Gotham Gazette

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A Series Of Strikes

Brinksmanship in contract negotiations between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and its largest union, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, left New Yorkers feeling that “no news is good news” as they dressed for work on a rainy Friday morning, hours after the union’s contract with the MTA expired. Subways and buses kept rolling as contract negotiations broke up at 4:30 a.m. with no word from either side.

Three hours later, Transport Workers Union President Roger Toussaint announced that the union board had authorized a “series of strikes,” starting with two private bus lines in Queens recently absorbed into the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. These workers have been without a contract for three years. Toussaint said the union was prepared to continue to bargain, but he also denounced the MTA for bad-faith bargaining. He indicated that the union would broaden the strike to “MTA properties” if no settlement was reached, but did not specify a deadline. "We have been left with no choice," he said at around 7:15 Friday morning, after the morning rush hour had already begun.

Dim Prospects For A Settlement

In the days and then hours leading up to the December 15 midnight deadline, events seemed to be building inevitably towards a strike:

The city filed suit seeking fines of $25,000 a day for every worker, doubling for every day of the strike, and additional millions from the union.

MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow suggested at a news conference that arbitration –- a course favored by the union after the 1980 strike -– could break the impasse. TWU President Roger Toussaint denounced Kalikow’s remarks and insisted that union members wanted to settle their own fate.

Transit workers rallied with the cry, “Shut it down!”

Dissident union members tried to disrupt a Toussaint news conference, highlighting internal pressures that were not favorable to a settlement. The union distributed instructions to members on how to shut down subways and buses.

The city readied an emergency plan to set up carpool staging areas and park-and-ride lots, limit traffic into Manhattan, and open schools two hours later throughout the city. Private employers followed suit with plans for buses and van shuttle services and even day care for workers whose nannies might not be able to show up for work.

Public comments on progress in the talks on Thursday were also not optimistic. Toussaint said chances of a strike were “50-50.” The head MTA negotiator, Gary Dellaverson, said there had simply not been enough negotiations to bridge the gap. MTA Board Member Barry Feinstein, a former Teamsters local president, noted that smaller issues which should have been resolved by the last day of negotiations had not been.

Kalikow joined negotiations himself shortly before the midnight deadline, but no settlement could be reached. In announcing the strike, Toussaint said that Kalikow's attempt to solve major differences between the union and the authority in so short a time was insulting.

Points Of Contention

The main issues continued to be wages, pension benefits, health coverage and work rules:

Wage increases: The Metropolitan Transportation Authority offered two wage increases of three percent each over 27 months. The union sought eight percent annual wage increases.

Pension benefits: The MTA wants to move the retirement age from 55 to 62 for newly hired employees and is asking for higher employee contributions from new workers. The TWU countered with a proposal to reduce the age for full retirement benefits to 50.

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 MTA’s desire to broaden job responsibilities for certain titles. The MTA 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 TWU has been fiercely opposed to this proposal and won an arbitration ruling on the issue. The MTA 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.

Differences From 2002

The task of reaching a settlement has been complicated by differences this year compared to three years ago, when negotiators stopped the clock to reach a settlement the day after the contract expired. 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.

Paths To Settlement

Several paths to a settlement still remain. While the TWU has opposed binding arbitration, according to the TWU 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 contract issues also lend themselves to compromise. The MTA undoubtedly could increase the wage hike from the three precent it has offered. It would appear that changes to the retirement age are unlikely given the cost of the TWU proposal on the one hand and the need for state legislation to implement the MTA’s proposal. A middle ground for payments for health benefits and changes in work rules could be found by modifying or phasing in any changes.

Meanwhile, New Yorkers continue to wait for word on whether the two sides will find common ground, or whether the cold and wet holiday season will turn increasingly ugly.

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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