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NYC Council Passes Sanitation Zones Bill; Teamsters, Laborers Divided

“Environmental justice and labor justice are one and the same,” Teamsters Joint Council 16 President George Miranda says.

NEW YORK, N.Y.—The City Council passed a bill Oct. 30 that will dramatically restructure the city’s system for collecting commercial trash. Intro 1574, approved by a 34-14 vote, will divide the city into 20 or more zones, with the Sanitation Department granting contracts to a maximum of three private companies in each zone.

“The Sanitation Salvages of the world are no longer,” Teamsters Local 813 President Sean Campbell told a rally of about 100 people in City Hall Park just before the vote. He was referring to the Bronx garbage-collection company that went out of business last November after two fatal accidents, numerous safety violations, and paying workers off the books and less than minimum wage.

But Laborers Local 108, the other main union representing workers at private sanitation companies, opposed the bill, arguing that its labor standards were too weak. “Everything we’ve worked for will be thrown out with the trash,” Local 108 Secretary-Treasurer Mike Hellstrom told a separate rally on the City Hall steps.

The current system, in which more than 90 private sanitation companies can operate anywhere in the city, encourages them to “cut corners,” to underpay workers and operate unsafely, Councilmember Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn) told the City Hall Park rally. Truck helpers often get paid $80 in cash for working shifts of 12 to 18 hours, he added.

Local 813 member Onza Lynch said that when he worked at Sanitation Salvage, he did shifts as long as 20 hours, making 900 to 1,000 stops a night. The bill, he added, will “cut down on companies doing things the wrong way.”

That number of stops, supporters argue, forces drivers to rush to make all the pickups on their routes, with the result that more than 25 people have been killed in crashes involving private sanitation trucks in the last decade. The zone system, Reynoso said, will reduce the amount of miles trucks travel by more than half.

Under the bill, the Sanitation commissioner would have 120 days to divide the city into at least 20 zones. The department would then award 10-year contracts for each zone to up to three companies. To prevent monopolization, it can’t allow any single company to provide services in more than 15 zones. It would also grant a maximum of five citywide contracts for collecting containerized commercial waste.

The criteria for selecting companies include their rates and their history of compliance with labor, health, and environmental laws; having viable resources for disposing of the garbage they collect; financial resources and plans to have at least 50% zero-emissions vehicles by 2030. They must also be licensed by the city Business Integrity Commission, created in the 1990s to break organized crime’s domination of the industry, and are prohibited from being paid in cash.

“Everything we’ve worked for will be thrown out with the trash,” says Laborers Local 108 Secretary-Treasurer Mike Hellstrom.

TheLaborers, however, fear that as the industry reshuffles to meet the new zoning system, union workers could lose their jobs or benefits. 

“What’s the just transition going to look like?” Mike Hellstrom asked. “Who wants to employ a 50-year-old worker?” Union wages now average $32 an hour for drivers and $26 for helpers, he adds.

“At least put something in for the worker,” Local 108 member Ricardo Pesquera told the Laborers rally.

The bill does not contain wage standards, Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn) says, because the city would need authorization from the state Legislature to establish prevailing-wage requirements in the private-sanitation industry. 

Acknowledging that, Hellstrom says, the city should set minimum rates for carters, so they can’t force down wages by undercutting each other’s prices. Under the bill, he notes, prices are 40% of the criteria for granting contracts. It says the Sanitation Commissioner “may” set a minimum rate, he adds, but it “really should have been ‘shall.’”

The Sanitation Department can set a minimum “responsible rate,” a Teamsters spokesperson said, and it also will have the power to cancel carters’ contracts if they violate labor laws or the terms of their agreements.

“I would never support a job-killing bill,” Sean Campbell told LaborPress after the rally. “Just because a bill doesn’t include one thing doesn’t mean it’s not a good bill. The environmental part means a lot to me. The safe streets part means a lot to me.”

The Laborers were originally part of the coalition working to develop the bill, he added, but dropped out a couple years ago.

That group, the Transform Don’t Trash NYC Coalition, was founded in 2013. It includes the Teamsters and various environmental and traffic-safety organizations. 32BJ SEIU also supported the bill.

Almost 40% of the city’s commercial waste is processed in one community district, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and East Williamsburg, said Rolando Guzman of OUTRAGE, Organizations United for Trash Reduction and Garbage Equity. Another third goes to Sunset Park, the South Bronx, and southeastern Queens. He called that “environmental racism.”

“Environmental justice and labor justice are one and the same,” Teamsters Joint Council 16 President George Miranda told the rally. “We wanted to make sure that these would be good-paying jobs.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was “excited” to sign the bill. “I wanted to completely reform this industry by making it safer for New Yorkers, cleaner for the environment, and more fair for workers. This plan achieves all these goals,” he said in a statement Oct. 30.

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