"Cross us and people will die." That is the message the public can take away from last week's New York snow-removal meltdown (no pun intended). The debacle showed how government employee unions, by holding a monopoly on services, can cripple communities in retaliation for not getting what they want. And they will do it time and time again.
Reports show that members of the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association Local 831, an International Brotherhood of Teamsters affiliate, slowed down cleanup efforts, turning last week's blizzard into a disaster for New Yorkers as emergency-response vehicles could not get to those in need.
An infant died after waiting 10 hours for an ambulance that could not drive on the snow-covered streets. A Queens woman died after an ambulance could not reach her in time. A woman in Brooklyn was forced to spend the night with her dead father after the medical examiner took 24 hours to claim the body. These were not isolated incidents. A backlog of 1,300 calls overwhelmed 911 operators.
The slowdown strike was in retaliation for budget cuts after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg reduced the 6,300-strong sanitation department by 400 workers over the past two years. The city also demoted 100 department supervisors and cut their salaries to help deal with the city's overall budget woes. Though there is merit to the claim that Mr. Bloomberg's penny-pinching and lackluster response exacerbated the problems with cleanup efforts, the union's actions bear a large part of the blame.
Some sanitation workers drove by unplowed streets and lifted their snow blades, making repeated passes and racking up overtime. Nearly 12 percent of workers called in sick after the blizzard. Some even drank on the job. Others gave priority to districts of powerful and budget-friendly politicians.
The New York Post reported that sources told them, "Sanitation bosses issued verbal directives during the cleanup to give priority to streets near the homes of agency heads and other city bigwigs."
The story broke after a group of sanitation workers came forward to City Council member Daniel J. Halloran, Queens Republican, who stated, "They sent a message to the rest of the city that these particular labor issues are more important."
Former New York Gov. David Patterson, a Democrat, demanded a criminal investigation and called the union's actions "outrageous."
Union President Harry Nespoli denied a slowdown and said he welcomed an investigation, stating that his workers do not "mess around with the snow," but he did concede that some workers could have slowed down on their own.
On Wednesday, investigators from the U.S. attorney's and the Brooklyn district attorney's offices confirmed that they are looking into reports of "problems with snow removal." As troubling as the events of last week's blizzard are, that was not the first time government unions held New York City hostage around the holidays. In 2005, Transport Workers Local 100, which represents subway and bus workers, called a strike after negotiations on wage and retirement increases broke down with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
The union defied New York's "no strike" law for three days, leaving millions stranded right before Christmas. Thousands of people could not get to work, and the street gridlock caused by the lack of mass transit slowed emergency response times.
Now another government union has brought the city to a standstill, all in defense of its members' generous compensation packages. Man-made disasters like this will happen again unless city and state policymakers end government employee unions' privileged status.
First, state lawmakers should repeal collective bargaining for public-sector unions. States that have done so, such as Virginia, have had a much easier time keeping their fiscal houses in order.
Second, the city should open as many services as possible to private-sector competition. If a service can be found in the Yellow Pages, there is no reason it should be a government monopoly.
As Gov. Andrew Cuomo sets out to tackle New York state's troubled finances, he should heed the word of his famous predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt: "[T]he process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service." Until that simple truth is codified in law, New Yorkers will remain vulnerable to more union snow jobs.
F. Vincent Vernuccio is labor policy counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
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