May 7, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco
Bronx, NY – Woodlawn Cemetery’s “Band of Brothers” have teamed up with the community and are vowing to forge ahead with their long fight against a management team they say is discriminatory – but the union representing workers at the landmark graveyard says they’re now on their own.
“That is an issue between them and the company,” Local 808 Spokesperson Chris Silvera told LaborPress. “It does not involve the union at all.”
The statement constitutes a full one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn from the position the union had just two years ago, when Teamsters Local 808 stood squarely behind the “Band of Brothers” – workers Todd Brown Enrique Coss, Alex Coss and Frank Russo.
For the last few years, the small group of Woodlawn Cemetery workers have been leading a campaign against job outsourcing and alleged racial discrimination at the 150-year-old funeral grounds.
Woodlawn Cemetery was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011, and is the final resting place of great Jazz legends Duke Ellington, Celia Cruz, Miles Davis and Max Roach, in addition to host of other prominent figures from American life.
Recently, the “Band of Brothers” stepped up their efforts, filing a federal lawsuit charging CEO John Toale and the rest of the Woodlawn Cemetery management team with civil rights violations. But that same move has also upset Silvera and the union leadership.
“As I understand it, part of that lawsuit claims that the workers themselves that are represented by Local 808 are a party to the discrimination process,” Silvera said. “So, if it is alleged that they were a part of it, where does the union stand?”
The “Band of Brothers,” says that they are shocked by Silvera’s comments, but that they are also standing up for Woodlawn workers agianst discrimination.
It bothers me,” Alex Coss said. “I understand that he still has an obligation to union members there, but at the same time we were the ones – Todd, Rick and myself – who reached out to 808. We did a lot of organizing to get 808 in there. We did a lot of organizing to got the men to elect 808.”
United Service Workers Union Local 74 had been representing Woodlawn caretakers up until about three years ago, when workers voted to bring in the Teamsters. Their current contract expires at the end of the year.
According to the “Band of Brothers,” an increasing number of private contractors have been hired to tend to Woodlawn’s sprawling 400-acre site.
Of the four original members of the group, only Enrique Cross is still working at Woodlawn Cemetery. Both Todd Brown and Alex Cross were laid-off. Russo is currently battling a brain tumor and is contemplating surgery. The veteran employee says he left Woodlawn after decades of service because the abuses he suffered on the job were exacerbating his medical problems.
“We took a grievance to arbitration and the arbitrator ruled that the company was within its rights to lay them off,” Silvera said.
Those layoffs, however, have reportedly had a chilling effect on many who still have jobs at Woodlawn Cemetery.
“Since the layoffs of the workers, including Todd Brown and Alex Coss, many of them [still employed] are overworked, extremely low on manpower, and are afraid to say anything because they do not want to suffer the same fate as both Todd and Alex,” Enrique Coss said in an e-mail.
Silvera, however, says that “Those people that are working there have no complaints at all.”
“They come to work, they do what they got to do and they go home,” Silvera said. “I’m sure that things have happened and been said over the years that probably happen on every worksite. I would agree that the management of Woodlawn Cemetery runs Woodlawn like it’s a plantation. They’re certainly not a nice company.”
“We are very surprised that a spokesperson for the union made the comments and reported that there are no complaints by the workers at Woodlawn,” Enrique Coss added. “We can assure everyone that workers and foremen have complained to us in the past and are currently complaining to us now about the conditions at the Cemetery. The workers have witnessed the way we were treated and retaliated against when we protested, so it keeps them from speaking out.”
A judge involved in the federal lawsuit has reportedly already assigned a mediator to the case, and meetings between the “Band of Brothers” and Woodlawn management are expected to begin soon.
“We are not going to push this under the table,” Brown said. “This is not only a discrimination case, this is an attack on the working class.”