No one nods off for the first speaker this morning. Harry Nespoli, president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association (Teamsters’ Local 831), sweeps into our classroom in the Central Repair Shop (CRS) accompanied by an entourage of five neatly coiffed, muscled men in union bomber jackets. Nespoli, who is silver-haired, has the broad shoulders and thick neck of a football player and the ease of self common to handsome men. He talks like he still works behind the truck, but his blunt language is part of his charisma, and it doesn’t hide his considerable political savvy or his skill at working an audience.
He starts out like a stern father. “If you want to blow this job,” he admonishes, “shame on you. Don’t blame mommy, the wife, the kids—you got to come to work.” He thumps the podium. “This is a home run, and you’ll realize it if you lose it.”
He’s in negotiations with the city for a new contract (the old one expired in 2002). The city, he tells us, wants to change the current pension plan from 20 years to 25 and wants to lower the $30,000 starting salary.
He sounds incredulous, like he only recently got wind of these hare-brained ideas. It’s hard to imagine how the starting salary could be much lower and still attract anyone worth hiring. And the pension change would mean that any employee coming in under the terms of a new contract—that’s us, if it’s made retroactive—will have to work five extra years before he or she can retire. The pension lasts a retiree’s lifetime and is a big reason to take the job in the first place, but the money is hard-won.
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, sanitation workers hold one of the 10 most dangerous occupations in the nation. Sanitation workers can be scarred and even maimed by flying debris when the packer blade lifts and compresses garbage into the back of the truck. Shards of glass, twists of metal, cubes of wood often become airborne and pierce eyes, slice arms, bruise heads. On the street, sanitations workers can be hit by passing cars. In January 2004, the first female worker to die in the line of duty was killed when she was crushed by a kind of collection truck called an EZ Pack. Hers was the second death in as many months. A few years ago a sanitation worker was showered with hydrofluoric acid when an illegally disposed drum fill with the chemical exploded under the pressure of the packer blade. He died within minutes. Five more years on the job before full pension eligibility means thousands more work hours in which to get injured—or killed.
Nespoli then changes focus, assuring us that even though Sanitation was the last uniformed city agency to hire women, the “change-over,” as he calls it, went smoothly. “There is no problem on the job with women,” he says. “If they can stand next to you and do the job, that’s the job. There’s no sexual harassment on the job at all.” I smile at this because I’ve seen female sanitation employees harass male sanitation employees, but this isn’t what Nespoli means.
Not everyone agrees that there’s no problem with women as sanitation workers, and while the argument is amusing (sort of) for its old-fashioned logic, its tenacity is frustrating. Those who subscribe to this point of view are emphatic: Being a sanitation worker is not a job for a female. When I press them to explain why, the first answer is something like, “It’s not right for a woman to do this work.” Perhaps they are hesitant to speak bluntly to a woman about this issue, but when I push a little harder, they give specific allegations. Women go sick for a few days every month. They get hired when they’re pregnant just so they can get benefits and be put on a tissue (a job that’s more secure and less demanding than working behind the truck, like being a clerk). Most of them, they say, end up driving mechanical brooms—those large, noisy street-sweepers—which means that men who want those assignments get bounced to other things. And if they’re on the street, they don’t hold their own; you get stuck with a woman partner and you’ll be loading that truck by yourself.
Such grumblings come most often from men who haven’t actually worked with women. Those who have almost always praise their female partners and say that, given a choice, they’d work with a woman instead of most men any day. The women I know on the job scoff at the men’s complaints and also shrug off the public’s reaction, which goes, “A lady garbage man? You can’t be a garbage man, you’re a girl!”
Nespoli is winding down. “I can win for you,” he says, referring to the in-progress contract negotiations, and we once again imagine the outrage of a 25-year pension.
We applaud long and whistle loudly as he and his entourage sweep from the room.