As New York City studies ways to improve picking up trash and keeping the streets clean – possibly, by altering the government’s oversight role – two of the sanitation industry’s larger unions have staked out different strategies.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has undertaken a feasibility study of a zoning system in which the boroughs would be carved into sectors and companies would compete for a license to collect waste in each zone. The city's Business Integrity Commission announced in April 2015 that it had commissioned the NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress to help conduct a truck traffic analysis. A second study phase spearheaded by several city agencies would follow. The Business Integrity Commission said the Center for Science and Urban Progress “was instrumental in collecting vital new data,” but did not have “the resources nor capacity to complete the remaining work.” Consequently, the Business Integrity Commission said it is looking to quickly find a consultant with the expertise needed to wrap up the study. It did not provide a target timeline.
Unions are not waiting for the study to stake out positions. Teamsters Local 813, which reported having 2,182 members in the private sanitation sector in 2015, and Laborers Local 108, which reports having 2,043 members, have joined separate coalitions.
The Teamsters are part of the Transform Don’t Trash alliance and, along with various environmental groups, are calling for the city to use a zoning system and require that labor peace agreements be tied to contracts.
But Laborers Local 108 views such accords as toothless. They are instead rallying with a few of the largest hauling contractors through the CleaNYC Coalition, which is pushing for the government to empower the Business Integrity Commission and have it clean up the commercial trash industry.
Both groups agree there are pervasive problems within the industry. The unions allege that some companies hire undocumented workers, eschew standard safety training and equipment and compensate people by the night rather than by the hour to avoid paying overtime. Tom Toscano, the head of the National Waste & Recycling Association's New York City chapter, has said he is not aware of any businesses engaging in such practices. But he noted the government currently has tools to halt worker mistreatment, and he’d be happy to help in any such endeavor.
The Transform Don’t Trash alliance argue the zoning system would prevent several businesses from serving the same strips, reduce pollution by streamlining truck routes and provide more oversight of working conditions. George Miranda, president of the Teamsters Joint Council 16, has said the the union would like to see labor peace agreements attached to zone contracts.
“I’m optimistic that they will include some portion of it or some form of it,” Miranda said earlier this fall of the agreements, which typically prevent workers from striking or boycotting and give unions more leverage in attempting to organize. “Labor peace is just make sure that whatever franchises are done or whatever companies take over or all of that, that there’s a level playing field in terms of wages and benefits and working conditions and that there’s no strikes or anything.”
But Mike Hellstrom, business manager for Laborers Local Union 108, said the labor peace agreements would be useless because there has been a proliferation of “rogue” unions aligned with business executives. These "sham unions" as Hellstrom called them, often have quick access to workers, and therefore, could pressure them not to join mainstream unions.
“The city government, the state government, the federal government does not have the ability of saying that you have to do business with a specific union, so it’s a toothless labor peace agreement,” Hellstrom said. “It’s meaningless. It means whoever gets to the front door first and can put pressure on the contractor to sign that agreement, might be able to walk away with the prize.”
Local 108 also has concerns that a zoning system, which would guarantee successful bidders contracts for a set period of time, could disincentive investment in newer, safer equipment as well as the facilities needed to recycle more material.
The CleaNYC coalition that Local 108 is a part of wants the Business Integrity Commission to take on an expanded role. The commission was started to root out organized crime in the private sanitation business, and therefore, has mostly done background checks while licensing companies and instituted rate caps meant to prevent collusion among haulers. Hellstrom said the commission could require licensees to have a certain standard of health insurance, spend at least 120 hours training personnel and use various safety equipment. Additionally, Hellstrom said the Business Integrity Commission could take steps to ensure responsible businesses remain economically viable, such as: eliminating the price cap, allowing haulers to pick up customers from their counterparts and create denser routes and barring so-called “waste brokers,” which do not have trucks, but control about 20 percent of the waste stream.
“There are things we can empower the BIC, through legislation, to do that would drive some of the bottom feeders in our industry out of our marketplace,” Hellstrom said. “They could require employers to put up half a million dollar bonds. They could say to employers, ‘If we catch you stealing wages or paying people cash, we can revoke your license.’”
Update: In response to Local 108's position, Teamsters Local 813 President Sean Campbell said the waste zone system has been able to improve several issues in the industry.