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Trash Talk

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eye on the news

Trash Talk

Why did it take Bill de Blasio so long to cut a deal with New York’s sanitation workers? May 21, 2015
Photo by Kevin Martini

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced this week that his administration has reached agreement on a contract with the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, Local 831. The city’s more than 6,000 uniformed sanitation workers will receive 11 percent raises over the seven-year life of the contract. At Tuesday’s press conference announcing the deal, de Blasio said that the $271.1 million agreement gives sanitation workers “fair wages they deserve and protects New York City taxpayers.”

The sanitation workers have been working without a contract since 2011. Like the deal de Blasio reached with city teachers in 2014, the new agreement provides retroactive raises. “It’s been four long years without a contract,” said Local 831 president Harry Nespoli, who also serves as chair of the Municipal Labor Committee, the umbrella group of nearly 100 unions representing 350,000 city workers. “I just figured it’s time now that these people can get their money to pay some of the bills that they accumulated over the last four years.”

Without naming names, the mayor laid the blame for those contractless years on his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. “This union, like so many others, went for years without a contract,” de Blasio said. “It just wasn’t fair. It’s not the way people should be treated. We have taken a big step forward today to respect the hard work of the men and women of the sanitation department.” Nespoli agreed: “Don’t forget it started under the old administration, and when Mr. de Blasio came in, we sat down and we talked.”

In their eagerness to congratulate themselves, both men are twisting history. Under New York State law, public-employee unions continue to receive automatic, so-called “step” raises after a contract expires. So Nespoli’s claim that union members have been racking up unpaid bills is a bit of a stretch. Also, knowing that Bloomberg’s third term would be his last, the leaders of the city’s big municipal unions made a strategic bet not to negotiate new contracts. They sensed that the billionaire mayor’s successor would be a progressive Democrat with deep union ties. They were right.

And yet, de Blasio, who rode into office on a wave of union support, has been mayor now for nearly 17 months. The last sanitation contract, negotiated between Bloomberg and Nespoli, took just four months to complete (with a much beefier 17 percent raise for workers). If, as Nespoli suggests, the city’s trash collectors have been suffering, why did it take so long to hammer out the new deal with a friendly mayor?

One culprit might be de Blasio’s constant motion. His first year and a half as mayor has brought a blizzard of new initiatives: universal pre-K, Vision Zero, OneNYC, Housing New York, and so on. He spent the second half of 2014 trying to keep his decaying relationship with the NYPD from turning toxic. Last week, he went to Washington to pitch his Progressive Contract with America to Congress and President Obama. When you’re as busy as de Blasio, it’s helpful to have a unionized city workforce that stays patient, knowing that you will eventually get around to giving them a generous raise for work they’ve already done.

Everyone wants the trash picked up, and no one wants to think much about how it’s done or where it goes. But as a report from the Citizen’s Budget Commission demonstrated last year, New York already has the highest per-ton garbage-collection cost of any large American city. Most of that cost is related to employee compensation. A first-year sanitation worker earns more than $100,000 in total comp, including overtime, holiday pay, and benefits. When the Department of Sanitation announced last year that it would offer its employment exam for the first time in seven years, more than 90,000 people signed up to take it. That’s an awful lot of New Yorkers willing to brave the penury of working without a contract.

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