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Proposal Seeks to Give New York’s Private Trash Industry Watchdog Sharper Teeth

The legislation would allow the agency to bar union officials from representing workers in the industry if they are found to be lacking “good character, honesty and integrity.”

The chairman of the New York City Council’s Sanitation Committee introduced a bill Wednesday that would authorize the agency overseeing the private trash industry to directly police the labor unions at scores of companies across the city.

The legislation would allow the oversight agency, the Business Integrity Commission, or BIC, to bar union officials from representing workers in the industry if they are found to be lacking “good character, honesty and integrity.” Any union representing waste industry workers would be required to disclose their officers to the BIC and, in some cases, submit them to fingerprinting. The agency could oust union officials from the industry if they have certain criminal convictions, or for associating with members or associates of organized crime or anyone convicted of a racketeering activity. A disqualified union officer would have to leave their post within 14 days.

The proposed bill, introduced by City Councilman Antonio Reynoso, comes after a series of reports by ProPublica exposing 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.

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 Wednesday.

When ProPublica presented its findings to the BIC, agency officials said they lacked the power to investigate and take action against labor unions at work in the industry. Yet, the BIC is expressly authorized to move against the companies it licenses, and haulers are prohibited from doing business with people who have been barred from the private trash industry, as well as members and associates of organized crime and people the agency determines to be convicted racketeers. ProPublica found that two men connected to LIFE 890, including an officer of the union, are former trash company owners who were years ago barred from the industry and are considered convicted racketeers by the BIC.

Both LIFE 890 and the men associated with it did not respond to the latest in a series of requests for comment.

“Not only are workers forced to work under highly dangerous conditions, but in a number of shops, the unions that are supposed to protect these workers are mere extensions of the company’s ownership. These sham unions collude with owners to prevent workers from ever securing good benefits and worker protections,” Reynoso said in a statement. “This bill will give BIC the tools to fully root out organized crime from the industry and ensure that unions are working for the workers and not company ownership.”

The bill will next go to the Sanitation Committee, where it is likely to be heard within the next month.

Reynoso’s effort comes as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration pushes for broader reform of the private trash industry. 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.

City Councilman Antonio Reynoso, center, calls for reform alongside Teamsters members and others at the doorstep of the city’s Business Integrity Commission in April 2018. (David “Dee” Delgado for ProPublica)

A number of the city’s major trash haulers have fought against the zoning proposal, saying it was unnecessary and would limit competition and raise prices for the city’s thousands of businesses.

For 40 years, organized crime ran the private trash industry in New York. There were mobsters and mob associates as officials in both the trash companies and the industry’s unions. What resulted was an illegal cartel, wholly controlled by organized crime. The agency now known as the BIC was explicitly created in the 1990s to root out organized crime and corruption, but the industry’s unions appear to have been far less policed than the companies.

Edward Ferguson, a former assistant U.S. attorney who served as chairman and executive director of the BIC from 1996 to 2000, told ProPublica that trash companies’ dealings with unions fall under the agency’s existing purview.

“If a carting company or an official of a carting company is engaged in or essentially doing business with an illegitimate union, I’d think that is something that BIC would want to investigate,” he said. Without scrutiny of both the trash companies and the unions, he said, there’s a significant risk of a return to “the bad old days” when the industry was run as a criminal enterprise. “It’s not the kind of thing where you can do a house cleaning and then the house is going to stay clean. It’s a constant battle.”

Reynoso, in introducing the bill, credited the Teamsters union and ProPublica’s reporting with having prompted his bid to toughen oversight of the entire trade waste industry.

Kendall Christiansen, executive director of New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management, a lobbying arm for the private trash industry, said companies supported further empowering the BIC, but he added that, “before advancing this legislation, the City Council should conduct a comprehensive study — rather than relying on a single news report — to ensure that the bill would actually improve labor representation.”

Sean Campbell, president of Teamsters Local 813, said in a statement: “At company after company, we have seen private carters bring in sham unions to lower wages, drop pensions, and undermine worker rights. The City Council bill will go a long way toward forcing sham unions out of the shadows. No one with a history of racketeering or corruption has any business representing workers in this industry.”

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