Garbage Fight

Union says waste kings trash a health plan for workers

Those huge numbers underscore the difference between the city's old garbage headaches and its current ones. Under the Giuliani-era cleanup, some smaller waste companies were denied license approvals simply for failing to adequately explain why they had associated with known wiseguys. But Waste Management qualified for the immense solid waste transfer contracts even though, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission, its former chief executive along with other top officials were allegedly "cooking the books," overstating profits by more than $1.7 billion in what regulators termed a greedy scheme to dupe shareholders. A three-year federal investigation of what was considered one of the worst of the pre-Enron corporate scandals led to a decision last August in which Waste Management agreed to pay $26.8 million to cover the settlement of federal charges against the former executives who admitted no wrongdoing.

That was all ancient history, the company said. "That involved a totally different management, and a totally different company," said public relations aide George McGrath. "It's been resolved, and it's got nothing to do with Waste Management as it operates today, or a local labor negotiation in New York."

Maybe so, but it's hard to keep the lines from blurring when one giant company is engaged in a nasty labor dispute. Last week, Needham, the president of Local 813, and representatives of another union, Local 108 of the Laborers, which fears that its own members who sort recyclables at the firm's yards in Brooklyn and the Bronx are facing a similar confrontation, brought some 50 workers to the steps of City Hall to join with several councilmembers to condemn Waste Management's conduct. The legislators suggested that the firm's private problems could spill over onto the far larger municipal waste-hauling awards.

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

"We are the ones who review and approve these contracts, and we are going to make sure that these workers receive fair compensation and treatment," said Queens councilman Hiram Monserrate. "This isn't how you behave here. Not in this city."

Actually, Waste Management has a friendly local face representing it here in talks with government officials, that of Peter Vallone Sr., the former City Council leader. As the firm's chief lobbyist, Vallone's Constantinople Consulting receives a $15,000-per-month retainer. "It's always been my dream to resolve the city's garbage problems," said Vallone who, along with Giuliani, extended the original invitation to the big national firms to enter the city's waste markets. "I don't have anything to do with the labor part, but I think there are national issues at stake here," he said.

Corporate spokesman McGrath said his client remains "ready, willing, and able" to continue labor talks. "Waste Management is trying to get a fair contract that will keep the employees among the highest paid in the industry and provide a competitive level of benefits. . . . Did they tell you that their members earn $23 to $25 an hour?"

They did. The union also pointed out that it had reached agreement on new contracts with other carting companies representing hundreds of other members, without a similar fight. Still, when Waste Management refused to budge, the union broke with precedent by offering, in the presence of the federal mediator, to start making contributions for health coverage. "That was a significant move for us," said Needham. "We opened the door, but they didn't want to do anything."

Needham, along with his parent national union, believe that Waste Management's strategy is to pick and win a fight in labor-strong New York and then impose similar conditions elsewhere. To that end, the union has conducted informational picketing at Waste Management sites in California, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., where fights with the company are also brewing over the benefits issues. In an inspired bit of propaganda, Teamsters president Jim Hoffa had his union rent a plane to fly over last month's Daytona 500, where Waste Management is a major sponsor, pulling a sign that read: "WMI and NASCAR Want Some Drivers to Lose."

Another labor leader, Mike Hellstrom, business manager of Laborers Local 108, characterized the fight with Waste Management as similar to another battle that organized labor has been waging on the political level. "This city has had this big fight over whether or not Wal-Mart and its poor benefits should be allowed here," he said. "Well, we already have a Wal-Mart here— it is Waste Management."

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