Gotham Gazette

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Transit Strike -- Negotiating For Respect

You can negotiate for higher wages and to preserve your health benefits and your pension. But how do you negotiate for respect?

Although there were clear dollars-and-cents issues that drove the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 to call a strike against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) early in the morning of December 20, respect seemed to be the driving motivating factor.

This became clearer as the strike got underway and the voices of the rank-and-file were heard more prominently in the press. The Daily News, for example, reported the story of Willie Casiano, a mechanic, who said that his supervisor has “been accusing me of chronic sick-leave abuse" during chemotherapy treatment. An Associated Press article quoted Angel Ortiz, another transit worker, saying, "Everybody treats us like crap all the time. We're tired of being treated like we're the garbage of the city." Charles Craft, a track worker, said that some bosses treat his colleagues "like animals.”

It’s hard to understand the transit strike without thinking about these comments. How else can one explain why TWU Local 100 President Roger Toussaint seemed undaunted on the first day of the strike. Undaunted -- despite a court imposing $1 million a day fines on the union; the president of the international union, Michael T. O’Brien, urging workers to abandon the strike and return to work immediately; and the state Public Employment Relations Board dismissing the union's complaint that the transit authority violated state law by negotiating pensions.

Without considering the issue of respect, it is difficult to understand why talks came to a standstill the night before the strike, despite the MTA’s making a significant change in its pension proposals. Up until then, the MTA had wanted to increase the age for full retirement from age 55 to age 62 for new employees. Before the midnight strike deadline, the MTA put on the table a proposal to retain 55 as the retirement age for new employees but deduct six percent instead of the current two percent from their paychecks. The union objected to this as a four percent wage cut. But what could be more negotiable than the difference between six percent and two percent?

Only the issue of respect can explain why the union has steadfastly refused to consider mandatory arbitration, a route they embraced in the early 1980s. As Toussaint has said repeatedly, the union wants its members to make their own decision on what contract terms to accept. Making decisions for yourself is a matter of self-respect.

Nelson Rivera, a shop chairman for mechanics and car cleaners at a Manhattan depot, seemed to articulate to the Daily News how workers’ deep desire for respect and Toussaint as the local president have come together to produce a strike. "’We've been fed up with the MTA and wanted a strike for years,’ Rivera said. ‘But until Roger got elected, no union leader dared to stand up to management.’"

How this volatile situation will play out is impossible to predict. All the forces against the union are applying maximum pressure for a settlement: the $1 million a day fines; Taylor Law provisions that fine workers two days pay for every day they walk out; the international union’s lack of support; and harsh rhetoric from the mayor and governor. With the strike costing the union millions a day and the city tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars in police overtime, lost retail sales and a myriad of other costs, it’s hard to believe that the strike can last an extended period of time. The MTA and TWU need to find some way to bridge the gap.

Whether they have truly done so, however, will become evident only when the time comes – two or three years from now – to negotiate the next contract. Will that next contract also be about respect?

Bruce Schaller, who has been in charge of the transportation topic page since its inception in 1999, is head of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis about transportation. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. 

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