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NYC Mayor Bloomberg botches blizzard cleanup, scapegoats sanitation workers

Published Jan 8, 2011 8:09 AM

A powerful storm system dumped heavy snow from the Carolinas to Canada on the U.S. East Coast during 36 hours starting Dec. 26. New York and the rest of the Northeast took the brunt of the blizzard, with snowfall totals measuring from 20 to 32 inches. The follow-up to this storm has raised the stakes as Wall Street and the banks are on the attack against unionized public service workers and insist on eliminating jobs.

New York City’s regular army to battle snowstorms, the city’s stalwart sanitation worker corps, worked for more than a week in 12- to 14-hour shifts to plow and clear away the snow and in the new year is attacking the monumental task of removing one week’s backlog of uncollected garbage.

Despite this heroic effort from the sanitation workers, reckless decisions by Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s administration disrupted normal snow removal operations, making his failed response top national news for much of the holiday week. Several New Yorkers died when ambulances failed to get through snow-covered streets. Mass transit was slow to nonexistent.

Hit by mass criticism, the Bloomberg administration tried to deflect anger by treating workers battling the snow like Public Enemy Number One. During the height of the storm crisis, right-wing Republican anti-labor NYC Councilperson Dan Halloran and the right-wing, anti-labor New York Post distributed an unproven allegation that a worker “slowdown” had impeded the snow removal operations. Other media repeated this slander.

For Wall Street, Bloomberg and New York State’s new governor, Andrew Cuomo, attacking sanitation workers fits their campaign against all unionized public sector workers. With the city and state debt-ridden, before banks will buy municipal and state bonds they demand cuts in the public sector workforce, and they are holding the public at large hostage to the cuts in the social contract.

Sanitation workers union leader Harry Nespoli answered this attack. He explained that the workers’ own families and children depended on sanitation services just as the rest of the city does. He said his union members would never do anything to jeopardize public health and safety. During the 54 years of struggle of Teamsters Local 831, including strikes and slowdowns, there have never been slowdowns during a snowstorm.

It is not known widely that medical experts rate the job of sanitation worker as the second most dangerous job in the U.S., just below lumberjacks, and more dangerous than police — who get much government and media attention — and even firefighters. Just five days before the storm, Angel Roldan became the 11th sanitation worker killed on the job since 2003. Eight others died in work-related accidents and three suffered heart attacks while performing their extremely physically taxing and stressful assigned duties.

How Bloomberg, Goldsmith messed up

Last April 30, Bloomberg appointed Stephen Goldsmith as NYC deputy mayor for operations, who thus directly supervises the Department of Sanitation commissioner. The department chose not to replace the 400 sanitation workers it lost in the past year. Instead, on Oct. 21, six days after the official start of the snow season, the city announced it was implementing Goldsmith’s plan to demote 100 sanitation supervisors to sanitation workers.

This left the city’s snow removal work force at 75 percent of its size in 1996, when there was a huge blizzard that was cleaned up effectively. The cuts and demotions also lowered department morale, countering the department’s tradition of promoting the most dedicated and hardworking sanitation workers to supervise those on the job they know so well.

Unlike in 1996 and unlike other Northeastern cities this year, New York City refused to declare a snow emergency as it can after more than three inches of snow fall. On the first day of the 1996 storm, all city buses and nonessential vehicles were banned from city streets, so they would not get stuck in the snow and impede snow removal operations. When Goldsmith was Republican mayor of Indianapolis during a January 1994 blizzard, he had also refused to declare a snow emergency.

In Indianapolis, Goldsmith built a reputation as a “reinventor” of government, laying off many city workers and privatizing every city service he could. Goldsmith left Indianapolis to become chief domestic policy advisor to President George W. Bush in the 2000 campaign and later was special adviser to the Bush administration, which catastrophically failed to handle the Hurricane Katrina emergency in New Orleans in 2005.

To add insult to injury, on the first day of the storm, Mike Bloomberg, Goldsmith’s boss, advised New Yorkers to take public transportation to see a Broadway show. Workers at the Sanitation Department compared this to Marie Antoinette suggesting with regard to the starving people of France: “Let them eat cake.”

The Metropolitan Transit Authority also refused to declare its highest emergency alert. This would have meant sending subway cars back and forth across the tracks specifically to clear them of ice and snow. It would also have provided a diesel train at every depot to tow in extra subway cars as needed.

Instead of keeping the trains running, the MTA raised transit fares on Dec. 31 for weekly and monthly metro cards. New Yorkers will also be greatly inconvenienced and endangered by the drastic cuts in NYC bus and subway service made by the MTA since the last blizzard.