Sweeping the Streets of the Neoliberal City: Racial and Class Divisions among New York City's Sanitation Workers

Natalie Benelli

DOI: 10.2190/WR.16.3-4.l


Starting with the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, cutbacks in New York City's sanitation department have led to the shortening of routes plied by mechanical brooms, cutbacks in public waste basket collection, and the removal of manual sweeping crews. However, today the city's streets are cleaner than ever, as business improvement districts and private work training programs for the homeless increasingly invest in street sweeping. This article explores the way in which the shift from public to private street sanitation creates racial and class divisions with respect to the working conditions of street sweepers in New York City and to public discourse on them. It shows that the partial displacement of unionized municipal sanitation workers by cheap private sector sweepers goes hand in hand with a binary discourse that constructs municipal workers as white working-class heroes while racialized sweepers in work training programs are exploited on the grounds that they are in debt to society.

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