Letter to the Editor

New York City's commercial waste reforms are critical for workers and the environment

By Allen Henry |  

October 13, 2017 |  

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The following Letter to the Editor is a response to an October 2 op-ed by Michael Hellstrom of Local Laborers 108, "Consolidating New York City's Private Waste Industry is Bad for Workers and the Environment"

Michael Hellstrom, writing in City and State, October 2, 2017, seems to think that one of New York City’s most notoriously corrupt, dangerous and polluting industries can be cleaned up with a few additional safety regulations. It will take much more than that to reform the private sanitation industry. I should know, I worked on a garbage truck for 30 years, and now I represent workers in the industry as an organizer with the Teamsters union. 

Done right, New York’s commercial waste zone system has the potential to dramatically improve working conditions, boost the recycling of commercial waste (which makes up more than half of the city’s total waste), and reduce harmful emissions through greater efficiencies in truck traffic. These reforms are critical if New York is to meet its ambitious goals on zero waste and greenhouse gas reductions.

Mr. Hellstrom’s argument against the reforms is based on a number of inaccurate assertions.

RELATED: Consolidating NYC's private waste industry is bad for workers

Recycling and Reform are Job Creators 

First, he says that a waste zone system will kill jobs, when multiple studies – as well as simple common sense – clearly indicate that the high recycling system we are moving toward will in fact create thousands of jobs. The reason? Recycling and organic waste facilities create far more jobs than simply trucking garbage to an out-of-state landfill. We already have good examples of this pattern in New York City, where companies like Sims (which has a long-term city contract to process residential recycling) have already created dozens of good Teamsters union jobs in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and New Jersey. Private waste haulers like Action Carting also employ far more workers on the recycling side of their Bronx facility than on the disposal side of their business.

The same companies that Mr. Hellstrom believes will reform themselves have a long way to go – and a lot of jobs to create – to boost New York City’s commercial recycling rate, which even the most generous estimates put below 33 percent, below the national average, and far behind the rates of cities with zoned collection systems.

Businesses and commercial buildings are beginning to sort their recyclables, and a few are even separating their food waste for composting. Sadly, workers at many companies can tell you that they are still being told to throw all of these bags into the same truck, in violation of city rules – a sure sign that some haulers are illegally landfilling recyclable waste. A streamlined system will incentivize investment in recycling facilities, and make enforcement of recycling laws much easier.

Fake unions hurt workers

Second, Mr. Hellstrom claims that workers in the industry are already mostly unionized. This is offensive to those of us who work in the industry and know the reality. Many of the employers in private sanitation companies have made deals with sham unions that provide shoddy worker representation, help employers avoid legitimate unions like the Teamsters, and cut sweetheart deals with employers. Just this year, one of these notorious organizations gave away their workers’ right to recoup stolen wages in court, and didn’t bother to change the $8.00 per hour starting wage for workers who load back-breaking garbage bins onto trucks all night. Mr. Hellstrom’s description of the current private sanitation industry as being predominantly unionized is clearly short-sighted and superficial.

Further, Mr. Hellstrom takes a naive view of private sanitation bosses, claiming that they are local New Yorkers who employ union workers. In fact, the profits from this industry usually leave the city: Most of the owners of the major carting companies live outside the five boroughs; more than half of private carting revenues goes to non-New York City companies; and more and more of these companies are being acquired by private equity firms that see opportunities for quick profits.

Safety and efficiency go hand in hand

Finally, Mr. Hellstrom seems to suggest that a few additional regulations will be enough to make the sprawling private waste industry safer – even after we have seen multiple pedestrian and cyclist fatalities this summer, and a near-disaster when a sleeping driver lost control of a giant garbage truck. I have personally seen co-workers lose limbs, or their lives, working in this industry.

Worker protections and a move toward efficient zoned collection need to go hand in hand. The current system is a mess – workers are told to collect waste from hundreds of customers scattered all over the city each night, and are often not paid overtime for nighttime shifts that often run 14 hours or more. It’s no wonder that drivers are often sleep-deprived, exhausted, and stressed while piloting a 30-ton garbage truck through local streets in the wee hours of the morning. 

To make garbage trucks safer, we need well-rested drivers who work reasonable 8-hour shifts, get paid enough to support their families and are able to perform the job without fearing for their own health and safety every night.

The zoned system is a holistic solution to some complicated issues. That is why the Teamsters Union, by far New York’s largest sanitation union, is fully in support of it. 

The band-aid solutions Mr. Hellstrom puts forward have never been enough, and they won’t be enough. City Hall is on the right track and needs to follow through. We must fundamentally reform a commercial waste system so it works for our city’s small businesses, our environment and the men and women who take our waste away every night while most of us are asleep. 

-- Allen Henry, organizer, Teamsters Local 813

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