Just after 4 one morning in the fall of 2019, long before COVID-19 upended New York City’s trash-hauling industry, a non-union sanitation worker and two organizers for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters convened over orange juice in a booth at the Bronx’s Rainbow Diner. “Did they give you uniforms and other stuff that they was required to?” asked Allan Henry. The young driver scoffed. “They gave me nuffin’! No boots, no gloves. Nuffin’! They barely gave me a JOB!”
The three men ran through the lamentable particulars before the young worker, fresh off an overnight shift darting around upper Manhattan collecting trash, departed, ready for bed. And then Henry was off, via the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway, to an East Williamsburg transfer station owned by a mid-sized New York waste-hauling company called Mr. T Carting.
Mr. T used to be a Teamsters Local 813 shop. What happened next is, for a union whose onetime ubiquity and mob ties made it a formidable New York City power in the latter half of the 20th century, a familiar story. In the late aughts another union launched a successful raid, and Mr. T’s workers decertified the incumbent Local 813 in its favor. Then, in Henry’s view, the new union bargained a “sweetheart” contract, favorable to management at worker expense.
Henry intended to turn Mt. T’s workers back into Teamsters. He wore a golf cap and a green vest over a gray sweatshirt, and he bent his whole torso slightly forward over the wheel as he spoke, vociferously, his right hand gesticulating more erratically by the word.
“When Giuliani got rid of the mob, he also screwed us, as a union. ’Cuz he said, ‘You can no longer have one master contract for everybody.’ He said, ‘You gotta have individual contracts with each company.’
“And there you go—you broke up our power. That’s when all of the companies started getting these fake, independent unions, we started losing density, and 20 years later, we’re here.”
The New York City Department of Sanitation’s fleet of Teamsters-operated trucks collects trash and recycling from city residents. However, for over 60 years New York has allotted the frequently nocturnal task of collecting its three million annual tons of commercial waste—think garbage and recycling from restaurants, bodegas, the New York Times—to the private sector. Here operate a motley array of anywhere from 50 to 90 carting companies, depending on who’s doing the counting. Of these, dozens might haul trash from the exact same neighborhood. A report found that 26 distinct carters serviced West 57th Street alone.
Critics have long argued the hyper-competitive business ecosystem, which manifests in the erratic, paranoid style of the platonic New York garbage truck, incentivizes a “race to the bottom,” intensifying the notoriously dangerous work of trash collection in an industry with historically strong ties to organized crime.
Through a brutal “property rights system” that left few industry leaders untainted, the mob for decades ran a bid-rigging racket that kept out new hauling businesses and maintained artificially high waste collection prices for virtually every New York City business. Those days are generally over. But troubling dynamics—including diminishing pay and safety for workers, amounting to what the New York Times editorial board called a “model failure of the free market”—have emerged in their wake. As many see it, the old racket has been replaced by a new one that, rather than extract value from the businesses, takes it from the workers instead.
But change is afoot once more. In November 2019, after years of debate, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed onto a different form of market intervention. Now set for a 2022 phase-in, the Teamsters-backed proposal promises to usher in the city private carting industry’s most radical reordering since the ’90s-era breakup of the trash cartels.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has rocked the private sanitation industry as businesses closed and produced far less waste than before, has delayed implementation of the new regime. But when fully established, the Commercial Waste Zone Plan will empower the city to award a small set of carting companies licenses to operate in a given geographical zone. It promises to cut the cumulative distance traversed by private garbage trucks by over 50 percent, eliminating 18 million annual miles of truck traffic. It will also likely put numerous private carting operations out of business.
The plan has its critics. Some labor rivals to the Teamsters fear companies that employ their members won’t get licenses. Smaller carting companies resent their fate being placed in the hands of government officials. And though, after lengthy debate, the city settled on a non-exclusive zoning system in part to address their concerns, many business owners fear a reprise of the monopoly-like conditions of the mob days. A similar, though exclusive, franchise system implemented in Los Angeles in 2016 angered some landlords and business groups, who complained of spotty service and rising waste-collection prices.
Yet Local 813, which used to represent drivers and helpers across the entire private sanitation industry before its membership plummeted in recent years, joined the eclectic coalition of activists championing the bill in the hope that the city will be able to do what, in its view, the free market could not: enforce acceptable baseline working conditions industry-wide by refusing licenses to “low-road” companies. As the union’s advocates see it, the new framework might tame the industry, generating the more stable conditions under which the Local 813 could reestablish its power—and help reestablish sanitation work as a secure path to a middle-class life.
This was Allan Henry’s path, long ago. But when his son entered the industry working the same job as Henry himself once had—as a helper on a truck—he realized that the road to a stable career had largely disappeared.
“You know how you feel when you started in the industry in 1985, making $14 an hour, and you’re in the 2000s, and you see people getting paid, for that same job, $11 an hour?” he asked. “With no pension?” He flailed his arms. “And NO severance!?” His voice cracked. “And SHIT MEDICAL?!”
Still, as Henry acknowledges, his formative years were no halcyon period for the industry. When, in his first few months on the job, he and his cousin took a grievance to the union, all seemed hunky-dory. In the meeting to patch things up, the company boss turned to Henry and cousin and—“I’ll never forget it”—addressed them in a warm paternal tone: “Make sure you kids come to work tonight.” Hours later, as his cousin helped Henry back up a truck, Henry heard a bang: a gunshot from a passing car.
The cousin recovered from his wounds, and Henry would go on to find more amicable employment. But seediness was baked into the industry, and the collusive arrangements that underpinned the mob’s New York waste disposal racket ran deep. Cartels are a “natural feature of the urban economic landscape,” said David Witwer, a Penn State historian who has written extensively on corruption in the Teamsters and other organized labor institutions. Whether driving horse-drawn wagons or clinging to the back of a garbage truck, Teamsters in the hauling industry have faced “perennial problems with cutthroat over-competition”—a function, said Witwer, of the relative ease with which a new business can enter a local market.
To stave off interloper companies, incumbent employers would organize a cartel. In doing this, it behooved corrupt operators to make agreements with a union leader, offering to enroll employees in the union (sometimes with a generous contract to boot) if it enforced the cartel arrangement—perhaps by striking against any business that violated its terms.
In this “dubious legal netherworld”—and in the already-insecure position of representing workers with little political power—union leaders had little hope of police protection. This made it a nourishing environment for organized crime syndicates, ascendant in the Prohibition era. The mob would move in, demanding money, power—for mobsters to be placed on the union’s apparently legitimate payroll, for example. Union leaders could comply, earning the mob’s blessing and retaining some power for themselves. Or they could face worse.
Some media representations of the 1930s might depict these “licensing” arrangements in dramatic terms—mobsters storm union meeting, Tommy guns blazing. In reality the dynamics tended to be more subtle, said Witwer. Particularly in difficult-to-organize industries, union leaders collaborating with cartels might not have derived their legitimacy in the first place from their close identification with workers. When the United Auto Workers strive to organize a 10,000-worker factory (while certainly getting little help from Chrysler), mass mobilization may be the most viable mechanism by which to establish and maintain union power. But in an industry like waste-hauling, workers generally operate in small groups, with job sites scattered across a city. In that context “mass mobilization is just a really difficult thing to achieve,” Witwer said. “It doesn’t happen naturally at the workplace, and it’s not going to happen at the union hall,” which might be dominated by a leader whose power stems from the cartel arrangement and is thus independent of the membership’s control. From the perspective of ordinary union members, the mob’s penetration of their local might just look like “one fairly sketchy group being replaced by a different sketchy group.”
For all its drawbacks—and for workers, there were many—such a regime did at least establish some modicum of stability. The guarantor of sector-wide agreements, the mob often came to serve as an umbrella organization to coordinate interests, said Joshua Freeman, a historian at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. If 80 percent of businesses are cooperating with an industry-wide decision to keep prices and wages at a given level, but 20 percent “aren’t signing on and it’s threatening the whole thing…well, you hire someone to blow up the buildings of the 20 percent.”
And it is stability, perhaps more than anything else, that unions seek to establish for their members, said Witwer. When an industry becomes hyper-competitive, this desire tends to grate on employers, who see union contracts—which generally establish stable workplace rules, stable work assignments, stable wages—as being in conflict with the imperative to stay nimble. “The minute you have a wild free market, then you create a level of competition that weakens unions inherently,” said Witwer.
Cartels and organized crime, of course, are not the only mechanisms by which to regulate an industry prone to over-competition. In 1935, Congress expanded the Interstate Commerce Commission’s jurisdiction to include trucking, which was then emerging as a core Teamsters stronghold. The commission’s regulations and rate controls stabilized the industry, insulating workers from the cutthroat competition that might have characterized a true “free market” regime.
The result was that trucking companies “competed based on the quality of their service with customers, not on the price that they were charging,” said Witwer. Under this system, longtime Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa was able to successfully organize a master freight agreement with the trucking giants of the day, standardizing wages and benefits among members nationwide. This, the Teamsters reformer Ken Paff told an told an interviewer in 2019, was Hoffa’s “signature union contribution”—and largely coincided with the height of Teamsters power.
But whether born of regulation or a legally dubious cartel system, the stability didn’t last. Deregulation fever swept the nation in the 1970s and 1980s. Amid new rules easing entry into the trucking industry, Teamsters leaders “were very complacent,” Paff told the interviewer. “When deregulation came and these other companies started springing up, they didn’t even have organizing plans.”
Meanwhile, the Teamsters’ mob ties faced increasing scrutiny from law enforcement. The actual degree of corruption remained fairly steady over the decades, limited in the Teamsters’ case to a relatively small set of locals and, famously, the union’s central leadership. But concern in the media and the government ebbed and flowed with broader political currents, said Witwer.
The Reagan-era Justice Department filed a civil RICO claim against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, whose leadership settled with the federal government on the eve of the trial. Following the 1989 consent decree, the Teamsters agreed to democratic elections—satisfying a core objective of Paff’s Teamsters for a Democratic Union reform group—and established an independent review board to help cleanse mobbed-up locals of their less savory affiliations.
One of these locals would be 813, which, according to contemporary reports, represented roughly 2,400 sanitation workers at the time. The New York Times described the union—which held the power to shut the city down with a strike—as a “linchpin” of the mob’s efforts to enforce the garbage cartel.
According to law enforcement, the arrangement, presided over by the Gambino and Lucchese families, made waste disposal perhaps the most lucrative of the supposedly legitimate New York–area mafia businesses. Murder and menace came along for the ride, according to the feds. In 1993, Browning-Ferris, an “expansion-minded interloper from Houston,” in the words of the New York Times, tried to enter the local market. (“Only in New York would Browning-Ferris be viewed as a white knight,” an observer said at the time.) Its workers tussled with those of the incumbent haulers, and the company hired guards to tail and protect its trucks. One morning, a Browning-Ferris executive’s wife awoke to find on her doorstep the severed head of a dog. The note in its mouth: “Welcome to New York.”
But New York was changing. Sweeping racketeering charges nailed business leaders and Local 813 leadership alike. And in the early 1990s, the Teamsters international suspended many of the local’s leaders, appointing a trustee to oversee it in their stead.
Soon after, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and others created what is now known as the Business Integrity Commission to regulate mob ties in the industry. The city also prohibited carting companies from joining certain trade associations, which investigators determined had played a central role in organizing the cartels and resolving turf disputes (Giuliani even proposed a zoning plan similar to the recently approved policy, but the city never enacted it.)
With the mob severely weakened, the industry lost its structural support. “I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to get rid of them,” said Freeman. “But it can be destabilizing.” And as the main institutions of the waste-hauling business dissolved, Local 813’s hegemony began to crack. The cartel’s breakup unleashed the free market on an industry in which labor costs account for a major portion of a customer’s fee. The trade associations disbanded, the Teamsters lost leverage, and the scrum for “competitive” pricing began.
Non-union companies—“corporate gangsters,” as recently retired Local 813 president Sean Campbell put it in an interview—entered the local industry, bent on keeping Teamsters out. And facing heightened competition, employers at Local 813 shops were particularly eager to shake off the high wages and pension plans that characterized the Teamster contracts.
These conditions presented an opportunity for what Campbell sees as “rogue unions,” which eventually began successfully raiding Local 813 shops in droves. Government filings show a persistent decline in Local 813 membership since the mid-2000s. And over the last decade in particular, Local 813 has “had their lunch eaten by independent unions,” said Mike Hellstrom, a longtime leader at Laborers Local 108, here ally, there jurisdictional and political rival of Local 813.
This period of diminishing Local 813 density and the rise of independent unions in the local private sanitation industry—one increasingly staffed by people of color—has coincided with a decline in safety, pay, community, and general job security, according to workers and union employees who spoke with Mother Jones.
While the “sham” union epithet is often loosely bandied about, and there is not always an easy binary distinguishing a “legitimate” union from a “rogue” one, the latter is characterized by its cooperation with management to manipulate an often-vulnerable and misinformed workforce into ousting or fending off unions that would otherwise fight more feverishly for workers’ interests.
“When you a union man, you can tell if a union is for you or not,” said Pilinio Cruz, a longtime sanitation worker, now Teamsters organizer, who worked at Mr. T Carting through the late aughts, when employees decertified the Teamsters in favor of the United Service Workers Union Local 339. When the contract was up, Mr. T management told workers that “we’re gonna have to close the doors if you don’t get rid of” Local 813, Cruz recalled.
Mr. T. Carting president Tom Toscano denied management made any such statement, which would likely constitute a labor law violation. “I’m not that stupid,” he said. “813 is very good at blaming other people for their failures.”
For Toscano, the story of 813 is one of dishonesty and ineptitude. When the union represented the bulk of industry workers, it maintained its power through collusion with the trade associations, he said—“and the customer lost.”
When the cartels dissolved, 813 “failed to bring the new companies into their quote-unquote master contract,” he said, and this created a disparity in which newcomers and other non-Teamsters shops had a competitive advantage. “You cannot have a carter that’s paying these benefits compete against a carter that’s not paying those benefits and paying ridiculous wages.” Incumbent businesses like Mr. T Carting had to complete with “fly-by-night companies not playing by all the rules,” he said. “Then on top of that, we have the Waste Management situation…the one that really broke 813’s back.”
Following a prolonged strike against Waste Management in 2006, Toscano said, Local 813 gave the Houston-based waste-hauling giant a better deal than it gave Mr. T—thereby breaking a promise that he said a union leader had made in a contract negotiation with his company. According to Toscano, that negotiation had itself ended in a brief Teamsters strike against Mr. T Carting, during which strikers shined lights in the eyes of drivers as they pulled in and out of a dumping facility.
When the next contract was up, “I said I’m not taking this shit anymore,” said Toscano. “We were prepared to take a strike”—he lined up replacement workers just in case—”and this time I wasn’t gonna be nice about it.” His company campaigned against 813, and “it wasn’t that hard because there they are losing members left and right,” and their pension fund was “underwater.” (Local 813’s pension plan has a liquidity shortfall, a widespread problem among unions today.) Other “employers start fighting back like we did, and the employees were voting them out. It wasn’t some illegal plot to do it. It was 813’s incompetence.”
Campbell, writing in an email before his retirement that he does not “wish to engage,” declined to address the details of Toscano’s account. “The one thing that I will say is that Tom Toscano of Mr. T Carting knows the real truth as to why the men of his shop decertified from Local 813. Tom Toscano tries to keep himself relevant by making disparaging comments about Local 813 and distorting the facts.”
Local 339, for its part, has maintained in the press that it is a legitimate union, and Toscano, who said that on average his drivers make more than $80,000 annually, denies that worker compensation has generally declined at Mr. T Carting since the new union took over. However, he does acknowledge that helpers took a hit after local 813’s ouster, reflecting his belief that there was too little difference between driver and helper pay. This pay decrease is borne out in contracts provided by the Teamsters. While a Local 339 driver’s contract rate stands about level with the Teamsters’ old rate when adjusted for inflation, a helper’s pay diminished from a minimum of $25 hourly under the Teamsters in 2007 to $18 hourly as late as 2016, even at one of the highest pay rates Local 339 negotiated. (Public records shed little light on Local 339. In government filings since 2003, Local 339 has reported assets and expenditures of $0, though this could be because the union runs its finances through its affiliate, the International Union of Journeymen and Allied Trades. Local 339 did not respond to repeated requests by phone and through its website for comment.)
The role of a union, of course, goes beyond the terms of the contract it negotiates. As his parole came to an end, Terrence Jackson became a sanitation worker at the waste hauling company Action Carting and found in the work—so vital to the city’s basic functions—a sense of deep personal meaning. “I classify myself a superhero,” he said. “What would the world be without me?” For this pride he found a harmonious symbol in the Queens union hall of Local 813, which, though visually unremarkable, stood in stark contrast to that of his own union, of whose representation he had become increasingly skeptical. “Their union hall is eating out going into Burger King.”
Even this sort of gathering may be increasingly rare. As the jobs and lives of the private sanitation workforce became increasingly precarious, so too did the bonds of solidarity attenuate among the workers. In decades past, you’d have “six guys going out after work for lunch—knew each other’s families,” said Doug Washington, a Teamsters shop steward at Royal Waste. Now, under the pressure of an ever-tightening work environment, the mentality has changed to “fuck that—I need mines.”
Taking after his brother, a teenage Washington entered the industry in the “mafioso days” at Barretti Carting, a company made infamous in Rick Cowan and Douglas Century’s book Takedown: The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire. “I must say, there was a lot of money to be made then,” said Washington. His brother would work five days, come home with a $2,000 check. But as Local 813 lost power in the 2000s, Washington found himself “barely scratching $1,000.” In time, he became “completely discouraged” with the union.
According to Hellstrom of the Laborers, Local 813, as it turned increasingly to “political solutions” like the waste zone plan, displayed a loss of “organizing gumption.” Toscano has a similar analysis. Rather than developing a winning organizing formula, he said, “it’s much easier [for Local 813] to use their money and influence to lobby the city to pass a law, and then lobby the people who are making the selection to try to bring in the companies that only have 813, and grow and expand their base that way.” (Toscano is on record opposing the waste zone plan, but with the city set to award licenses by the year’s end, he said he has come to terms with it.)
But if the persistent, decades-long decline in union density nationwide is any indication, a union’s fortunes hinge on far more than its own organizing zeal and resourcefulness. Washington’s own Teamsters pride has swelled of late, as he has come to see in Local 813’s strategy an innovative form of power-brokering amid rapidly changing economic and political conditions. He knew and respected Campbell from when the latter worked the trucks himself. In Washington’s telling, the two had a “grown-man talk” in which Campbell expressed his aspirations “to get the industry back to where it’s been.” Moved by the earnest words of a fellow sanitation work veteran, Washington “jumped on board.”
“I just had to,” he said. “Instead of fighting back how unions used to fight, he was fighting back politically….It changed my whole aspect of ‘things can’t change now.’”
The routine depravities of the city’s private sanitation industry coalesced in the public eye with the 2017 death of a 21-year-old off-the-books worker at Bronx-based, now-defunct Sanitation Salvage. Workers there were repped by Teamsters before they were ousted in favor of Local 124, which was long run by a convicted mobster and widely understood to be a “sham union.”
Sanitation Salvage workers frequently brought on Mouctar Diallo as a “third man” to help them finish their circuitous and lengthy routes more efficiently. One night, the truck he was helping struck him as it made a turn. His two on-the-books coworkers lied to police, claiming he was a stranger who’d jumped in front of the truck, and within hours the New York Daily News was disseminating the grizzly tale of the “daredevil homeless man.”
The fallout—along with a sweeping investigation of the city’s private carting industry already underway by then-ProPublica and Voice of America reporter Kiera Feldman—came as the Waste Zone debates swelled. “You think you know a lot,” said Antonio Reynoso, the city councilmember who spearheaded the waste zone bill, in a phone interview prior to the council’s vote. Feldman’s reporting on the Diallo tragedy laid out in detail the griminess of the industry—18 hour-shifts, deaths by garbage truck among the general public. She was “unpeeling the onion,” Reynoso said, and “writing things that, if I would have said it, you would have thought that I was making it up. Kiera educated me more than anyone.”
Reynoso said he knew he wanted to reform the industry but didn’t know how. And the zoning idea with which the Teamsters and their coalition allies approached Reynoso struck the right notes. He hails from Williamsburg, a historically working-class neighborhood that, along with a handful of historic communities of color, processes the vast majority of the city’s waste. The bill contains a raft of provisions aimed at correcting such disparities. Ultimately, said Reynoso, his priorities were “environmental justice first” and “workers second,” with concerns regarding recycling and broader market forces coming in behind.
The council’s vote came as well-publicized tensions swelled between the Teamsters and the Laborers. The latter had at one time supported the waste zone bill, but ultimately determined that it wasn’t in their interests, in part because the Teamsters were trying to use it to put themselves “in a position of supremacy,” said Hellstrom. Both unions held a rally outside City Hall before the vote. As the bill passed inside council chambers, both union leaders, Hellstrom and Campbell, looked on from the public gallery above.
Last year, three decades after establishing a consent decree with the union, the federal government finished phasing out its oversight of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. And in New York, the sanitation industry is not the unruly force it once was. No longer are trucks dumping their trash directly into the East River, as a teenage Washington witnessed, nor do drivers generally carry guns and baseball bats around with them to keep safe amid turf wars. But the work itself remains among the nation’s deadliest, and organizers struggle to instill higher expectations into a workforce deeply conditioned to keep mum.
“The biggest thing an organizer has to deal with is fear,” said Henry, as he cruised through the early-morning darkness onto a North Brooklyn exit ramp. “If you can’t get that worker past fear, you ain’t going nowhere.”
As a worker Henry regularly attended union meetings, but when the Teamsters offered his current job, he said, he didn’t even know what an organizer was. He almost quit during training. “It’s not easy to take somebody who’s spent the last 20, 30 years making his money off of driving a truck to all of the sudden telling that person that now you’re gonna make your living off of your brain,” he said, laughing.
Henry pulled over outside the transfer station and donned his black Teamsters vest, lined with yellow reflective stripes and the Teamsters’ equine iconography, harking back to the union’s days of yore. The other Teamsters organizer from the diner, Miguel Mondesi, had already arrived in a different car. The former sanitation workers greeted each other and assumed a conspicuous if unthreatening presence across the street from where the trucks were making their drops.
The dark sky hinted of oranges and purples to come. Every few minutes a green truck emblazoned with a red “T” in a yellow circle beeped backward into a warehouse containing a pyramid of garbage on which to dump the night’s load. A yellow bulldozer lifted and pushed the waste into piles, from which it would be packaged for further transport into the hinterlands. In the Department of Sanitation yard across the street, public-side drivers and helpers prepared to deploy.
A garbage truck for a Teamsters-represented company honked in friendly solidarity. Minutes later, a Mr. T driver slowed to a stop in the middle of the road. Henry walked over. The driver inconspicuously gestured toward a camera on the truck’s side, didn’t say a word, and handed Henry a card bearing his contact information. Henry took the card, nodded and returned to the sidewalk, and the garbage truck roared and lumbered off into the morning.