At Woodlawn Cemetery, final resting place of many illustrious New Yorkers, 23 unionized landscapers are fighting management, which claims industry trends are forcing cost cutting.
Landscapers at the New York cemetery where jazz legends like Celia Cruz, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington are buried protested Jan. 17 against management’s plan to contract their jobs out to a private landscaping firm if a new labor deal could not be reached.
In a rally outside the Woodlawn Cemetery’s gates scheduled to coincide with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the workers called on management to abandon plans to eliminate their 23 jobs and to instead negotiate a new agreement to replace the pact that expired at the end of 2010.
It’s the latest battle for the workers, who for several years had lodged complaints about racism by supervisors, prompting cemetery officials to hire an independent investigator to look into the charges. As a result, cemetery executives made changes to the supervisory staff last summer and agreed to institute sensitivity training.
Then in October, the workers voted overwhelmingly to switch their union affiliation, from United Service Workers Local 74 to Teamsters Local 808. Some 98 percent of the workers supported the change. They began negotiations with cemetery officials on a new contract, but after just one session at the bargaining table, the workers allege management told them it planned to contract the work out to the Brickman Group, a landscaping giant that often uses foreign workers on temporary visas.
Chris Silvera, secretary treasurer of Local 808, said that the workers were told they would have to take a 35 percent pay cut or their jobs would be outsourced. In a union news release, he called the proposed outsourcing “an act of vengeance against the workers for choosing a fighting union to represent them.”
Woodlawn Cemetery president John Toale Jr. responded by saying in a written statement that officials “have not ever, nor will we ever, seek to ‘bust’ a union.” He blamed the dispute on the workers and Local 808, saying that they have “chosen to ignore the fact that our industry has changed.”
Toale said that over the past 25 years the number of cremations performed by Woodlawn has increased by 512 percent. During the same time, the number of casket burials and entombments has been cut in half.
“The change in how families address the loss of loved ones means that fewer grounds and landscape workers are required to operate and maintain the Woodlawn Cemetery,” he said.
He said that Woodlawn would save $713,000 a year by outsourcing its landscaping operation and asked the union to come up with a proposal that would lead to comparable savings.
Silvera said that bargaining was scheduled to resume on Jan. 24 and 25. He said the cemetery could save money by cutting back on subcontractors and executive compensation. A tree service company was paid nearly $268,000 in 2009, according to an Internal Revenue Service filing. And Toale took in $265,299 in 2009, according to the filing.
“We will continue to meet and try to address concerns they have regarding cost savings,” Silvera said. “But to either cut the workers’ salaries by 35 percent or replace them completely is not an option.”
The cemetery, which was established in 1863, has employed unionized workers for the past four decades. It’s run as a not-for-profit organization. In addition to the various music stars laid to rest there, writer Herman Melville, master builder Robert Moses, women’s rights leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton and former mayor Fiorello LaGuardia are buried there.