Right-Wing Media Dubiously Blame Unions For Slow NYC Blizzard Response

››› ››› CHELSEA RUDMAN

In the days following the blizzard in New York City, right-wing media seized on a Republican NYC councilman's claim that a deliberate union slow-down was responsible for the city's widely criticized snow removal. In fact, numerous city officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, say there is no evidence for the claim and many reports have cited other factors likely to be responsible, such as the mayor's failure to declare a state of emergency and an inadequate number of sanitation workers.

NYC Widely Criticized for Slow Snow Removal After Blizzard

Media Report Numerous Complaints Regarding NYC Response To Blizzard. After the blizzard on December 26 and 27, 2010, which left one to two feet of snow across the northeast, numerous media outlets reported an increasing number of complaints that the response to the blizzard was inadequate, leaving some streets in the outer boroughs of New York City unplowed for days after the storm. The New York Times reported on December 28 that "streets across vast stretches of the city remained untouched" the day after the storm, and a December 30 article in the New York Daily News said that the city had a "horribly flawed response" to the blizzard. [New York Times, 12/28/10, New York Daily News, 12/30/10]

Bloomberg Admitted City's Response Was "Inadequate." New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg admitted to reporters in a December 30, 2010 press conference that the city's response to the storm was "inadequate." [CNN.com, 12/30/10]

Right-Wing Media Claim Slow Response Was Union Protest To Budget Cuts

NY Post: "Sanitation Department's Slow Snow Cleanup Was A Budget Protest." On December 30, an article in the New York Post stated that City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Queens) claimed he had been visited by sanitation workers who claimed their supervisors ordered them to deliberately "snarl the blizzard cleanup" in order "to protest budget cuts." From the article, "Sanitation Department's Slow Snow Cleanup Was A Budget Protest":

These garbage men really stink.

Selfish Sanitation Department bosses from the snow-slammed outer boroughs ordered their drivers to snarl the blizzard cleanup to protest budget cuts -- a disastrous move that turned streets into a minefield for emergency-services vehicles, The Post has learned.

Miles of roads stretching from as north as Whitestone, Queens, to the south shore of Staten Island still remained treacherously unplowed last night because of the shameless job action, several sources and a city lawmaker said, which was over a raft of demotions, attrition and budget cuts.

"They sent a message to the rest of the city that these particular labor issues are more important," said City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Queens), who was visited yesterday by a group of guilt-ridden sanitation workers who confessed the shameless plot.

Halloran said he met with three plow workers from the Sanitation Department -- and two Department of Transportation supervisors who were on loan -- at his office after he was flooded with irate calls from constituents.

The snitches "didn't want to be identified because they were afraid of retaliation," Halloran said. "They were told [by supervisors] to take off routes [and] not do the plowing of some of the major arteries in a timely manner. They were told to make the mayor pay for the layoffs, the reductions in rank for the supervisors, shrinking the rolls of the rank-and-file." [New York Post, 12/30/10]

FoxNews.com: "Union Workers Reportedly Staged Slowdown As New York City Battled Blizzard." On December 30, an article on FoxNews.com, titled, "Union Workers Reportedly Staged Slowdown as New York City Battled Blizzard," began:

As New York City finishes cleaning up the mess of the recent debilitating blizzard, it also faces allegations that union workers entrusted with cleaning up the mess of snow decided to stage a slowdown as the blizzard hit.

The plan was to snarl the blizzard cleanup to protest budget cuts, several sources and a city lawmaker told the New York Post. The lawmaker, City Councilman Dan Halloran, underscored those claims in an interview Thursday on Fox News' "Your World."

Halloran said he met with three plow workers from the Sanitation Department -- and two Department of Transportation supervisors who were on loan -- at his office after he was flooded with irate calls from constituents. The workers said the work slowdown was pushed by supervisors, not the unions, as the result of growing hostility between Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the workers responsible for clearing the snow.

"They're saying that the shops that they worked in ... basically had the go ahead to take their time, that they wouldn't be be [sic] supervised, that if they missed routes it wasn't going to be a problem," Halloran told Fox News.

In the last two years, the agency's workforce has been slashed by 400 trash haulers and supervisors -- down from 6,300 -- because of the city's budget crisis. And, effective Friday, 100 department supervisors are to be demoted and their salaries slashed as an added cost-saving move. Sources said budget cuts were also at the heart of poor planning for the blizzard last weekend.

The blizzard struck days before 100 Sanitation Department supervisors in charge of coordinating the plowing fleet were scheduled to be demoted in a budget-cutting move. The timing of the demotions, scheduled for Jan. 1, ignited the initial speculation that disgruntled supervisors had purposely sabotaged the snow removal effort in an act of revenge. [FoxNews.com, 01/03/11]

Wash Examiner: "NYC Snowdown Shows Public Employee Unions' Callousness." A January 2 Washington Examiner column rehashing Halloran's allegations noted that several people died during the blizzard in New York City and went on to claim: "This episode makes clear a truth about unions that often goes unsaid: Demonstrating a callous indifference to human life is a hallmark of union negotiating tactics." From the column:

So why weren't New York's streets cleaned up sooner? The day before Reynoso's ordeal [in which a three-month-old infant died], the New York Post reported city sanitation workers visited the office of City Councilman Dan Halloran, of Queens, and confessed to deliberately hampering the snow removal effort.

"They were told [by supervisors] to take off routes [and] not do the plowing of some of the major arteries in a timely manner. They were told to make the mayor pay for the layoffs, the reductions in rank for the supervisors, shrinking the rolls of the rank-and-file," Halloran said.

In a city of 8 million people, surely union workers knew that staging a work slowdown during a major snowstorm meant they were risking lives. They did it anyway.

Not that New York sanitation workers have much to complain about regarding budget cuts. Some 300 Sanitation Department workers make more than $100,000 annually, and at least 180 retirees have pensions of $66,000.

This episode makes clear a truth about unions that often goes unsaid: Demonstrating a callous indifference to human life is a hallmark of union negotiating tactics. [Washington Examiner, 01/02/11]

Your World Hosted Halloran To Claim Workers "Had The Go Ahead To Take Their Time." On the December 30 edition of Your World with Neil Cavuto, guest host Brian Sullivan interviewed Halloran about the accusations. From the show:

SULLIVAN: ...With us now Republican City Councilman Dan Halloran who says those workers confessed to him. Welcome. What were you told? Who met with you?

HALLORAN: Well, I got two phone calls -- sets of phone calls from two different groups. One was [Department of Transportation] supervisors and the other was sanitation workers, and it was very disturbing. They came into the office, these are constituents of mine, people would saw their community around them unable to get out of the snow -- College Point, Bayside, Whitestone were completely snowed in. You know, I had residents without power for two days because Con Edison couldn't get to the streets to clean the lines that were down, and these workers were very upset about it. They were very clear that their union, the sanitation workers union, was not engaging in a slow-down, but that their supervisors, the people who are actually on the chopping block, there's 100 supervisors who are going to be demoted for budgetary reasons by the mayor's office. We've had an attrition rate of about 400 workers that were down over the past few years. There's been talks of further layoffs and further cuts. In fact, the mayor proposed going to one day a week garbage collection just this past budget cycle.

SULLIVAN: So they're angry. Okay, let's be clear about what you heard in these conversations. It seems clear to you that these workers were saying that their supervisors were telling them and their crews to basically do a poor job as a means of protest?

HALLORAN: It's -- that's what they're saying. They're saying the shops that they worked in, the garages they worked in -- all of which were in Queens, so, you know, I can't speak to the rest of the city, I can only speak to the Queens shops that they were working with -- basically had the go ahead to take their time, that they wouldn't be supervised, that if they missed routes it wasn't going to be a problem, that they needed to send a message, and ultimately, in my district, the DOT employees, who would were secondary to the Sanitation Department, were told to just sit and wait, and they would get instructions as to when to start cleaning up. Six, eight hours later, they were still sitting, waiting to clean up. [Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto, 12/30/10]

Fox & Friends Hosted Halloran To Claim Workers Were "Given The Green Light To Not Do The Job Quickly." On January 3, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade interviewed Halloran about the accusations. From the show:

KILMEADE: So what makes you think [this episode wasn't] just incompetence? What makes you think it's intentional?

HALLORAN: Let's look at the overall thing. This is not the worst storm we've ever had. This is number six on the scale. We also know that this year, the plan in place was far more comprehensive than ever before. We still had the support of Department of Transportation, Parks, and other city agencies as well as a slew of private workers who were there ready to jump in.

KILMEADE: So what people should understand, it's not a matter of people complaining of being inconvenienced. People died. Ambulances couldn't get to people. Other people couldn't get to hospitals. So in the big picture, what was the conversation like with these workers that makes you - why you're here today and why you think this was deliberate?

HALLORAN: Well, look. The first conversation I had was with some DOT supervisors whose crews were signed out to sanitation. And essentially what they said was their crews reported for duty on time, ready to go. They were told to stay at a staging area and wait for instructions. Those instructions six, eight hours later -- hadn't come. They were basically just parked, going nowhere instead of being out and plowing the streets. The second problem was that the sanitation workers themselves were sort of given the green light to not do the job quickly. We had three of them come talk to me. The conversations were more or less, the supervisor said don't worry, we won't be checking up on you. If you miss streets, it's ok. Now, that's not a "don't do your work." That's a "do your work in a manner that is not pushing the envelope."

KILMEADE: Do public unions realize, we know they're under pressure, the deals that they had were too nice for too long, we can't afford it. They think they're going to win over the public by screwing the public and people dying? [Fox News' Fox & Friends, 01/03/11]

But Reports Indicate Failure To Declare Snow Emergency, Poor Planning Was Responsible

NYT: City Officials Failed To Declare Snow Emergency, Which Would Have "Aided Initial Snow Plowing Efforts." A December 29 New York Times article that reviewed the timeline of the storm and the city's responses stated:

At 3:58 a.m. on Christmas Day, the National Weather Service upgraded its alert about the snow headed to New York City, issuing a winter storm watch. By 3:55 p.m., it had declared a formal blizzard warning, a rare degree of alarm. But city officials opted not to declare a snow emergency -- a significant mobilization that would have, among other things, aided initial snow plowing efforts.

[...]

[Declaring a snow emergency] allows the city to ban vehicles from parking on more than 300 designated "snow emergency streets." Vehicles that remain after the declaration can be ticketed or towed. And any vehicles moving on those streets must use chains or snow tires.

The rationale is straightforward: clearing vehicles from those streets gives plows the best chance to move through them rapidly, keeping emergency services routes open and allowing the plows to move onto secondary streets.

[...]

"It's a very strong, powerful public message which has a certain effect," Mr. Steisel said.

Jerome M. Hauer, who spent four years as the city's emergency management commissioner under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, said he advised the mayor on whether to declare a snow emergency based on forecasts from the Weather Service and other sources.

There were no hard and fast rules, Mr. Hauer said, but anything above six or seven inches would start "to create problems for the city, so it was clear you'd have to start thinking it was time to declare a snow emergency."

Both current and former city officials had difficulty recalling how many times such an emergency had been declared. One current official said the last one had been declared in 2003.

Still, Mr. Hauer asserted, "if they said we were getting a blizzard, it was kind of a no-brainer." [The New York Times, 12/29/10]

NYT: MTA Delay[ed] "Invoking A Full-Scale Emergency Plan." The Times article also noted that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which includes New York City Transit buses and subways, "entered the holiday weekend with modest concerns about the weather" and did not go to "a full alert" until late Sunday morning. From the article:

[New York City Transit] managers can choose from one of four [emergency] plans, prescribed each year in a telephone-book-size manual that lays out, in 300 pages of excruciating detail, the exact process for keeping the nation's largest public transportation system functioning in the event of inclement weather. Plan 1, the lowest level of preparation, takes effect when the temperature drops below 30 degrees; Plan 4, the full-press emergency response, is activated when at least five inches of snow is expected.

By that morning, the Weather Service had been warning of a significant winter storm starting on Sunday afternoon. But at 11 a.m., the managers issued a proclamation of Plan 1.

Officials, who had been tracking the storm since Wednesday, believed that the city would be spared the brunt of the storm.

The decision would have far-reaching consequences: because of a quirk in the transit agency's system, the plan chosen on Friday stays in effect all weekend. And the agency would not officially make the switch to Plan 4 until 11 a.m. on Sunday, when snow was already building up on the streets. [The New York Times, 12/29/10, emphasis added]

NYT: City Delayed Call For Outside Help Until "Nearly 30 Hours After The Weather Service Had Raised Its Warning To a Winter Storm Watch." The Times article also stated that "[f]or years, an integral role in the city's best blizzard response plans" has included help from private contractors. From the article:

For years, an integral role in the city's best blizzard response plans was filled not by municipal workers but by private contractors and construction crews, ready with front-end loaders, tow trucks, pickup trucks and Bobcat vehicles that can move snow from the tightest urban grids.

Yet as the blizzard approached, the first calls from city officials for help went out around 9 a.m. on Sunday -- nearly 30 hours after the Weather Service had raised its warning to a winter storm watch, and more than 24 hours after Mr. Doherty, the veteran sanitation commissioner, sensed that a blizzard was well on its way, he said.

[...]

Help did not arrive in adequate enough numbers or in nearly enough time. And the resulting failure to clear the city's side streets, even 48 hours after the first significant accumulations, became the storm's signature outrage.

"If we had the private industry and the front-end loaders early, come in, it would have been a big help, no question about it," Mr. Doherty said in an interview on Wednesday. "It is a problem." [The New York Times, 12/29/10]

NYDN: "Sanitation Department Short-Staffed Due To Christmas." A December 30 article in the New York Daily News that reviewed the timeline of the storm and the city's response identified several major problems in the city's response not related to Halloran's accusations. The article noted that sanitation officials "were short-staffed due to Christmas" and later explained:

The Sanitation Department began calling in extra workers for Sunday around 8 a.m. - but a supervisor said it became clear there was a staffing problem.

"They were so unprepared for this storm," the supervisor said. "They were scrambling like crazy on Christmas Day, calling people and trying to get them to come in." [New York Daily News,12/30/10]

NYDN: Workers Included "100 Rookie Drivers Working Their First Storm." The New York Daily News article also noted:

The group included 100 rookie drivers working their first storm. They had only two weeks of instruction, and just a few days of driving.

Their on-the-job training was a rousing failure.

"The storm just got ahead of us and we couldn't keep up and we couldn't do what we wanted to do," Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty later confessed. [New York Daily News, 12/30/10]

Bloomberg, Sanitation Commissioner Dismiss Slowdown Claims, Take Blame For Mistakes

Bloomberg And Sanitation Commissioner Doherty "Dismissed...Speculation Of A Slowdown." A December 30 article in the New York Times reported:

Mr. Bloomberg said he was still unsure of the reasons behind the delays in cleanup and again promised there would be a "thorough review." But he and the sanitation commissioner, John J. Doherty, dismissed widespread speculation of a slowdown by plowing crews upset about cutbacks in their department.

"As of now, I can't confirm that, and I have no reason to," Mr. Doherty said, standing next to the mayor in a recreation center in South Jamaica, Queens. [The New York Times, 12/30/10]

Bloomberg And Doherty Take Blame, Acknowledge Mistakes. Since the storm, both Bloomberg and Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty have taken blame for the city's failure to clean up the snow quickly. A December 31 AP article noted the mayor eventually said he was "accountable" for the problems, stating:

Bloomberg -- a media mogul who has built a reputation as an able manager, adept at cutting through bureaucracy -- defended the city's response to the blizzard earlier in the week but adopted a more conciliatory tone over the past few days as complaints of stuck ambulances and unplowed streets mounted.

"The response to the snowstorm was inadequate and unacceptable," he conceded Thursday. "Nobody is satisfied. We're accountable. I'm accountable." The storm struck on Sunday in a city that has been planning to slash spending. But the mayor said: "The budget had nothing to do with this. We thought we had an adequate number of people, an adequate amount of equipment and the right training." [Associated Press, 12/31/10]

The December 29 New York Times article noted that Doherty acknowledged that many mistakes were made and personally took the blame for not calling for outside help sooner. From the article:

"I could stand here and list maybe 10 or 12 items and say this is what my problem was or that's what my problem was," John J. Doherty, the sanitation commissioner, said at a news conference with Mr. Bloomberg. "The mayor has pointed out there will be a postmortem on this storm. I'm not here to make excuses right now."

[...]

The problem [of a lack of outside help], he said, rested largely with him. He said he might have taken too long to make the first calls for private help. He said he had become too consumed with deploying thousands of his own workers.

"Why did we wait so long?" he asked. "Well, maybe that is something we have to look at, no questions about it." [The New York Times, 12/29/10]

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