New York City Snow Removal Response Investigated as SEIU-Teamster Slowdown, Payback

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NYC snowstormNew York City residents finally are digging out of a devastating post-Christmas blizzard, aided by unexpectedly warmer weather. But a growing number are sounding as if they want to use their shovels against union snowplow workers and their supervisors. Various news outlets have reported that leaders of the Service Employees-affiliated Sanitation Officers Association ordered their Teamsters-affiliated work crews to slack off as a protest against recent City Department of Sanitation budget cuts and demotions. The apparent work slowdown not only paralyzed traffic, but also led to two deaths and any number of commuters trapped overnight in subway cars. On the hot seat, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has demanded, and is getting, a full investigation. Union leaders deny culpability, insisting fiscal austerity had reduced manpower. But evidence appears to undercut such claims. 

That a king-sized blizzard slammed New York during December 26-27 is something nobody debates. It was the sixth-most powerful in city history, dumping at least 20 inches of snow on the ground, with high winds aggravating the accumulation in many neighborhoods. Worse yet was what came after - or more accurately, what didn't. And what didn't come, in many cases, were snowplows. Hundreds of streets remained completely unplowed even after three days. With thru traffic virtually crippled, many commuters could not get to work. In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a newborn infant died during the 10 hours it took for emergency workers to arrive in response to a mother's "911" call. In the borough of Queens, a 75-year-old woman died because it took three hours for an ambulance crew to arrive on the scene following her daughter's emergency phone call. Meanwhile, uncollected garbage has accumulated.

A mayor almost inevitably bears the brunt of public dissatisfaction over snow removal. In February 1969, for example, New York City Mayor John Lindsay suddenly found himself very unpopular, especially in Queens, after a 15-inch snowfall rendered whole neighborhoods impassable. In Chicago, Mayor Michael Bilandic's widely perceived weak response to a January 1979 blizzard cost him his job, as upstart Jane Byrne defeated him in the Democratic mayoral primary a couple months later. Slow action in the wake of a 1982 Christmas Eve snowstorm proved instrumental in Denver Mayor William McNichols' primary defeat the following spring at the hands of challenger Federico Pena. And in January 1987, Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry caught flak from all directions after his city had been pummeled by a huge snowstorm during which time he was in Southern California attending the Super Bowl. Whether fair or unfair, the speed of a response to a major snow accumulation is a litmus test of an urban mayor's legacy.

New York City Mayor Bloomberg's political stock, at least, hasn't tanked. After all, he had won much goodwill in his successful handling of an even bigger snowstorm in February 2006. And days ago he publicly excoriated his administration's response to this latest storm as "inadequate and unacceptable." Still, many New Yorkers are giving him an earful. That includes elected officials. Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, several days after the storm blew over, stated that constituents were calling her office asking: "Where is the plow?" The mayor insists that budget cuts made at his behest were not a factor. "The number of plows and boots on the street were the same as in previous storms," he asserted, adding that resident overreliance on the 911 emergency system strained the response system beyond capacity, a claim backed by Deputy Fire Commissioner Francis X. Gribbon.

There is, however, a more sinister explanation: a union-engineered work slowdown. Sanitation Department supervisors reportedly told snow removal employees, in so many words, to slack off on the job in order to stick it to City Hall. Actually, two unions were involved, and may have worked in concert with one another: 1) the Sanitation Officers Association, which also goes by the name of Service Employees International Union Local 444; and 2) the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association, also known as International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 831. Union officials insist that the cleanup was slow because the work crews were short-handed. But they are facing a bombshell revelation that undercuts this claim.

Last Wednesday, New York City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Queens) announced that three Department of Sanitation plow workers, accompanied by two Department of Transportation supervisors on loan to the Sanitation Department, came to his office and confessed the slow response times were no accident. Halloran said the whistleblowers "didn't want to be identified because they were afraid of retaliation." The councilman got specific: "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."

That's a pretty damning accusation. But in a December 30 story, the New York Post gave some damning details:

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.

They said crews normally would have been more aggressive in combating a fierce, fast-moving blizzard like the one that barreled in on Sunday and blew out the next morning.

The supervisors apparently were motivated by wrath toward the Bloomberg administration, which persuaded the City Council to make budget cuts to prevent bankruptcy. Within the last two years, the City of New York has cut the combined number of Sanitation Department trash haulers and supervisors from 6,300 to 5,900. Moreover, only last week, it instituted a reduction in the rank and base pay of 100 (out of about 1,000) supervisors by $5,000, plus the elimination of another 100 positions through attrition. The snow removal slowdown, say critics, was an act of political sabotage.

Councilman Halloran stated that the sanitation workers in his office had told him that certain supervisors had made clear that slacking off wouldn't be the cause for discipline. Mayor Bloomberg, while assuming a cautious tone, expressed a desire to get the facts. "I don't think [a slowdown] took place, but we are going to do an investigation to make sure that it didn't," he said. New York Governor David Paterson, now an ex-governor - his successor, Andrew Cuomo, was inaugurated on January 1 - stated on a radio interview: "(T)here are examples of peoples whose lives were threatened severely because of their inability to leave the vicinity they were in." Halloran acknowledged that an aggressive probe already is underway. "They (investigators) are leaving no stone unturned," he said. "They're going gangbusters on this and sparing no expense."

Union leaders, not unexpectedly, think there is no wrongdoing to investigate. Joseph Mannion, president of the Sanitation Officers Association, said that the pay cuts and demotions hurt the Sanitation Department's ability to clear the streets. With many foremen positions eliminated, fewer people have been available to coordinate crews. Was there a deliberate slowdown? "Absolutely not," said Mannion, "There was no slowdown." Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association President Harry Nespoli also denied that his union participated in a slowdown. "My members are out there working, and they are plowing," he remarked a few days after the storm. He attributed to the slow progress to a shortage of manpower. "The City currently has 2,400 men and women working 12-hour shifts following a series of cuts," said Nespoli. "This is the lowest amount of manpower that we ever went into a winter with. There's certain agencies you just don't cut."

Such statements, however, run counter to certain pieces of evidence. For one thing, Council Member Halloran has read city reports indicating that about 400 sanitation workers called in sick and another 100 had the equivalent of an emergency. That, he noted, amounted to an absentee rate of about 10 percent, far above the normal rate of 2 to 4 percent. Second, snowplow crews who did show up for work weren't necessarily involved in productive activity. City investigators are looking into a report that four on-duty sanitation supervisors had bought beer and sat in their car during the previous Monday night. Citing an unnamed witness, the Sunday (January 2) New York Post stated that the Brooklyn-based supervisors later told their supervisors that they had run out of gas. At least one worker was photographed sleeping on the job. "We urge all members of the public, most especially City employees, to call us with any information about this matter or with any provable information about deliberate inaction or wrongdoing relating to the snow storm," said New York City Department of Investigation Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn in a prepared statement. Finally, snow removal crews weren't necessarily competent when they were at assigned tasks. In one instance, a plow truck driver was caught on videotape destroying a parked vehicle.

Another argument undercutting "our hands are clean" assertions by union officials is the fact that City sanitation workers, even by New York metro area standards, are exceptionally well-paid. According to the Manhattan Institute-sponsored web site, www.SeeThroughNY.org, fully 315 Sanitation Department employees in 2009 earned a total compensation of more than $100,000. City sanitation chieftain John Doherty made $205,180. The same web site also reported that 8,074 Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers made $100,000 in 2009, with 50 earning more than $200,000. The City isn't about to get much help from Albany either. In 2009, nearly 900 New York State employees made more than Governor Paterson's $178,509. These exorbitant compensation packages owe largely to aggressive bargaining by public-sector unions. One can see why Mayor Bloomberg has become austerity-minded these days, and why the unions have been the first to denounce him. Austerity - at least up to a point - is a good short-term step. Even better, over the long run, may be privatization of sanitation services. The Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, for example, has amassed much information over the years showing that contracting with the private sector for sanitation services, or outright privatizing, can cut local government costs without sacrificing service level or quality.  

Even the best political leadership can't stop a blizzard, a tornado or other acts of nature. And equally obvious, a public employee union doesn't cause them. But the success of a response to the consequences of natural disaster is determined in large measure by the will to address the emergency at hand and the constraints placed upon it. City investigators are trying to find out what happened. In the end, the probe likely will conclude that directives from Services Employees and Teamsters local bosses were of more than passing significance.