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Sifting through debris may not seem like the best job, but Ramon Perez had no complaints. A Mexican immigrant, Perez separated glass and plastics for five years at the Allied Waste recycling plant in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and his job had become a promising one. After he joined the Laborers Local 108 in 1998, Perez's wages increased from below the minimum wage to $8.75 an hour; he got health coverage, vacation time, and other benefits. Some workers made as much as $13.75 an hour. "After the union came in, my life changed 100 percent," Perez said. "It changed for everybody."
And his job seemed secure: If there's one thing New York produces in abundance, it's trash, so the market would always be there. Besides, recycling was the law. But in June, Mayor Bloomberg convinced the City Council that a $40 million temporary suspension in glass and plastics recycling would help get the city's fiscal house in order. As a result, Allied Waste, a company owned by Browning-Ferris Industries, shut down its recycling operation, and Ramon Perez, along with 135 of his colleagues, found himself unemployed.
Among the displaced was Rogelio Cruz, a native of Honduras, who had also worked at the plant for five years. "This was the best job I ever had," Cruz said through an interpreter. "I could support my family with it. My wife, my children." Added another worker, who asked not to be named: "Immigrants always pay the price for politics."
News coverage of the suspension in recyclingglass pickup will be halted for two years, plastics for onefocused on the impact the cuts will have on the environment and New Yorkers' trash-disposal habits. Less attention was given to how it will affect a modest but successful blue-collar industry that was increasingly providing living wages to unskilled immigrants (at the Allied Waste plant, there was only one English-speaking worker; nearly all hailed from Latin America).
In June scores of workers showed up at a rally at City Hall, asking the mayor and the City Council to save recycling and their jobs. The council was able to restore metal recycling but not plastics and glass. "The whole thing was done in a haphazard way," says Laura Haight, an environmentalist with New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). "It was billed as a political compromise, but there was no paperwork, no analysis, no justification for the decisions that were made."
In addition to the layoffs at Allied Waste, 67 unionized jobs have been lost at the Hunts Point Recycling plant in the Bronx. Nonunion jobs have been slashed as well: 15 workers were recently pink-slipped at A&R Lobosco Recycling in Willis Point, Queens. The Waste Management in Brooklyn, which does have a union, laid off 40 people, according to union reps (the companies won't confirm the numbers). And that's only in New York City. The economic impact of these cuts will have a ripple effect on the region as well. According to an article in last week's Schenectady Gazette, recycling plants upstate that receive city materials are seeing their profits drop and may shut down as well.
The irony is that Bloomberg's rationale for eviscerating recycling was to save money. The administration made a simple calculation based on the high costs of recycling as opposed to using landfills. But many question whether there will be any real savings without laying off some of the 500 Sanitation workers responsible for recycling pickup, since the city is using the same number of workers doing the same routes, only picking up fewer materials. Moreover, the state of Pennsylvania is now charging the city more money per ton to dump its trash there. The "savings" touted in June from these cuts are looking more dubious with time.
There were alternatives to Bloomberg's cuts. The New York City Waste Prevention Coalition, comprising dozens of environmental and civic groups, listed how $35 million could be saved through a variety of changes in recycling policies. "We had a good reception," said Timothy Logan, the group's chair, "but the mayor was not willing to go down that road."
Not everyone is pessimistic that Bloomberg is out to destroy recycling. Some green activists applauded the solid-waste plan the mayor unveiled last week, and believe the administration is genuinely exploring ways to improve recycling. "He seems committed to bringing recycling back in a more economical manner," says Logan.
But unemployed recycling workers do not have the luxury of waiting for new recycling policies to be hashed out. Many of them met with union leaders last week in Manhattan to discuss possibilities of finding work in the construction industry. Meanwhile, they are working with the union to get their former employers to pay up for sick days and vacation time still owed to them.