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Bracing For A Transit Strike

For the second time in three years, New Yorkers are bracing for a transit strike during the busy and cold December holiday season.

To prevent a showdown, a myriad of issues need to be resolved between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and its largest union, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100. Central issues to the contract dispute are:

Wage increases: The MTA on December 7 offered wage increases of three percent next year and two percent the following year. Union officials criticized this offer but did not formally reject it.

Pension benefits: The MTA wants to move the retirement age from 55 to 62 for newly hired employees and is asking for those new workers to contribute more towards their pensions. Union president Roger Toussaint has voiced opposition to “selling out our unborn” in reference to new workers and said that the current “25/55” (25 years of service, retire at 55) must be maintained.

Health coverage: The MTA is asking for higher co-payments for prescription drugs and office visits. The MTA also wants new employees to contribute two percent toward health care premiums. The union opposes these changes.

Job responsibilities: Another controversial area is the agency's desire to broaden job responsibilities for certain titles. It originally asked to eliminate conductors from some trains so that train operators (“motormen” in the old parlance) would open doors and make announcements as well as operate the train. The union has been fiercely opposed to this proposal and won an arbitration ruling on the issue. The agency more recently proposed to convert conductors to customer service agents who would roam the train rather than stay in the conductors booth. Similarly, the MTA wants the former token clerks to move around subway stations and help riders. The union has expressed reservations about employees’ safety in stations, and passenger safety if conductors’ duties are changed.

Unlike three years ago, the MTA is running a $1 billion surplus, so the union feels there is less of an argument that the MTA cannot afford more generous wages and benefits. The MTA replies that the surplus is generated by a blip in tax revenues that will not last. The MTA expects to confront deep deficits in coming years and plans fare increases in 2007 and 2009.

That may be part of the reason that in its latest proposal, the MTA put forward a two-year contract offer rather than a three-year contract, the recent practice. Two years from now, MTA deficits will set a different tone for contract negotiations.

First Strike Since 1980?

Will there be a strike? The possibility seems very real. There is also strong pressure on Roger Toussaint, the union president, who needs a favorable contract to head off the disaffection among union members that followed the 2002 contract settlement.

On the other hand, TWU members also authorized a strike in December 2002, yet the contract was settled after negotiations that went a day past the deadline. The vote to authorize a strike has value as a way to apply pressure on the MTA, whether or not the authorization is exercised. The union and its members face severe sanctions if they do strike, which is illegal under the state’s Taylor Law. In 1980 the TWU paid a $1.5 million fine and workers were penalized two days pay for each day on strike, a total of $18 million.

Another possible option is binding arbitration. The MTA has called for arbitration if no settlement is reached before the contract deadline. The TWU has opposed arbitration; Toussaint has said that it “removes union members from having a say on their contract.” Yet according to the union Web site, the union championed the current law that provides for arbitration and won a 21.5 percent wage increase, over three years, in 1982 through arbitration.

The 1980 strike is widely seen to have been won by the MTA after the city, led by Mayor Edward I. Koch, continued to function. The 11-day strike had lasting impact on the city in a variety of ways, large and small. Women continued to wear sneakers to walk to work (with heels in handbags.) Jitney vans in Brooklyn and Queens, many of which made their debut in 1980, have become a part of many people’s commute.

Still In The Dark Ages

Since the 1980 transit strike, new subway cars and buses, renovated stations and more-frequent service has modernized the city’s vast public transportation system. Unfortunately, one thing that has not changed is MTA-TWU labor relations, which remain in the dark ages. While some transit agencies in other cities have made great strides in focusing labor management efforts on replacing confrontation with problem-solving that benefits both sides (see the Mineta Transportation Institute’s Transit Labor Relations Guide in pdf format), today’s relationship between the sides is far from ideal.

Real progress would be not only settling the contract before December 15, but also tackling the much harder task of preventing a recurrence two or three years from now.

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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