Unions talk trash as city nears waste zone deal

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Unions talk trash as city nears waste zone deal

The two biggest unions in commercial waste hauling have never gotten along.
October 1, 2019

As the New York City Council nears a deal on a plan that would transform the commercial waste industry, the two biggest unions representing private sector waste workers are trash talking each other. 

Teamsters Local 813 and Laborers Local 108 disagree over what plan would be best for their workers – a continuation of the battle that has pitted the competitive locals against each other for more than four years. But with negotiations over bill language at a fever pitch, the professional disagreement is heating up again. The Laborers are even getting members of the Teamsters to sign on to a petition denouncing their leadership’s preferred plan. 

“There’s an outright division in the house of labor,” said Mike Hellstrom, secretary treasurer of Laborers Local 108. “We don’t deny that.”

The disagreement is over the possible creation of commercial waste zones. Instead of every trash hauler competing for commercial customers across the five boroughs, a new law would divide the city into geographic zones for trucks to operate within. Supporters say it would make routes more efficient, reducing the danger and environmental impacts of trash pickup. After years of planning, a bill to create the system is close to being passed in the City Council, with a vote happening as soon as October 17. But there’s still a major disagreement that needs to be smoothed out. Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management and has been championing the bill, wants exclusive zones, where a single company would win the contract to pick up all trash generated by businesses in an area. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Department of Sanitation, which would be implementing the plan, instead prefers non-exclusive zones, where multiple companies would compete for contracts within a zone.

That’s the same disagreement currently dividing the two unions. The Teamsters back Reynoso’s plan for exclusive zones, saying it would result in better pay and working conditions in a dangerous industry that struggles to fill jobs. The Laborers are siding with the Sanitation Department’s preference for non-exclusive zones, arguing that it would cost the fewest workers their jobs and that the city could regulate wages to keep contractors from undercutting pay.

The two unions rarely see eye-to-eye. They can’t even agree on how many members each one has working in the commercial waste industry. Hellstrom says that Laborers Local 108 has around 600 workers on trucks, and another 400 working in waste transfer stations, making them the biggest union in the industry. He says the Teamsters has maybe 250. 

But Alex Moore, communications director for Teamsters Joint Council 16, which represents all the Teamsters locals in New York City and Puerto Rico, disputed those numbers, saying the Teamsters are actually the biggest union in the sector, representing 1,204 commercial waste workers across several locals.

Neither, it should be noted, are the alleged “sham unions” affiliated with management which the City Council cracked down on earlier this year.

However many Teamsters there are, Hellstrom claims to have gotten 200 of them to break with their unions leadership and sign a petition calling for a non-exclusive zone system

“Every time we talk to a Teamster, and we really lay out the facts to a Teamster, they immediately sign the petition,” Hellstrom said. “They realize that they could get really marginalized here in a bill that talks about workers but does nothing for workers.”

Moore of the Teamsters told City & State he didn’t know anything about the petition and hadn’t seen it. He didn’t even realize Hellstrom was still working for Local 108. Moore said that Hellstrom and Local 108 had been inconsistent, taking “just about every position that one could take on this issue over the last five years,” and that the Laborers weren’t a factor in the ongoing discussions on implementing a commercial waste zone system.

“It’s not like they’re in the room on these negotiations,” Moore said. “It’s not like anyone at City Hall, that I’ve noticed, is being affected by them.” 

Moore was barely exaggerating about Local 108’s shifting positions. When the Transform Don’t Trash NYC coalition first formed to push for commercial waste zones in 2013, Local 108 was a part of it. By 2015, Local 108 was firmly against a zoned plan. In March of this year, when a zoned plan seemed inevitable, Local 108 endorsed, in a since-deleted tweet, exclusive zones. But the Local has since come to back non-exclusive zones as the best option.

Hellstrom copped to strategizing. “We’re allowed to change our position, and we smartly changed our position,” he said. “Because once we can see all of the players on the field, we know that it’s best we do a non-exclusive zone system so that our contractors and our members have the best chance for their economic survival.” 

And Local 108 may have picked a winner. At the moment, it seems like Reynoso is likely to concede and rewrite the bill to allow competition within the zones. 

Whether that change will save the jobs that Local 108 claims it will is still an open question. A massive report on commercial waste zones from the Sanitation Department predicted that implementing a non-exclusive zone plan would cost the city 49 jobs, and an exclusive zone plan would cost 88 – a difference of 39, but not hugely significant in an industry with more than 1,700 jobs and high turnover. And the report predicts the loss of jobs would more than be made up for in an increase in recycling jobs that a zoned plan could create. 

The dueling unions are just two players among the dozens of stakeholders in the fight over commercial waste zones. But instead of looking at each other as allies in the fight for workers rights, they regard each other with hostility. And while considering the future of the industry, Hellstrom is invoking the Teamsters’ past.

“When organized crime had dominated this industry, they were the dominant union,” he said. And with their longtime support of exclusive zones, Hellstrom thinks the Teamsters want the same kind of leverage. “I think they had a very narrow-minded vision and a narrow-minded plan about trying to figure out how they can reach a place of supremacy all over again.”

Moore countered that the Teamsters have been consistent – unlike the Laborers. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a different position next week,” he said.

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.