NYC Waste Haulers’ Strike a Legacy of Organized Crime

The leadership of Local 813 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters sees injustice. But the union’s recent impasse instead could be seen as cosmic justice for years of mob control. Workers for a private contractor that handles trash collection for about 10,000 commercial customers in New York City and nearby Westchester County, N.Y., walked off their jobs on the morning of April 3. It was the first strike against a waste hauler in the city since December 1990, the culmination of months of heated, and failed, contract talks between Waste Management, Inc. and more than 120 union drivers and helpers. While residential trash pickups are not affected (the Sanitation Department handles this), the City is doing what it can to avert a calamity. The 1990 strike lasted only five days, long enough to create memories of garbage pileups, assaults, and gunfire. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that if the strike continues, his administration would consider declaring a “health emergency,” thus allowing the Sanitation Department to pick up waste from affected businesses. He added that the City stands ready to help mediate.


In a real sense the strike has been nearly a century in the making. Since 1916, New York City businesses have been legally responsible for making arrangements for getting their waste hauled. Restaurants, hotels, manufacturers and retailers all have to contract out. That, unfortunately, enabled organized crime early on to infiltrate the Teamsters, not to mention any other union providing labor. “What happened over the course of about 80 years is organized crime completely dominated the industry at every level,” said Raymond V. Casey, a former chairman of the city’s Trade Waste Commission, an agency since merged with two other regulatory bodies in 2001 to form the Business Integrity Commission. 


Local 813 long had been knee-deep in corruption, operating during the 80s as a virtual subsidiary of the Gambino crime family. During the 90s the union began what became a seven-year government-supervised trusteeship during which dozens of mob-connected members were removed. In one case a former member filed for benefits from prison, where he was doing life for multiple murders – his M.O. included disposing of his victims via truck rear-end loaders. In the mid-90s, as a result of racketeering cases filed by Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau and tough new licensing requirements issued by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, many small private haulers sold their work to large publicly-traded waste companies – like Waste Management, Inc. The Houston-based corporation is the nation’s largest hauler, and a major processor and landfill operator on top of that, with some $12 billion in annual revenues. Its local subsidiary, Waste Management of New York, has contracts in force to pick up debris at venues such as Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium, the Ziegfeld Theater and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.  


Last August, Teamsters Local 813 and the company entered into negotiations. But by November, with the contract expiring, no settlement was in sight. On December 19, Waste Management unilaterally imposed a contract that had been rejected by workers. The union then vowed to go on strike, a promise this month they fulfilled, despite intervention by federal mediators. At issue are health and pension benefits, and rules governing overtime pay; overtime accounts for a large portion of employee hours. Both the company and the union admit most drivers regularly work at least 50 hours a week, and often as many as 60 hours. “Waste Management has more than $350 million worth of contracts with New York City. They chose not to give 123 employees medical benefits…and that’s the issue,” said Local 813 President Sylvester Needham. The other side of the coin is that with an average pay range of $23-$25 an hour, the local’s haulers are probably the best-paid in the country.      

Waste Management hired about 80 to 100 temporary replacement workers to cover the routes normally traveled by striking employees, outraging the union. “The scabs they’re bringing in are not going to do this work,” said Needham. “Our guys are professionals. They do a hazardous job 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They know the city.” At Shea Stadium, at least, such words may have proven premature. Nonunion workers hauled away trash after the New York Mets baseball-season home opener. “Nothing was disrupted,” said Jay Horwitz, a team spokesman. But that may be the calm before the storm – Teamsters tend to play rough. (New York Times, 4/4/06; Village Voice, 3/28/06).