Garbage Fight

Union says waste kings trash a health plan for workers

Back on December 19, just as New Yorkers were about to confront a 72-hour pre-Christmas nightmare called the Transit Strike of 2005, another major city employer was prodding its workers with a sharp stick and daring them to walk off the job. Waste Management Inc., the Houston-based mega-corporation that last year did $12 billion worth of business earning some $900 million in profits, told 123 of its employees who drive the city's streets all night collecting trash from private businesses that it couldn't afford their health coverage any longer. The company also announced that it didn't like paying extra to those who work on Saturdays. For that matter, it added, its pension contributions were too high as well.

After several meetings with leaders of Local 813 of the Teamsters, which represents the workers, the company went ahead and imposed its plan on the workforce. Normally, unions view that kind of action as sufficient provocation for a strike. There was little question the company expected one. Union members watched as Waste Management imported some 80 to 100 potential replacement workers, apparently ready to take over their jobs at a moment's notice. No effort was made to hide them. "They drove behind the [garbage] trucks all night in pickups, watching the men do their collections," said Local 813 president Sylvester Needham. "They had them in motels in Queens, just waiting for us to walk out so they could bring them in."

Faced with that scenario, as well as with a city already in the grip of a mass transit strike, the Teamsters opted to hold their fire and keep working. To keep his members covered in the meantime, Needham had his union benefit fund pay the $305 per month in contributions needed to keep the Waste Management employees covered, while continuing to try to negotiate a new contract. A federal mediator was brought in to try and work things out. No dice.

Talking trash: Teamsters leader Sylvester Needham, center, and Laborers union official Vincente Alba at City Hall last week
photo: Dani Golomb
Talking trash: Teamsters leader Sylvester Needham, center, and Laborers union official Vincente Alba at City Hall last week

Three months later, with no progress in the talks, the Teamsters say New York is headed for a garbage strike, its first in more than 15 years. Barring a last-minute reprieve, the Local 813 members expect to hit the bricks on April 1. "That is D-day for us," said Needham, "We have got to the point of do-or-die."

Back in the bad old days of the city's private waste-hauling industry, that kind of expression could easily be taken all too literally. Until a decade ago, contract negotiations were settled at the highest levels—of the Mafia, that is. Gangsters associated with John Gotti's old Gambino crime family controlled the union, while a coalition of different mob families ruled the roost on the employers' side of the table. Even with such a commonality of interest, things didn't always go smoothly. In 1990, a five-day strike brought waist-high piles of trash, a rash of assaults, and gunshots pegged at both strikers and managers.

That was the last walkout by the workers who pick up waste for offices, manufacturers, hotels, and restaurants. (City sanitation workers, who are public employees, handle residential trash.) In the intervening years, Local 813 went through a seven-year-long government-supervised trusteeship during which scores of wiseguys were purged. Among those booted were the local's longtime mob-allied president (an aging one-legged hellion named Bernard Adelstein who once tried to throttle Robert F. Kennedy), and numerous members who enjoyed a pension and other benefits without the required heavy lifting (one former member filed for benefits from prison, where he was doing a life stretch for murder; his victims had been disposed of via the rear-end loaders of his rubbish removal trucks).

Changes were even more dramatic among the employers. Faced with a massive racketeering prosecution brought by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, and new tough licensing requirements by then mayor Rudy Giuliani, many sold their interests to big national waste companies, which entered the city's garbage business for the first time.

For a while, things appeared to go smoothly. Collection prices initially plummeted as businesses celebrated the end of the "mob tax" on private waste. Customers could choose a carter based on the best price, not because their stop had been allocated by stogie-puffing wiseguys enforcing the mob's semi-feudal system of "property rights."

But because this is New York, and there is a lot of money made in garbage (why else would the mob be involved?), things soon got more complicated. First, the big national firms, with Waste Management in the lead, started dropping customers, complaining that the city's cap on garbage collection prices was too low. The city responded by allowing some prices to rise, with the predictable result that many small businesses complained that their costs soared by 500 percent.

But if profits in the private collection business were sagging, they were soaring in the rest of the city's waste industry. Following the Giuliani administration's decision to shut down the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, the city entered into a series of mammoth contracts to have its residential trash hauled out of town. Waste Management of New York, the corporation's local subsidiary, was a major winner. City records show that for the three-year period ending in 2007 the firm is due to receive a whopping $355 million from the city for exporting New York's biggest homegrown crop, municipal solid waste.

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