Sanitation Workers Grow their Union
The sun was still below the horizon one September morning at the Department of Sanitation training academy at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, but the excitement in the room was palpable. About 150 of New York’s newest sanitation workers were partway through their training and they were hearing for the first time from the head of their union.
Harry Nespoli, President of Teamsters Local 831, the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, explained how the union worked, answered questions, and made his pitch for workers to join. Each worker who signs up becomes part of a brother-and-sisterhood that not only fights for strong contracts, but has each other’s backs on a daily basis.
For years, anti-union forces have filed lawsuits, lobbied, and pushed propaganda to reduce membership rates at unions like Local 831. Last year, they succeeded in convincing the Supreme Court, in its much criticized Janus decision, to allow public sector workers to reap the benefits of a union contract without paying any dues or fair share fees to support the union.
The goal was clear. More free riders. Weaker unions. Less power for working people.
New York City’s sanitation workers are turning that plan on its head. Since the 2018 Supreme Court ruling, Local 831’s membership has grown by 7%, according to the New York City Independent Budget Office. To achieve that record, Nespoli has made his pitch to every incoming class of sanitation workers, with perfect results.
“Of the 917 workers who came before you, every single one of them joined the union,” Nespoli told the group. “Every single one.” After Nespoli’s presentation, every member of the latest class of sanitation workers signed up with the union as well.
As Nespoli outlined the benefits of their union contract, it became clear why this is one of the most sought after jobs in the city. Over 100,000 people take the written and physical test to get a chance at becoming one of New York’s Strongest and the department hires only about 500 new sanitation workers per year. It’s easier to get into Harvard.
“Once you get to top pay, you know what the job is all about,” Nespoli said to the new sanitation workers. “You got something to look forward to in life. When you have kids in college, you are going to be able to pay for that college. You want a house? You are going to get that house.”
Teamsters Local 831 is showing that even in 2019, there is still strength in a union.