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New York City Council Passes Legislation to Help Workers in Private Trash Industry

One bill authorizes an oversight agency to directly police the labor unions at companies across the city. Another would require the agency to refer labor and wage violation cases to law enforcement. The mayor is expected to sign them.

A worker with a Sanitation Salvage trash can in the Bronx. (Ryan Christopher Jones for ProPublica)

The New York City Council adopted legislation Thursday that it says will improve work conditions and bolster labor protections in the private sanitation industry.

One of the bills authorizes the agency overseeing the private trash industry to directly police the labor unions at companies across the city. Another would require the agency to refer labor and wage violation cases to relevant law enforcement bodies.

The legislation, which is expected to be signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, mandates that the oversight agency, the Business Integrity Commission, or BIC, take action against union officials who have certain criminal convictions or dealings with members or associates of organized crime or anyone convicted of a racketeering activity. It allows the BIC to bar union officials from representing workers in the industry if they are found to be lacking “good character, honesty and integrity.”

The other measure requires the BIC to “inform the New York state attorney general, the New York state Department of Labor, the United States Department of Labor or other relevant city, state or federal law enforcement agency” if the agency had “reasonable cause to believe” that a trash company had violated labor law or engaged in “egregious or habitual nonpayment or underpayment of wages.”

ProPublica in 2018 exposed the backgrounds and business dealings of two unions that together represented workers at many of the industry’s major companies.

In one report, done with Voice of America, ProPublica showed that the union at Sanitation Salvage, a major Bronx hauler, had for years been run by a mobster, and federal authorities found that the company unlawfully threatened to fire workers who opposed the union during an election.

In another, ProPublica showed that one of the largest unions, known as LIFE 890, had officers with criminal backgrounds, had stacked its payroll with family members and had long been regarded by many workers it represented as a sham operation in cahoots with company owners. ProPublica found that two men connected to LIFE 890, including an officer of the union, are former trash company owners who were barred from the industry years ago and are considered convicted racketeers by the BIC.

Officials at both unions, who have repeatedly not responded to detailed questions about their leadership and operations, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. Sanitation Salvage’s owners and lawyers also did not respond to requests for comment. The company surrendered its operating license in late 2018.

“At the end of the day, it’s about rooting out corruption. We have to continue to empower BIC to do the job that they were created to do,” said Antonio Reynoso, the chairman of the City Council’s Sanitation Committee.

“Worker abuses are unacceptable, and this administration is cracking down on bad actors in the trade waste industry,” said Jane Meyer, a spokeswoman for the BIC. “We have been working closely with the City Council on this legislation to give BIC more oversight of trade waste unions and protect workers.”

Sean Campbell, president of Teamsters Local 813, said in a statement: “For years, sanitation companies have used fake unions to deny their employees the ability to fully exercise their labor rights and join a legitimate union like the Teamsters. Many of these so-called unions work with employers behind closed doors to keep down wages and undermine safety conditions.”

Campbell and other advocates and legislators backed this legislation while calling for a broader reform of the private trash industry that is supported by the de Blasio administration. In November, the city’s Department of Sanitation released the outlines of a plan that would divide waste collection into 20 zones, with three to five companies per zone. Proponents of the plan argue that it would rein in the chaos of the industry and allow the city to hold companies to higher labor, safety and environmental standards. Zoning legislation could be introduced as early as this spring.

A number of the city’s major trash haulers have waged a half-million dollar fight against the zoning proposal saying it was unnecessary, would limit competition and would raise prices for thousands of businesses.

Kendall Christiansen, executive director of New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management, an anti-zoning lobbying arm for the private trash industry, said in a statement: “NYRWM applauds the Council’s passage of today’s bills and encourages the Mayor to sign … These bills show that best practices can be affirmed and regulated effectively within the current open-market system without the need for an untested system of zones and city-picked service providers that at best would not take effect for several years.”

Many funders of the trash lobbying group stand to be affected by the legislation passed Thursday because their companies have deals in place with the union LIFE 890. Christiansen did not respond to questions about the dealings of the trash companies that have funded the group, including Sanitation Salvage.

Sanitation Salvage was the focus of a series of articles by ProPublica exposing its history of safety issues, its role in two recent deaths and findings by federal authorities that the company owed workers hundreds of thousands of dollars of unpaid overtime. “Every time we went for another union, people started getting fired,” said Donjuan Patterson, a former Sanitation Salvage worker.

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