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Woodlawn Cemetery and workers lock horns over proposed layoffs

By Sana Taskeen Gulzar

Woodlawn Cemetery is known for the famous people who are buried there, from Miles Davis to Robert Moses. But an ongoing labor dispute has put the sprawling burial ground in the spotlight for a different reason. Controversy brews over the cemetery’s plan to lay off 23 union workers and to outsource the landscaping of the cemetery to a private landscaping firm.

The famous Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx is embroiled in controversy over proposed worker lay offs.

The Woodlawn workers claim that the management announced the decision to lay off 23 out of 38 workers at the cemetery right after a new workers’ union was voted in last October. Enrique Coss, one of the workers, says management did not want to deal with a strong workers’ union, the teamsters

“Management always had their way,” said Coss. “They were always able to have control and were in bed with the previous unions,” he said.

According to the current workers’ union, Local Teamster 808, the cemetery management took the decision of outsourcing 23 landscaping jobs in November last year after only one negotiation session. Chris Silvera, the secretary- treasurer of the union, alleged that the management retaliated against the workers who joined the union in October.

“They run the cemetery plantation style,” said Silvera. “It’s not a racial thing, but [the] company wants to treat people at their own discretion. You just do what I tell you to do,” he said.

The cemetery management denies the allegation. Howard Cannon, a spokesman for Woodlawn Cemetery, said that another union already represented the workers before the teamsters got voted in. Cannon asserted that the union was aware of the existing four-year contract with the workers set to expire on December 31. The management, still in negotiations with workers, has not made the final decision about the layoffs. “We are on the negotiating table every day; there have been no layoffs, we are still negotiating,” said Cannon. “If the management was interested in laying off workers, it would not have been on the negotiating table,” he said.

The cemetery management claims it only asked workers’ union for possible suggestions to save $731,000 in operational costs. The cemetery is deciding between outsourcing the jobs to the Brickman Group, a company that operates in 29 states, or cutting wages 35 percent.

Cannon says the cemetery business is in flux, forcing the management to reevaluate their needs and costs.

“Cremations have increased 512 percent since 1985,” said Cannon. “If there is a significant decrease in burials, then we need to readjust our work force,” he added.

But Coss asserts that even with increased number of cremations, the nature of the job doesn’t change much, as the 400 acres of land has to be maintained.

“They will be doing an injustice to the lot owners,’’ he said. “They would be walking into a jungle or a forest.”

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