Was the failure to plow city streets payback for budget cuts? How many lives did it cost?
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."
The whistleblowers, who wish to remain unidentified because they fear retaliation, went on to describe the methods used by the Sanitation Department to make a bad situation worse. These included such things as raising the level of the plows higher than the roadway, deliberately skipping streets along their assigned routes, and being told to wait for orders before plowing accumulating piles of snow. In addition, "multiple Sanitation Department sources" told The NY Post that "angry plow drivers have only been clearing streets assigned to them, even if that means they have to drive through snowed-in roads with their plows raised." They added that "some drivers are purposely smashing plows and salt spreaders to further stall the cleanup effort."
(Adding insult to injury? A photograph of a plow driver taking a reported one-and-a-half hour nap while on duty at 9:30 AM Monday morning. This is the second time in recent months that NY Post photographers have snapped city workers sleeping on the job.)
Much of the union's alleged strategy centered around the idea that dragging out snow removal would allow them to pad overtime checks, for which the hourly rate is substantially higher than regular pay. The cost of overtime pay was apparently a factor in the city's initially inadequate response to the storm as well, since preparation for the upcoming blizzard would have required a full compliment of workers showing up on Saturday the 24th, and collecting overtime for continuing work on Christmas Day. Thus, an adequate number of workers was not called in when it might have made a critical difference.
(The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which has responsibility for keeping New York's public transportation systems running, apparently dropped the ball as well. An unnamed source told the NY Post that the agency opted for a its lowest level "Plan 1" for coping with the storm, instead of "Plan 4," its highest emergency response. As a result, subway, bus and train service was equally devastated. In one reported incident, over a hundred passengers were stuck on two trains near Aqueduct Race Track for over six hours "without food, water or bathroom facilities.")
USA president Harry Nespoli confirmed that his employees are indeed working "lucrative 14 hours shifts," (note the two hour discrepancy from his quote above), but both he and Joseph Mannion, president of the union that represents agency supervisors, denied any such job action was taking place, as did Sanitation Department spokesman Matthew Lipani. "There are no organized or wildcat actions being taken by the sanitation workers or the supervisors," said Lipani.
It behooves the city to get to the truth. But not merely because the alleged work slowdown was annoying or inconvenient, forcing thousands of New Yorkers to fend for themselves in term of clearing streets or getting to work. For some New Yorkers it was tragic. In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a newborn baby died during the ten hours it took emergency workers to respond to the frantic mother's 911 call. In Queens, 75-year-old Yvonne Freeman passed away between the time her daughter called to report her mother's difficulty in breathing, and the three hours it took first responders to reach her.
"My heart goes out to those who experienced trauma and tragedy," Bloomberg said Wednesday.
Not good enough. Not by a long shot. If there's a scintilla of truth to this story, the all too typical response of wrist-slap suspensions for guilty workers, or even the firing some some higher-ups, is woefully insufficient. If the two confirmed deaths directly related to the inability of emergency workers to reach the victims can be attributed to a deliberate job action by the Sanitation union, criminal prosecutions must be initiated. It is one thing for disgruntled unionists to hold an entire city hostage due to, as the aforementioned agency supervisor head Joseph Mannion characterized it, "resentment out there" towards a budget-cutting Mayor. It is quite another when such nonsense becomes deadly.
As for the rest of the nation, one can only wonder how other public sector unions across the country will respond to the inevitable cutbacks that must occur in states faced with fiscal insolvency. If the alleged reaction of New York Sanitation workers and their bosses is a prevailing attitude, the American public may been in for some additionally ugly, and perhaps deadly, times ahead.
Perhaps we are more "Greece-like" than we care to imagine.
Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the conservative website, JewishWorldReview.com.