New York City Snow Cleanup Hampered By Union Work Stoppage

Streets in New York City like this one on Staten Island went unplowed for days thanks to a work slowdown by sanitation workers, which raises the question of what Public Sector Unions should be allowed to do.

It appears that the huge problems that New York City has had in digging out from last weekend’s blizzard were the result of a union work stoppage motivated by a fight between the City and the Sanitation Workers Union:

These garbage men really stink.

Selfish Sanitation Department bosses from the snow-slammed outer boroughs ordered their drivers to snarl the blizzard cleanup to protest budget cuts — a disastrous move that turned streets into a minefield for emergency-services vehicles, The Post has learned.

Miles of roads stretching from as north as Whitestone, Queens, to the south shore of Staten Island still remained treacherously unplowed last night because of the shameless job action, several sources and a city lawmaker said, which was over a raft of demotions, attrition and budget cuts.

“They sent a message to the rest of the city that these particular labor issues are more important,” said City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Queens), who was visited yesterday by a group of guilt-ridden sanitation workers who confessed the shameless plot.

Halloran said he met with three plow workers from the Sanitation Department — and two Department of Transportation supervisors who were on loan — at his office after he was flooded with irate calls from constituents.

The snitches “didn’t want to be identified because they were afraid of retaliation,” Halloran said. “They were told [by supervisors] to take off routes [and] not do the plowing of some of the major arteries in a timely manner. They were told to make the mayor pay for the layoffs, the reductions in rank for the supervisors, shrinking the rolls of the rank-and-file.”

New York’s Strongest used a variety of tactics to drag out the plowing process — and pad overtime checks — which included keeping plows slightly higher than the roadways and skipping over streets along their routes, the sources said.

The snow-removal snitches said they were told to keep their plows off most streets and to wait for orders before attacking the accumulating piles of snow.

Assuming this is true it’s likely to provide much more ammunition to the arguments of those on the right who have started speaking out against the very idea of a public employees being allowed to unionize. Personally, I don’t think it would be appropriate to ban people from voluntarily associating just because they’re public employees. However, situations like this do raise the legitimate question of whether public employees in certain positions should be legally permitted to engage in some of the tactics that unions in the private sector engage during work disputes. When you’re a position where your job is one that is essential to the operation of the city — like a policeman, fireman, or sanitation worker — I think it’s highly questionable to concede that you should the right to go on strike. Essentially what happens in that situation is that the Union has a huge negotiating advantage over the city because leaders would not want to deal with the backlash that would result from the fact that garbage hasn’t been picked up in a week.

Ronald Reagan set the precedent for this in 1980 when he fired every air traffic controller in the country for going on a strike that they were not legally permitted to call. Of course, no American city would be able to do the same thing with it’s police force for fire department, which is why forbidding essential public employees from going on strike seems to me to be an entirely reasonable idea.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. bandit says:

    What’s a couple of deaths when you have a point to make?

  2. wr says:

    So what’s the answer, Doug? I mean, “assuming this is true,” which is probably isn’t. If we don’t let public employees unionize — or take away their ability to strike, which is essentially the same thing — what’s next? What if the Republicans get their way and are able to slash public worker pay and benefits and cops and firefighters start quitting? Do we draft them? Enslave them? What kind of obligation do we put on these people – and these people alone — to serve us, no matter the cost to their own health, safety, and now income?

    Amazing how everybody on the Right wants to live in a free society — that is, a society that is completely free for them, even if it means forced labor for others.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    So what’s the answer, Doug?

    Privatization. I see no particular reason that street sweeping or plowing snow out of the streets should be done by city employees.

    Not that I think that all city services should be privatized. I don’t think that the police or fire departments should be privatized, for example.

    Something to think about: these city workers are making $70,000 a year plus benefits which include a defined benefit pension. Darned good for high school only.

  4. Gary Farber says:

    This may be a considerable amount of theorizing based wholly on a few sentences from a single anti-union official:

    “They sent a message to the rest of the city that these particular labor issues are more important,” said City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Queens), who was visited yesterday by a group of guilt-ridden sanitation workers who confessed the shameless plot.

    Perhaps you’re familiar with Halloran, and know him to be reliable, but this is not my experience. Perhaps you have other quotes you haven’t presented, or other articles you haven’t cited.

    If so, they might help clarify the objectivity of Halloran’s statement, and better establish the facts.

    Alternatively, you may place more reliability on the impeccable standards of the New York Post than I do.

    Do have past posts on NYC union/politics that give background on your familiarity with Local 831, the city council, Halloran, the interconnected relationships, and politics, etc? Links to such posts would be informative.

  5. tom p says:

    >”It appears that the huge problems that New York City has had in digging out from last weekend’s blizzard were the result of a union work stoppage motivated by a fight between the City and the Sanitation Workers Union:”

    Oh really? Let us dig a little deeper….

    “They sent a message to the rest of the city that these particular labor issues are more important,” said City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Queens),

    Stop, stop right there, R-Queens???? Let me guess where this is going…

    “Assuming this is true it’s likely to provide much more ammunition to the arguments of those on the right who have started speaking out against the very idea of a public employees being allowed to unionize.”

    “Of course, no American city would be able to do the same thing with it’s police force for fire department, which is why forbidding essential public employees from going on strike seems to me to be an entirely reasonable idea.”

    Wow Doug, didn’t take you long at all to get there, did it?

    Straight to slavery for the unwashed masses.

  6. MuParadigm says:

    Doug Mataconis: “It appears that the huge problems that New York City has had in digging out from last weekend’s blizzard were the result of a union work stoppage …”

    That’s ridiculous. Pretty much everyone agrees that the problems started with the city waiting too long to declare a snow emergency, call people in, and get trucks on the road.

    Those are all management problems. How do you blame that on the unions?

  7. Terrye says:

    I don’t like the idea of public employees unionizing. I am not some far right loon either. Their employer is the tax payer, they do not work for some profit making capitalist enterprise that can raise the price of the product to meet union demands…when these people unionize it means tax increases and graft. In fact they make up more of the unionized people in the country than private sector at this point. It is not a coincidence that we are also looking at a huge debt in unfunded pensions as well.

    This is not slavery. These people already have more job security than people in the private sector.

  8. Terrye says:

    Mu:

    If it turns out that the unions actually planned to create a problem by not doing their job…then it is not just management’s problem.

  9. matt says:

    This is merely a distraction to protect the mayor and his deputy mayor who frankly dropped the ball hardcore. The deputy mayor’s attempts to push to privatization while allow hundreds of sanitation workers to be cut helped cause this problem. Personally I see the delayed response as being a bigger issue..

  10. tom p says:

    >”I don’t like the idea of public employees unionizing. I am not some far right loon either. Their employer is the tax payer,”

    Terrye, must whole heartedly disagree. Who one works for decides what rights you give up? That does not make sense on the face of it. A right is a right, I don’t care WHO you work for… You ALWAYS have the right to fight for your rights. (and for the record, RR forgot that very basic fact)

  11. Brett says:

    Of course, no American city would be able to do the same thing with it’s police force for fire department, which is why forbidding essential public employees from going on strike seems to me to be an entirely reasonable idea.

    Exactly. You’d think that’d be a given with vital workers like snow-plowing the streets of a major city in a blizzard, but apparently not. Stupid New York City politics.

    If we don’t let public employees unionize — or take away their ability to strike, which is essentially the same thing — what’s next?

    How about actually passing some better labor regulations?

    Besides, Public Sector Unions aren’t under the same constraint that Private Sector Unions are. Private Sector Unions (usually) know that they can only push so far, lest the company go out of business and they all lose their jobs. Public Sector Unions don’t have that constraint – they can use political lobbying, activism, and the threat of strikes of vital services to press politicians for higher wages and benefits, and keep passing the costs down to the taxpayer for them.

    If it were up to me, Public Sector Unions would be either outlawed, or banned from going on strike.

  12. JKB says:

    Well, personally, FDR had the right idea. Public employees shouldn’t be able to unionize because the “bosses” they negotiate with have no skin in the consequences of their give-aways.

    But a middle ground is what the federal employees have, i.e., they can collectively bargain but not strike. Thus, Reagan was legally and morally right when he fired the illegal strikers in the air traffic controllers strike. There are not contracts for federal employee but collective bargaining agreements.

    If this was a purposeful slowdown, all those who participated should be fired by the end of the month and banned from NYC employment for 10 years. The organizers should be prosecuted for their part in the deaths associated with the inability of emergency vehicles to reach those in need.

  13. Steve Plunk says:

    A great number of state and local governments are facing insolvency because of public employee unions. Stunts like this only make it worse.

    These workers never really faced harsh work conditions or low pay but instead unionized when allowed to push social agendas and empire build to secure their own employment. It’s shameful.

    Terrye had it right pointing out it’s a one sided bargaining process and Brett pointed out the obvious cure, get rid of them. They were illegal once for a reason and should be again.

  14. Trumwill says:

    If these accusations are true, then it’s a pretty big deal and a damning indictment of public unions in crucial sectors. This would not be acceptable.

    The problem is… I see nothing in the way of confirmation that these accusations are true. Absolutely. Nothing.

  15. Andy K says:

    “This is not slavery. These people already have more job security than people in the private sector.”

    Sure, and part of why they have security is because the unions made it a lot harder for elected officials to can workers for partisan political reasons.

  16. Mark Thompson says:

    Ugh. Whatever my thoughts on this story if it’s true (and I have my doubts), the assumption in the post and amongst many commenters that public safety unions generally have the right to strike and/or need the right to strike to have any power whatsoever is divorced from reality. There is to my knowledge no state in the US that currently permits public safety unions to go on strike; if any exist they are a tiny minority, and so far as I’m aware there hasn’t been a police or firefighters strike in the US in around 30 years. In exchange for giving up the right to strike these unions usually have a legal right to some form of arbitration,whether binding or nonbinding. They can of course still stage slowdowns or sickouts (hence the term “blue flu”) but I don’t see a lot of meaningfully enforceable ways to legislate against that, unions or no unions.

    This case doesn’t involve police or firefighters, but it doesn’t involve a strike either, regardless of whether it’s true. That these employees were unionized would have been relevant only to the extent being unionized provided them with a collectively bargained wage and benefits scale (and hence a collective interest) and an organizational structure that enabled them to coordinate the alleged slowdown.

    I say this despite the fact that I think there is a need to limit the power of most public employee unions in most jurisdictions.

  17. Herb says:

    “Privatization. I see no particular reason that street sweeping or plowing snow out of the streets should be done by city employees.”

    When the privatized street sweepers arrive, they will be paid by the city. (Individuals won’t do it, for the same reasons individuals don’t do it now.) The only reason to go the private route is if the city was going to be getting better services for cheaper rates.

  18. Trumwill says:

    The only reason to go the private route is if the city was going to be getting better services for cheaper rates.

    I don’t really have a position on this, but this is not libertarian dreaming. If you had private sweepers paid by the government, you could have a more competitive bidding process and those that act in bad faith (such as slowing down in the midst of a horrible snowstorm or price-gouging) could be assured of never getting city work again.

    If what the anti-union folks are saying is true (I remain skeptical), this could well be the solution to that problem. Not the only potential solution, but enough to knock down suggestions that there are no solutions except to let them use this opportunity to not do their jobs (very hard) so that they can demand more for presumably doing it in the future.

    But before we go down this road, we need some sort of verification that what the anti-union folks say is happening is actually happening. Still haven’t seen it.

  19. Axel Edgren says:

    Seeing as unions are set up to be the fall guys for the financial crisis spawned by anti-union ideologies, I remain skeptical. It all fits too nicely into the anti-union crusade.

  20. just me says:

    I see no real problem with privatizing snow removal-and as part of contract the city could create a bonus/penalty system for how fast the snow is removed.

    That said-if this story is true, this isn’t really a strike, but an organized slow down in services to make a point, which IMO is worse than a strike, because it happened in the midst of an emergency.

    New York isn’t in the south-they should be prepared to remove snow quickly and efficiently-even in major storms like this one. This isn’t the first time the city has had 2 feet of snow come in a storm, but this is the first time I can remember where the snow removal was a problem.

  21. qtip says:

    > If you had private sweepers paid by the government, you could have a
    > more competitive bidding process

    Serious question: how many companies would there be that could handle a contract to plow the entire city of New York? It seems like to buy all the necessary equipment and train the personnel would be hard to afford unless you were guaranteed to get a lot of the work.

    Or would you envision hundreds of small companies competing for pieces of the pie? Then the city would have a department to award contracts for various neighborhoods to the best performing companies each year?

  22. Rick Almeida says:

    So, was there actually a union work stoppage, or not?

  23. george says:

    “But before we go down this road, we need some sort of verification that what the anti-union folks say is happening is actually happening. Still haven’t seen it.”

    Yup, this is serious if true, but so far there’s little evidence that its true.

  24. Trumwill says:

    Or would you envision hundreds of small companies competing for pieces of the pie? Then the city would have a department to award contracts for various neighborhoods to the best performing companies each year?

    More along these lines. Lots of little crews (often one-man) with plows accepting calls from the city. This type of thing has been done. Not sure how well this would work in NYC or not, so I’m not cavalierly suggesting that this is the solution. But something to be looked at, I think, and not dismissed as pie-in-the-sky thinking. If there is a problem in need of a solution, of course.

  25. Trumwill says:

    So, was there actually a union work stoppage, or not?

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure it matters anymore. Even if it isn’t, many on the right have accepted it as true and will likely bring it up (accepted as true) next time any sort of public sector union discussion comes up. And whether it’s true or not, many on the left are defending any such stoppage as acceptable or unavoidable.

  26. calling all toasters says:

    Trumwill:

    Who are these “many on the left” who are defending these actions? I wonder, because I doubt anyone on the left believes that a puke funnel story like this (from mythical or deceptive sanitation workers to right wing pol to Murdoch media outlet) is substantively true.

  27. Trumwill says:

    WR went into full-defense mode. He doesn’t think it’s true, but he apparently doesn’t have a problem with it if it is, seeing it as unavoidable. I’ve seen other people shift directly into the importance of unions without much acknowledgement that something like this – if true – would hurt their case. So, whether it’s true or not, I’m not sure anyone’s perspective on it changes.

    But… I could be wrong. Let’s say that this story does turn out to be true and there are memos or something demonstrating it. Who here (on the left) would condemn the union’s actions?

  28. calling all toasters says:

    Um, pretty much everyone.

  29. An Interested Party says:

    “Even if it isn’t, many on the right have accepted it as true and will likely bring it up (accepted as true) next time any sort of public sector union discussion comes up.”

    Tax cuts raise revenues
    Gay people want to corrupt your children
    Saddam has WMD
    There is no global warming, and even if some exists, people don’t contribute to it
    A progressive tax code is class warfare

    And now, public unions endanger people’s safety…

    And on and on and on…

    It’s great that we have to factor fantasies into our discussions of public policy…

  30. wr says:

    Trumwill — I went into “full defense mode” because I believe this is another bullshit story planted by right-wingers to destroy public employee unions. Because I’ve been hearing the radio clowns ranting for a couple of years now that it’s an outrage that public employees still have pensions when the private sector employees have seen theirs looted by corporate robber barons.

    You find one tiny bit of evidence that there’s truth to this unsourced slander issued by a right wing politician and publicized by Rupert Murdoch’s propaganda machine, and we can talk about punishing people. But I’m saying right now — it’s a lie. And to speculate on what should be done should it turn out to be true is to grant the argument to the liars.

    You want to know what really happened? Bloomberg and Christie screwed up. But we can never say that the rich or powerful are at fault in this country — remember, it wasn’t bankers who crashed the financial system, it was those greedy poor people who took out a fifty thousand dollar mortgage they couldn’t afford — so we’ve got to shift blame to a convenient target.

    And you fall for it. Not completely — but then, it’s not necessary for you to accept the accusations as fact. You merely have to shift the conversation to “if it’s true” and ignore the fact that the great crusader for the people of New Jersy is hanging out with Mickey Mouse in the middle of a crisis — and you’ve obeyed like the good sheep you are.

  31. wr says:

    Trumwill — One other thing. You’ve seen “other people shift directly into defense of unions” without stopping to acknowledge how terrible this makes unions look if it’s true.

    Let me say that I find it amusing that should we find a single union member guilty of anything, it’s proof that the entire system of collective barganing is evil and should be brought down. Whereas when the top executives of the biggest banks in the country are committing rampant fraud that finally crashes the world’s economy, no one is allowed to suggest that there’s something wrong with the banking industry — every individual convicted is just one bad apple.

    And thus does the right wing noise machine seek to destroy its enemies and help its friends. Thanks again for playing.

  32. Terrye says:

    An interested party:

    What a provincial a little snot you are.

    Most conservatives I know are not homophobes, in fact they are more open minded than a lot of liberals who look at the gay community and see nothing but a voting block.

    Democrats were saying Saddam had WMD years before Bush was even president and in fact he did have them at one time and used them to kill his own people. In 1999 I heard Bill Clinton on TV explaining the need to pass the Iraqi Liberation Act saying that not only did Saddam have WMD, he would use them. And in fact the programs survived even if the stockpiles were not. So your off hand remark is just another example of your simple minded thinking.

    As for global warming, most people think that if it exists at all, it is a natural phenomenon. And part of the reason they believe that is that the shameless politicizing of the issue as destroyed the faith of many in the socalled science of the global warming fanatics.

    And the largest pay day in the history of the IRS came in April 2006, after the Bush tax cuts were enacted.

    As for public service unions, when we are hearing daily about huge deficits in the states and at the same time we see public service unions unwilling to make any concessions while their private sector counter parts are looking at double digit unemployment..it is inevitable that there will be some resentment.

    Maybe you could be a little less of a predictable lefty and think about some of these things from the vantage point of someplace other than your liberal echo chamber.

  33. wr says:

    Terrye — So your argument about unions is that since a lot of people in the public sector are unemployed, those who still have jobs should see their pay and benefits slashed? Just wondering, do you feel this sacrifice should be extended across the board? I mean, would you be willing to see taxes rise on those making more than a million dollars a year — because other people are unemployed? Or are you a typical conservative shouting in your own little echo chamber that working people should make all the sacrifices while the ultra-rich should reap all the benefits?

  34. Trumwill says:

    And you fall for it. Not completely — but then, it’s not necessary for you to accept the accusations as fact. You merely have to shift the conversation to “if it’s true” and ignore the fact that the great crusader for the people of New Jersy is hanging out with Mickey Mouse in the middle of a crisis — and you’ve obeyed like the good sheep you are.

    Not only have I consistently added the “if it’s true” disclaimer, WR, but I have more than once expressed active skepticism towards the veracity of the story (indeed, that was the entire point of my initial comment). The only case I’ve indulged the story as true was in response to Herb, who was talking about privatization of streetsweeping in general.

  35. Julie says:

    Even if this were true, there is no reason that non-union employees couldn’t do the exact same thing.

  36. matt says:

    The facts in this case.

    The mayor or deputy mayor didn’t declare a snow emergency until much MUCH later then normal.
    Due to cutbacks there are about 500 few sanitation workers and roughly 25% fewer sanitation vehicles out there clearing streets.
    Meanwhile the private contractors that were supposed to pick up the slack for cheaper were either on vacation or off doing jobs that paid more then the city. Private contractors cannot be ordered to show up and work like the sanitation workers..

    So if anyone could be bothered to actually look at the mayor’s policies you would clearly see the failings of a privately contracted plowing service. The mayor himself totally screwed up by not taking this storm seriously and by making serious cuts in the sanitation department while expecting freelancers to respond on demand. So naturally the Mayor and his right winger buddies will blame unions and demand even more private contractors. Never mind that this storm wasn’t even that bad compared to storms in the past where the sanitation workers were able to respond at full strength and produced very effective results..

  37. Trumwill says:

    Even if this were true, there is no reason that non-union employees couldn’t do the exact same thing.

    It would probably be harder to act collectively without the union. Also, non-union employees would likely have more fear of losing their jobs after all of this is done. It’s not necessarily impossible to do this sort of thing without unions (or, for that matter, necessarily possible with them), but it’s more possible with them.

  38. wr says:

    Trumwill — (And I mean you no personal disrespect, and wish you the happiest of new years!) You are absolutely right that non-union employees will likely have more fear of losing their jobs. That’s exactly the point of this anti-labor jihad. Non-union employees will have to work for whatever they can get, probably minimum wage, and they will have to put up with whatever abuse their employers choose to heap on them. That’s why it’s so crucial for the right destroy all unions, and now that they’ve pretty well succeeded in most of the private sector, why they’re targeting public worker unions. They want a workforce that is weak, scared, and unable to protest. They want to continue slashing pay and benefits, and transferring more of the wealth to themselves and the shareholders. They are pushing us towards a third world economy — deliberately.

  39. BugMeNot says:

    Shorter Mr. Mataconis: “I have no idea if this is true, but nonetheless it proves public employee unions are bad!”

  40. Spiff says:

    Like most of my fellow conservatives you have been duped by incumbent politicians deflecting the blame for abdicating their responsibility of managing government off of themselves and on to to unions. Collective bargaining for public employees is necessary to protect them from the abuses of government – as important as the Bill of Rights is to protecting all Americans from the abuses of government. To the average public sector worker a union provides a means to assert and resolve grievances, address issues of health and safety, and enforce due process in matters of discipline. The history of the patronage system is rife with stories which justify a conflict resolution system (i.e. collective bargaining with binding arbitration) which protects employees and the promises made to them by elected officials in the name of the public. Unfortunately, as organizations, unions have abandoned the notion of representing workers in the workplace and have prioritized progressive politics and the garnering of the political power to affect their agenda. Politicians have become beholden to unions (distinct as entities from the individual public employees they represent) and have used the power of office to advance the revisionist political interest of the unions, and the party, over the workers represented. Workers will always have the political power to walk off the job. Collective bargaining is the means to avoid it. Politicians have painted themselves in a corner by providing to public sector unions political power with the employees represented through generous pay and benefits. The fault remains first with the elected official. Secondarily with fat cat unions, though how do you blame a duck for quacking. Most individuals represented by unions are like most Americans – center right.