was “generally supportive” of the bill. 

Its reason, he said, was that it showed that issues could be “addressed by the existing regulatory system operated by BIC,” instead of by the city creating geographic zones and assigning one company to each one.

Local 813 is advocating that the City Council enact such a system. Local 813’s Campbell said in a statement Feb. 28 that it would “dramatically cut truck traffic” and enable the city to hold these companies to “high labor, environmental, and safety standards.”

Melissa Esham, a senior staff attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, told the Council in January that the bill was “an essential first step towards ridding this industry of sham unions,” but without “rigorous and full enforcement,” it would not be enough. The BIC, she said, often resolves violations such as companies hiring workers off the books with settlements, rather than ruling that the company doesn’t have the honesty and integrity to operate in the industry.

March 1, 2019

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