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Opinion

New York’s Private Sanitation Workers Deserve Fairness


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(photo: Spencer T Tucker)


Each January, we have the opportunity to take a day and celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Every passing commemoration to the life and legacy of Dr. King is a reminder to rededicate ourselves to advancing social and economic justice in New York and across the country. This year, as New York’s commercial waste industry is facing potential overhaul, it is particularly fitting to reflect on Dr. King’s often overlooked work helping sanitation workers in their fight for fair wages and higher safety standards.

If implemented, the New York City Department of Sanitation’s waste zones plan will leave hundreds of sanitation workers – the vast majority of whom are people of color – jobless. The livelihood of workers should not be used as collateral to score political points, which is why the NAACP New York State Conference supports reform to the city’s private waste industry that would vastly increase oversight and efficiency, without costing anyone their job.

Commercial waste is one of the few industries in our city that gives formerly incarcerated men and women a second chance to hold down a steady job with good wages, provide for their families and, most importantly, regain their sense of dignity. In a sense, the private waste industry has been able to service the formerly incarcerated as the second chance worker program New York doesn’t really have. However, DSNY’s waste zone plan stands to overhaul the industry while causing hundreds of workers to lose their jobs, which we know would disproportionately harm formerly incarcerated workers of color.

That is why we continue to stand firmly opposed to DSNY’s proposal to create commercial waste zones, and it is why we strongly support new legislation by City Council Member Robert Cornegy, Jr., known as Intro. 996, which would bring much-needed reform to the commercial waste industry without implementing a zone-based system. Job loss, especially among our most vulnerable populations, should not be taken lightly.

Intro. 996 will increase worker safety and hold bad actors accountable, without causing hundreds of workers to lose their jobs. On the other hand, DSNY’s proposal permits only a small number of companies to operate in each zone. Many private waste companies – particularly the smaller mom-and-pop ones – will be forced to consolidate or go out of business, leaving hundreds of workers without a job.

Council Member Cornegy’s legislation would give the city’s Business Integrity Commission the authority to establish safety standards for industry employees and private waste carters. Under Intro. 996, BIC would have far more power to guarantee companies are properly training their employees and hold bad actors to account.

Additionally, the legislation would, for the first time, require industry-wide reporting on demographics data for workers across the commercial waste industry. This will allow the city to have a better sense of who is working in the industry—including second-chance workers of color—to ensure that their progress is tracked and they are effectively protected under any new rules and regulations.

The vast majority of the private waste industry’s formerly incarcerated workers were already failed once by misguided policy – and we can’t let them down again with the administration’s waste zones plan.

The NAACP New York State Conference hopes other members of the City Council join us in supporting Council Member Cornegy’s fair and equitable proposal to reform the private waste industry.

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Dr. Hazel N. Dukes is president of the NAACP New York State Conference.

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New York City Is Still a Union Town and That’s a Great Thing for Our Future


count me in bldg trades


New York City - a beacon of the labor movement - has a duty to stand up for construction unions and serve as a model for rest of country

The labor movement is under attack. Over the past few years, assaults on unions and labor have escalated at a breakneck pace. From recent court cases like Janus v. AFSCME to right to work legislation creeping through state legislatures, one thing is clear: unions remain strong, but our resolve is being tested by increasingly relentless attacks from moneyed interests and a hostile political environment where the value of profit is placed over the value of working people.

We all know what happens when union and labor power are diminished -– a race to the bottom follows where working people lose out and a handful of wealthy individuals reap the rewards of everyone else’s hard work. That is not to say the pursuit of wealth should be discouraged – healthy entrepreneurship, innovation, and risk power the economic engine of New York, and those who drive their industry forward should be rewarded; however, the engine works best when all its pieces are working fairly and in concert.

There’s a reason New York is the most union dense state in the country, and that is because, as New Yorkers, we don’t settle for less, we champion the best. Unions are the backbone of this state and from the recent fight to codify construction safety to #CountMeIn, our movements have been at the forefront of pushing the country forward in the fight to build a solid middle-class for all.

Now, more than ever, New York City finds itself at a pivotal moment in labor history. With growing wealth inequality and in the face of a commercial and residential construction boom, will developers and power players stand up for our middle-class or will they settle for the lowest denominator, like open shop, in the name of cost-cutting?

As Governor Andrew Cuomo has mentioned, New York will continue moving forward by building new bridges, new airports, and other new infrastructure. This means jobs - lots and lots of middle-class jobs. Middle-class jobs aren’t created out of thin air -- they require cooperation between job creators and job seekers and the understanding that if an employee works hard and does their part they should be able to support a family without worrying about whether their next paycheck will be enough to scrape by or whether they will make it home safely.

Lawmakers need to spearhead legislation to ensure that residents are being paid higher wages, provided with adequate health benefits, and are placed in an environment with good working conditions -- tenets of union work. These are not revolutionary ideas, but axioms of New York’s history -- a history that some would like to see erased.

With a wave of development underway ranging from Hudson Yards, to Amazon HQ2, to residential booms in Brooklyn and the Bronx, local and state officials and developers must work together to protect unions, particularly as it relates to construction.

This means no open shop for Hudson Yards. This means work environments with high standards. Taxpayers are already footing the bill for massive projects like Hudson Yards, they expect something in return. How about some middle-class jobs? There should be no blank checks in the greatest city in the world. Open shop is broken shop and New Yorkers deserve better.

They know they deserve better and that’s why, over the past year, we’ve seen the enormous grassroots success of the #CountMeIn movement, which has brought together New Yorkers of different races, religions, and backgrounds united in a fight for their fair share. While much has been made of reports of a supposed decline of construction unions in New York City, such analyses do not take into consideration total market share. For example, growing claims of the rise of open shop do not paint the whole picture because they exclude commercial or institutional markets. When the dollar amount is analyzed, union construction accounts for 70 percent of New York City’s total construction -- a much higher proportion than non-union construction. The #CountMeIn movement is evidence that the revival of the labor movement starts here and it begins with construction unions.

Now is the time for lawmakers and developers to cultivate this grassroots energy and do what is right: listen to the voices of New York and reject open shop, promote worker-friendly legislation and show that yes, we can continue to build the greatest city in the world, and we can do it while creating middle-class jobs and preserving the economic future for the next generation.

New York’s metric for success is not just about jobs or numbers on a spreadsheet, it’s about dignity and quality of life for our workers. At this moment in history, this is a battle worth fighting, and if it is won, it will serve as a model for the rest of the country.

Let’s prove that New York cares about fairness and a strong middle class. The future of unions and the labor movement depends on it.

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Gary LaBarbera is President of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. On Twitter @NYCBldgTrades.

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Community Demands for the Next Queens District Attorney


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Queens DA Brown and several ADAs (photo: @QueensDABrown)


Thankfully, “progressive prosecutor” is the new “tough-on-crime” prosecutor, and the trend has been on the rise ever since hardliner Anita Alvarez lost her re-election campaign for Cook County District Attorney in 2016 and progressive crusader Larry Krasner won his campaign for Philadelphia D.A. in 2017. Over the last two years, district attorney elections from Houston to Boston have promised substantial criminal justice reform, and many across the United States are looking to the 2019 Queens District Attorney race as the next forum for change.

But we know from experience that election rhetoric doesn’t always equal reform. Let’s take a look closer to home. Brooklyn D.A. Eric Gonzalez succeeded the late Ken Thompson in 2017, promising “the most progressive D.A.’s office in the country” as he sought election to a full term. In forums leading up to the election, candidates fought over who was the most progressive, with Gonzalez promising to end cash bail and stop prosecuting fare evasion if elected. And yet, according to Court Watch NYC reports, D.A. Gonzalez requests cash bail every day and continues to prosecute fare evasion. Despite these broken promises, D.A. Gonzalez is celebrated in the media as an example of a good and progressive D.A.

Progressive talk is cheap. Real change is not.

In our borough, the 2019 Queens District Attorney race is shaping up to be an essential test. Current D.A. Richard Brown is a true standby of a bygone era. He charges people with no regard for devastating immigration consequences. He prosecutes people like Terrell Gills, who he knows to be innocent. He forces people to waive their speedy trial rights, requests absurdly high bail, and coerces plea deals. He advocates for Rikers Island to remain open. He fails to hold the NYPD accountable for perjury or brutality. He champions broken-windows policing by prosecuting marijuana possession, fare evasion, and other low-level offenses.

Queens deserves better. It is the fourth largest county, with 2.4 million people, and home to the largest community of immigrants in the nation, making this an election of national importance. On the heels of U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s historic grassroots upset victory and after Richard Brown’s announcement that he won’t seek re-election, suddenly anything seems possible here. The field is wide open -- at least nine candidates have speculated a run, and they’re all promising reform. But who’s going to make sure the best candidate for the job wins and that those reforms actually happen after a winner is declared and gains power?

That’s why grassroots groups came together to form “Queens for DA Accountability,” a coalition of 19 (and growing) community organizations dedicated to ending mass incarceration in Queens. We are led by people of color, immigrants, and formerly incarcerated Queens residents. This Martin Luther King Jr. Day at 1 p.m., we’ll officially launch at the Queens Criminal Court, and for the next year, before and after the election, we’ll be doing the work in our borough -- teach-ins, protests, educating the public about the role of the district attorney and the importance of this race for us and our neighbors. We’ll be sitting in arraignment courts and reporting out what we see from D.A. Brown’s office and building power with communities impacted by the justice system. We’ll be making public art, launching social media campaigns, door-knocking, and holding town halls.

Though media will cover this race as if an election can end incarceration, we know better. Only by using any means necessary to hold the district attorney accountable to community demands will we truly liberate our communities.

These are our demands for the next Queens District Attorney:

1. We demand a public plan to cut the Queens population in jail by 50% in 5 years.

2. We demand zero tolerance for police misconduct in any form.

3. We demand an end to money bail and a start to open, early, automatic discovery.

4. We demand sentencing recommendations that are compassionate and individualized to each case.

5. We demand a list of charges the D.A. will decline to prosecute. This includes charges related to drug use, sex work, crimes of poverty, and other low-level offenses. The D.A. should not prosecute survivors of domestic, sexual, or gender-based violence for acts of self-defense.

6. We demand a D.A. who won’t try young people as adults.

7. We demand a D.A. who keeps ICE out of the courts. The DA should consider immigration consequences in charging decisions.

8. We demand full transparency. The D.A. should release data about outcomes of the office to the public and hold quarterly town halls.

The Queens District Attorney is an elected public servant. When the D.A. brings cases, the offices does so in the name of “the People of the State of New York.” We, the People, have a right to know what’s done in our name. We’re here to bring real community accountability to the office.

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Andrea Colon is a lifelong resident of Far Rockaway, Queens and Community Engagement Organizer at Rockaway Youth Task Force, representing RYTF on the Steering Committee of the Queens for DA Accountability coalition. Jon McFarlane is a lifelong resident of Jamaica, Queens and a volunteer for Court Watch NYC, which is a member organization of the Queens for DA Accountability coalition.

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