by George Miranda
New York Amsterdam News
As the thermometer climbs this month, New Yorkers can expect a familiar and unwelcome odor: garbage. It should be a reminder of how much we throw away and our collective responsibility to the workers who pick up the trash.
As president and recording secretary of Teamsters Joint Council 16, we count New York’s sanitation workers among our brothers and sisters. The Department of Sanitation employees who collect trash and recycling from our homes do so with dignity. They get the fair pay, protections and respect befitting this important job.
The same cannot be said for New York’s commercial sanitation workers, the ones who work for the private companies who pick up trash from restaurants and office buildings. While some workers in this industry are represented by the Teamsters and have the benefits of a strong union contract, many workers do not.
This job was once a great job, too, but not anymore. Private sanitation workers work long hours, as many as 14 hours a day, and near-minimum wage pay is common. Many workers report wage theft and unpaid overtime. Too many are put on the truck without the proper safety equipment or training, heightening the risk in what is already the fourth most dangerous job in the country. Not all sanitation companies engage in this race to the bottom, but the truth is that most do.
This spring, two private sanitation workers spoke out against these conditions at a City Council hearing. One worker, Michael Bush, told Council members, “I feel as if I’m a slave. I feel used and degraded. I feel as if I’m nobody, but this job is a real responsibility to keep the streets of New York City clean.”
Bush and his colleague were fired two days later. They were later rehired only after the employer got an earful of criticism from Council members and community members.
The industry’s profits-over-people mantra affects more than just its employees. Companies compete for business across the five boroughs, with as many as 20 different companies picking up trash on the same block. This inefficiency means that every night, thousands of private sanitation trucks zip around the city, belching diesel exhaust and tearing up roads. Although customers diligently sort their recycling, the companies too often send the bag to the landfill anyway. This system is one that has no place in today’s New York City.
A coalition called Transform Don’t Trash NYC has brought together environmental justice activists, small business owners and the Teamsters union to reform private sanitation in our city. In April, Mayor Bill de Blasio embraced their call and pledged to put New York City on a path to “zero waste.”
Part of that plan is commercial waste zones, which the administration is currently studying, that can improve recycling and protect workers at the same time. The policy would divide the city into waste zones, with companies bidding for the right to service each zone and agreeing to increase recycling, improve standards for workers and set fair rates for customers.
The idea has already worked elsewhere. West Coast cities such as San Jose and Seattle have used commercial waste zones to increase their recycling to levels more than double New York City’s and to boost labor standards. Los Angeles is currently implementing waste zones.
We take pride in being New Yorkers and believe our world-class city should be leading the way toward a greener, more worker-friendly future. All of us have a part to play in recycling, but we also need a government that sets high standards for sanitation corporations and holds them accountable. The de Blasio administration should be applauded for setting this ambitious goal. Let’s hope it soon becomes a reality.
George Miranda is president of Joint Council 16 and vice president-at large of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Gregory Floyd is president of Teamsters Local 237, a trustee on the executive board of the IBT and the recording secretary of Joint Council 16.