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It is no secret that 2011 will be a year in which discussions regarding public sector unionization and its affect on state budgets across the nation will reach fever pitch. The underwriting of pension and healthcare benefits, often kicking in for workers who retire in their fifties, has pushed several states to the brink of insolvency. How will such workers react to fiscal reality? If a story being reported exclusively (at this writing) by the New York Post is any indication, Americans are in for a rough ride–both figuratively and literally.
In New York City, the Department of Sanitation, aka “New York’s Strongest,” are tasked with clearing the streets of snow. The sixth most powerful storm in city history pounded New York on December 26, leaving as much as twenty inches of snow covering the Big Apple. Three days later, hundreds of streets remained completely unplowed. New Yorkers, true to their reputation, complained loudly and long, with anecdotal information suggesting that something was amiss with the normal street cleaning operations.
On December 29th, Mayor Mike Bloomberg visited a Hunt’s Point hardware store where he expressed his “disappointment” in the snow clearing efforts. “We did not do as good a job as we wanted to do or as the city has a right to expect,” the Mayor said. “I cannot tell you for sure why it was a lot worse this time than at other times.”
Harry Nespoli, president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association (USA), apparently had the answer which eluded the Mayor. Nespoli blamed the recent cuts to the Sanitation Department’s workforce, directly tied to New York’s budget woes, for the city’s “sluggish” response. “The city currently has 2,400 men and women working 12-hour shifts following a series of cuts, he said. This is the lowest amount of man power that we ever went into a winter with. There’s certain agencies you just don’t cut.” “We just lost the storm, ” he added.
Mayor Bloomberg wasn’t buying it. He denied the budget cuts had anything to do with the response, claiming that the “number of plows and boots on the street were the same as in previous storms,” while suggesting part of the blame could be directed at New Yorkers themselves, who drove in spite of warnings not to, and who failed to understand that the 911 emergency system had to be limited to life-threatening calls during the blizzard. “Unfortunately, too many people didn’t listen and that overwhelmed the system,” the mayor said. “That’s really been the key difference that we can point to so far between this snow storm and others.”
In fairness to the Mayor, there was some truth to those claims. Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Deputy Commissioner Francis X. Gribbon reported that the 911 system had been “overwhelmed,” with a high-point backlog of 1350 calls, of which “only one in three” were genuinely life-threatening emergencies. And at one point during the storm, over six hundred city buses had been stuck in the snow, and one thousand cars had been removed from three of the city’s major roadways.
On Wednesday, however, the city was rocked by some damning allegations: City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Queens) reported that three plow workers from the Sanitation Department, and two Department of Transportation supervisors who were on loan to Sanitation as part of the cleanup effort, came to his office and confessed that the inept response to the storm was a “shameless job action” perpetrated by Sanitation Department bosses in response to a “raft of demotions, attrition and budget cuts” necessitated by the city’s budget crunch. “They sent a message to the rest of the city that these particular labor issues are more important,” said Halloran . “(Sanitation workers) 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, (and) shrinking the rolls of the rank-and-file.”
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