Like death and taxes, snow in New York in winter is inevitable. But in this era of assaults on public-sector employees in order to obliterate whatever remains of U.S. workers’ living standards, snow has become intensely political.
“Snow Big Deal!” and “It’s Not Snow Bad,” read the headlines of the NY Post and Daily News today after a manageable (and gorgeous) 6–8 inches fell on the city. Yet our billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has called a weather emergency prompting private schools to close along with many large businesses, not really because of the snow but because of the politics of snow.
Since the blizzard two weeks ago, which dumped 20+ inches on NYC, the mayor and city officials have been trying to foist criticisms of their inadequate response to clearing the streets onto public-sector workers. Screaming headlines with photos of resting workers, such as “Taking a Plower Nap”—the Post has odious politics, but snappy headlines—played into politicians’ cockamamie analysis of what went wrong. They scapegoat “lazy” sanitation workers for the fact that in working-class neighborhoods you needed a sherpa and St. Bernard to navigate the Alps-like terrain.
In NYC, union sanitation workers are responsible for plowing and salting the streets. Most of the 6,000 uniformed Sanitation Department workers must rise long before dawn to face down rats and the most colossal assortment of human detritus.
Sanitation workers have one of the ten most dangerous jobs in the United States, and they are subject to higher injury and fatality rates than cops and construction workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 25 out of 100,000 sanitation workers in the country die every year as a result of being run over by a car, crushed by the heavy machinery of a garbage truck or even by suffering explosions from lethal trash.
For all this, in addition to the indignities of the media and politicians’ slanders, sanitation workers in the nation’s most expensive city receive a starting salary of $31,200 a year, which rises to $67, 141 by their sixth year on the job.
After the post–Christmas blizzard, 2,000 workers were assigned 12–14-hour shifts to clear the snow and paid anywhere from $900–$2,100 in overtime pay for their efforts. In other words, for these hard-working men and women who make life in NYC habitable for its more than 8 million residents, snow overtime pay is a means of making ends meet.
It takes a particular amount of gall—and upper-class indifference— for a billionaire mayor along with news editors and network talking heads who make six figures to sniff at the overtime pay of manual workers. In a city where you’d have to search the far reaches of the outer boroughs to locate a one-bedroom apartment under $1,500 a month, sanitation workers’ salaries are hardly generous.
Ignored in all the sniffy columns and nasty official statements that slam these workers, is another central fact of life under the new normal. The city has laid off 400 sanitation workers and another 100 were demoted in position and pay over the last year. When they compare the efficient job performed during the 1996 blizzard to the recent one, none of them mention that the sanitation force is now about 75 percent of what it was then, yet there are not 25 percent fewer streets today than 15 years ago.
This era of life-altering budget cuts is being sold to us through foul assaults on public-sector workers. Don’t believe the snipes.