April 15, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco
Bronx, NY – A group of Woodlawn Cemetery caretakers with decades worth of combined work experience is charging this week that the landmark site located at Jerome and Bainbridge avenues has become a “secret city” where institutionalized racism and discrimination operate freely behind the wrought iron gates. (Watch Video).
“Whatever happens inside the cemetery stays in the cemetery,” Enrique Coss told LaborPress. “The cemetery is like a secret city. It’s a plantation type of environment.”
Coss is one of four workers, including Todd Brown, Frank Russo and sibling Rick Coss, who in February filed a federal lawsuit alleging widespread abuses against Woodlawn Cemetery’s current administration headed by CEO John Toale.
“The Band of Brothers,” as the group is now known, says that they have exhausted every other grievance procedure, and that the federal lawsuit is the only option they have left.
“That lawsuit is going to expose the truth,” Brown said at a rally held outside the cemetery this weekend. “They think they’re going to settle with us and push everything under the table. But I’ve got news for you – that’s not going to happen.”
Coss and Brown maintain that they were both laid-off after they told Woodlawn administrators that supervisors were routinely hurling racial slurs at African-American and Latino workers.
Russo – who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004 – said that he made similar complaints and quickly became the target of administrative reprisals. After more than 30 years on the job, Russo said he felt he had no choice but to leave Woodlawn.
“They mentally, physically and financially strangled me,” Russo said. “All I was doing was crying out for help to get justice.”
Toale is on record denying the charges against Woodlawn’s administration.
Out of the four original complainants, only Rick Coss still has his job at Woodlawn Cemetery. But he, too, worries that he will soon be forced out.
“The board of directors and the board of trustees have a fiduciary commitment and responsibility to this cemetery, and to everyone that is a part of this cemetery, to the families who come visit in this cemetery, and those who are interred and entombed who are trying to rest in peace but can’t because they are mistreating their caretakers,” Coss said.
Three years ago, Woodlawn caretakers, formerly represented by the United Service Workers Union Local 74, voted to align with the Teamsters Local 808. Their current contract expires at the end of the year.
“We hope that the current administration is removed and the union is strengthened,” Coss said. “We hope that this will also allow the union to have the leverage and strength to come forth and negotiate a contract with reasonable provisions that will protect and address issues that we are bringing forth today.”
Since 2007, when the “Band of Brothers” say the racist remarks began to fly, almost half of Woodlawn Cemetery’s 36 caretakers have been laid-off. According to the “Band of Brothers,” those that remain are polarized and extremely fearful about their own futures.
“You’ve got kids, you’ve got grandkids, you build a life, and they take that away from you because you spoke up,” Brown said. “That’s not right.”
Several local community organizations are supporting the “Band of Brothers" in their struggle. The group vows to continue to hold similar actions until problems at Woodlawn Cemetery are corrected.