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December 19, 2005

NY Transit Strike: More Than Just Money

By Jordan Barab. Reposted from Confined Space

Those of you in the New York area or who follow labor issue know that New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers may go on strike at midnight tonight if no agreement is reached between the MTA and the Transport Workers Union. As with most labor disputes and strikes, most of the media's attention is on the money issues -- wages, pensions and benefits. -- particularly considering that the MTA is sitting on a $1 billion surplus.

But in most labor disputes there are important issues at stake other than dollars and benefits: dignity on the job, and in this case, workplace conditions including on-the-job hazards and abuse from riders.

New York Times writers Steve Greenhouse and Sewell Chan highlight some of these issues:

In a survey of 792 bus drivers, station agents, subway conductors and train operators released last week, Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations provided considerable evidence that many workers feel mistreated and undervalued - which could push them toward greater militancy.

The survey, which was conducted in the spring and summer, found that 24 percent of bus and subway workers said they faced serious hazards more than once a month, including smoke, dangerous chemicals and extreme temperatures. It also found that 70 percent felt that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's policies and procedures were unfair.

Many workers said their jobs failed to provide for essential needs. For example, 78 percent said they lacked access to bathroom facilities at least once a month; 51 percent of bus drivers said they had problems finding a bathroom one or more times a day.

New York City Transit, the authority subsidiary that runs subways and buses, issued 15,200 disciplinary violations last year, but workers said they felt they were often blamed while supervisors and passengers were not held accountable. In the survey, 13 percent said they faced abuse from supervisors regularly, while 74 percent said they faced a verbal or physical threat from passengers at least once a year.

The bottom line is that being treated like shit doesn't make for good labor-management relations:

Valerie Spears, a station agent in Manhattan, said she was angry that agents were being asked to stand outside their booths to answer questions. She noted that agents had been beaten and even killed on the job. "I can't settle for what they're trying to do to us," she said. "I don't want to be killed in front of a booth."

Jimmy Williams, a station cleaner, said: "We need better facilities. It's cold. No clean restrooms. No ventilation. We have peeling paint in the rooms where we change. There are no tables for lunch."

Horace Edwards, a subway-car inspector, said he was under pressure to allow cars into service. "With management, it's all about performance," he said. "They want the subways cars to be on time. A lot of cars go out with violations. They tell us to overlook it."

In addition to the safety issues, the main issues separating the two sides are pensions and health insurance. The MTA offered pay raises of 3 percent a year in a 27-month contract, which the union rejected and that the retirement age for new employees be raised to 62 after 30 years of service. The union wants to lower the retirement age to 50 after 20 years on the job. Transit workers can now retire at age 55 after 25 years of service.

The union accused the MTA of trying to create a two-tier system of employees. New transit hires would pay one percent of their earnings for health benefits while also getting a 1 percent match in a 401K.

ATU Local 100 President Roger Toussaint

said the union would agree to reduce its demand for raises from 8 percent to 6 percent annually over three years, in exchange for fewer disciplinary actions. He also said transit employees needed better training and security.

"We need better treatment for workers," he said, calling the proposal the union's "dignity and respect package."

In response to the planned strike, Mayor Bloomberg is planning on easing laws that prohibit taxicabs and livery cars from picking up passenger at bus stops. But the drivers are having none of it. Turns out they know what "solidarity" means:
Two leaders in the taxi and livery industry, which is highly fragmented, said today that their members would not abide by the plan because they wanted to show solidarity with the transit workers, not take advantage of them.

Julio Alvarez, president of the United Drivers Group, which represents several thousand of the 23,000 livery drivers based at local car service companies, said his members face fines of $350 for picking up a street hail or $500 for picking up passengers waiting at a bus stop and suspension of their license for picking up multiple passengers. Now, he said, the city is asking the livery drivers to violate those same rules to help New Yorkers withstand the effects of a transit walkout.

"We're going to do our normal routine work that we do every day, and we're not going to just do something different just to break the strike," Mr. Alvarez said.

Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a left-leaning group that represents several thousand of the 42,000 licensed yellow-cab drivers, said: "We won't be scabs for the city. If this strike happens, we consider it more of a lockout than a strike, with the way the M.T.A. has conducted itself. We won't participate in bringing down the wages of another work force."

We'll know what happens in a few hours. The stakes are high. New York's Taylor Law prohibits public employees from striking -- yet another example of their second-class status in this "democracy."

Posted by Jordan Barab at December 19, 2005 10:49 PM