Dr. King’s Last Fight For Sanitation Workers Lives On In New York City

Today as we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, we are reminded of his last fight to support Memphis’s striking sanitation workers. On February 1, 1968, two sanitation workers lost their lives at work after a truck malfunction, and 1,300 Black sanitation workers went on strike demanding better safety standards and a living wage. As nonviolent demonstrators marched towards City Hall, police used mace and tear gas. As a result, Dr. King and Memphis’s Black leaders organized civil disobedience actions to bring attention to the deplorable working conditions of sanitation workers.

That struggle continues right here in New York City as many private sector non-union sanitation workers confront deadly working conditions and wage theft fifty-three years later.

City sanitation workers pick up our residential, street, and government-contracted trash, and in the winter months, they are responsible for salting the roads that keep us moving. Since the advent of COVID-19, the city’s Department of Sanitation has collected 4.2% percent more household garbage, recycling and organic waste than in 2019. In addition to city sanitation, 2,600 private sanitation workers navigate the city each night picking up trash and recycling from 220,000 small businesses from restaurants to shops.

But the unsanitized reality is that private, non-unionized trash haulers are barely regulated, far more dangerous, and offer far less pay than unionized services. In 2017, Guinean immigrant Mouctar Diallo died when he was run over by the garbage truck he was working on. The company — Sanitation Salvage — kept him off the books, paid him less than $80 a night, and without any of the protections he was legally entitled to. When he died on the job, the company claimed that Diallo was a “daredevil homeless man” to the press. Several years before, the U.S. Department of Labor found that Sanitation Salvage stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages from workers and the NY State Insurance Fund sued the company for $780,000 in unpaid workers’ compensation insurance.

Sanitation Salvage’s is a clear example of an unscrupulous corporation that has a track record of wage theft, fraud and disregarding the lives of essential workers. As the head of the Construction Fraud Task Force, I won cases against companies that committed those same abuses: I prosecuted Harco Construction for killing an immigrant construction worker, Carlos Moncayo, and went after another company that stole $6 million in wages from ironworkers. It’s why I’ve proposed a Labor Bureau because we need to end fraud as a business model, rather than allowing businesses to write off workers’ lives as just the cost of doing business.

And we have to get serious about wage theft so that communities of color can build wealth, and pass it on to the next generation. A half-century after Dr. King’s Poor People Campaign, workers of color remain at the bottom of the economic ladder.

As Dr. King stated in his final speech “I’ve Been To the Mountaintop”:

Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through… Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike, but either we go up together or we go down together.

All New Yorkers need to stand with sanitation workers now more than ever. During the pandemic, sanitation workers have put their lives on the line to ensure that our city is a livable place. Over 500 union workers contracted coronavirus on the job — eight have died. On top of the virus itself, the worsening economy has forced both the city and private unionized haulers to lay off workers.

We can’t let the city just write off sanitation workers as a casualty of the virus. We have to honor Dr. King and clean up our act for workers of color.

Former ADA — specialized in prosecuting crimes of power.

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