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December 13, 2002

Jane Galt v. the Transit Union

Check Jane Galt's comments (#6 in the list) where she responds to my post on the possible strike by the transit unon, but attacks the unions by arguing (1) "there is simply no money to pay the unions." Actually, she makes a few other points I'll respond to as well, namely
(2) New York taxes rates are 40% for a middle class person making 50K per year.
(3) Suburban New York politicians won't support taxes to help NYC.
(4) Some union workers make more by working overtime.
(5) Bus Rapid Transit would slow other traffic.

Let's start with (1)-- of course there's money, or at least there would be if Galt's conservative buddies in Congress did not systematically tax urban districts and shift the money to rich GOP suburban districts. Since 1994, as the Washington Times reported, Congress "moved spending from poor rural and urban areas to the more affluent suburbs and GOP-leaning farm country" to the tune of an extra $612 million going to each GOP district over Dem districts. For New York, this problem has been chronic for decades, as over $20 billion per year more is taxed from the state than is spent here by the federal government, as I detailed in this column last year. As an example, Trent Lott's Mississippi received $1,695 in defense spending for each of its citizens each year with $70 billion more going to its citizens than they paid in taxes in the last decade, even as federal spending for the poor in New York has been slashed in the last two decades. So there's plenty of money-- it's just been being taxed away to fund military bases and other suburban-based pork barrel for Republicans.

But that's part of the game by national conservatives-- spend tons of pork barrel on their own districts, steal money from urban areas, then bash any suggestions for spending on urban working folks as "pork barrel" and "impossible" because of budgetary pressures.

Okay- but Jane Galt might be saying that yes, national conservatives are hypocrites and liars about federal spending, but New Yorkers are so overtaxed as a result of making up for this transfer of wealth to Mississippi military bases that they are powerless to solve the transit standoff in a just manner. Well, the first step would be for mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki to point out the problem and demand some federal changes in spending priorities-- heck even if you think a military solution will defeat Al Qaeda, it won't be done from a pork barrel military base in Mississippi.

But even, per (2) above, her 40% tax rate is overblown. With child deductions and mortgage deductions for homeowners in her proposed outer boroughs, no one making $50K per year pays 40% of their income in taxes. That's just typical conservative rhetoric- but see this article for why this kind of rhetorical tax rhetoric doesn't fly anymore. If you look at these figures, you'll see that an average family pays just 16.7% of income for all federal taxes and here that they pay 12.3% for all state and local taxes. Also compare the low tax burden in the US compared to most other developed nations here.

And the solution proposed by Bloomberg is not to tax just New Yorkers but the commuters (like myself living here in New Jersey) who work and enjoy the benefits of New York City but pay little to support its upkeep. That seems more than reasonable, especially if done with some progressivity to the tax code.

As for (3), again the excuse of GOP conservative suburban legislators screwing urban districts is used to justify screwing the union workers. You suggest beating up those union workers-- how about organizing a gang to go beat up those suburban legislators?

As for (4), this is a standard rhetorical gambit in bashing union workers. Track down the outlier worker getting double-time and painting him as the typical rich union member, ignoring that the average bus and train operators make only a few thousand extra per year in overtime. Yes, unionized transit workers make a living wage and we should be seeking to get more jobs to that level, not tearing down the decent ones.

And as for (5) a Rapid Bus Transit system bringing other traffic to a screeching halt-- well, good. Individual cars get free rent driving on city streets, occupying valuable property every day that would cost hundreds of dollars per month if priced properly. The more people driven out of their cars onto public transit, the more revenue for the MTA system. Basically, delivery trucks and buses should be given priority access on the streets. Everyone else should use public transit. It would be better for the environment and make general transit in the city faster and cheaper.

But there is a deeper contradiction in conservative union bashing like Jane Galt's. At one level, she is attacking the unions for betraying the city, but then the reason they might undermine the city is the threat of businesses like American Express leaving the city. So who should we be attacking-- the unions or the businesses economically blackmailing the city? Unions may be threatening a strike for a few days but all of them intend to come back to work. The big corporations are threatening a capital strike against the city with no promise to stay over the long-term.

I guess the problem is that the big money folks have so much power that people feel powerless to attack them. So conservatives like Galt take advantage of that to funnel that frustration at an easier, weaker target like the transit unions, who are just trying, as New Yorkers, to take care of their families. As I said, it's class warfare of the meanest kind, pitting the powerless against those fighting for just a scrap for themselves, while leaving those with real power untouched and undenounced.

Union-bashing and race-baiting by conservatives are linked by this strategy, seeking to distract white workers by finding scapegoats, so working class voters are divided and don't work together to go where the real money is-- the wealthy who pigged out at the economic casino in the last decades. Attack the unions, bash the minorities, pit people against each other, ignore the rich folks behind the curtain-- it's standard conservative rhetoric.

Galt's good at it and more sophisticated than many. But it's the same old game.

Posted by Nathan at December 13, 2002 07:02 AM

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Nathan, you have once again displayed your ignorance of the topic at hand.

1) You should also check the funding levels appropriated to West Virginia and South Dakota, which dwarf Mississippi per capita, thanks to Senators Byrd and Daschle. This is just partisan ranting. The Senate loots less powerful districts to ship pork to powerful senators' districts. This is news?

(2) No one pays those levels? No one? Not all the young single people in New York who can't afford mortgages, like, say, me? I paid nearly 50% when I lived here before; more if you count sales tax. And I wasn't rich. My earnings topped out at considerably under those of a transit worker.

The commuter tax, as I discussed in my post, has a problem: the state legislature has to approve it. Hasn't yet. And freeloading folks in New Jersey still won't pay it.

(3) Couldn't hurt. On the other hand, you know they're all Democrats, right? And if we hurt them, the legislature would probably swing GOP?

(4) Nathan, you have no idea what you're talking about on union payrolls. You are not listening to me. I spent a year doing union payrolls quite recently. Unless you have more experience than I do calculating such pay, you are not going to win this argument because I know more about it than you do. I'm not "tracking down the guy making overtime"; the trains run every Saturday and Sunday. 1/8th of the workforce drives them each of those days. Ditto the busses. Same with holidays, nights, and swing shift. Same with jump time if the train breaks down. Unless you have some actual information about the specifics of the transit system that I lack, please stop making silly arguments you can't back up.

(5) Bus Rapid Transit is just stupid. You're talking about running high speed busses in a dedicated lane. The same lane currently used for turning -- hello, auto accidents. The same lane used by the majority of New Yorkers who jaywalk -- hello, traffic deaths. (One study apparently estimated that the city would save more from killing off its slower senior citizens than the bus system.) The same lane used by the delivery trucks that deliver all the stuff that we, in New York, foolishly continue consuming, such as food and medical supplies and little cocktail hats. The same lane used by ambulence and fire.

Also, since the busses run at a net loss of around $2.50 per rider, bringing more people into the system wouldn't generate more revenue, it would lose it.

My father is a transportation professional. I spend hours at the dinner table being serenaded with transit plans, traffic densities, MTA politics, and the like. I have actually heard the professional analysis of these plans, which you have not; you're working off the talking points memo from the union, which conceived this plan with the idea of using more buses, not saving money, and is also not staffed with people who know anything about overall traffic density and usage patterns or finances. They know how to drive things.

Frankly, I'm a little confused by this. Why are you supporting the union, whose membership, with a peak earning power of over $100K, would certainly qualify in your mind as "well off" if they didn't happen to belong to the union. Or is the mere fact of being in a union enough for you to support any demand at all? Any action, no matter who else it screws? Not even when the worst hit are going to be our friends, the working poor? Or am I the only one expected to exhibit worker solidarity?

And would it change your mind to hear that the folks over at the state AFL-CIO are apparently as angry about this as I am?

Posted by: Jane Galt at December 13, 2002 08:50 AM

Let's start with (4) the MTA salaries, since you are claiming lots of knowledge but presenting no evidence. So here's some. It's from the last contract fight in 1999, but the info comes from MTA's management via CNN: "With overtime and weekend work, the MTA says the average salary for bus operators is more than $56,000 annually. For train operators, including overtime and weekends, the average annual pay is more than $54,000."

Unless you have something else that shows higher numbers, all your talk about $100,000 salaries is just typical anecdotal exceptions that have nothing to do with the lives of actual transit workers.

So your credibility is pretty weak right there- but let's move to your other responses.

On (1) as far as suburban and GOP rural states stealing funds from liberal urban areas-- see here for the data from the Taubman Center. While West Virginia is one of the highest per capita net gainers from federal transfers, Mississippi beats South Dakota. And notably (since West Virginia went for Bush in 2000), the "welfare states" are overwhelmingly Bush "blue states." The biggest exceptions are Maryland and New Mexico. And getting off state by state comparison down to Congressional district numbers, the analysis as I cited is clear: Republican districts get an average of $612 million more than Democratic districts. Multiply $612 million times the number of NYC districts and you get some idea of how much money the city is losing out on from federal spending.

On 2- personal taxes, let's see your 1040; I don't believe you that you paid 50% of your income in taxes. The top fed rate is 28% for folks making 50K and FICA plus local taxes don't even add up to a marginal rate of that amount, much less a total rate. Single still pay only 15% on the first chunk of their income.

And when a single person is making $50,000, even if they were paying 40% taxes (which they aren't), that still leaves $30,000 take home to live on.

You are being awfully contradictory here. First the transit workers are making too much money, but now you are arguing that people are living in poverty at those wages due to taxes. You can't have it both ways. If taxes are so bad, no wonder the transit workers are willing to strike to raise their wages.

3) Some are Dems, more are Republican. Remember that the state Senate is controlled by the GOP with a Republican Governor.

on 5), the Rapid Bus Transit proposal, I'll probably post more on it, but you stated the worst fallacy of transit planning possible. A system loses $x dollars per rider (you claim $2,50 per rider) so adding riders will increase losses. That's ridiculous. Much of the costs are fixed costs that are the same whether there is one rider each day or a million. If a bus is filled rather than empty, the bus costs the same to run, but there is more revenue. So increasing ridership helps the system, period.

As for your worry about traffice deaths-- seems awfully fishy since the lane gets used now. To say that the lane could be used only for buses, trucks and emergency vehicles and for passing through to make a turn does not promise horrible new traffic deaths. And again you are inconsistent. Before traffic had slowed to a crawl and now everyone is crashing into each other in high-speed fiery deaths. Don't buy it.

Logistically, there are no doubt problems and I won't claim it's a magic bullet. All I said it was an innovative proposal that at least was trying for a win-win solution to the crisis, rather than just making austerity the only idea. Austerity is a lose-lose solution, since it promises a downward spiral of lower wages, lower consumer spending and fewer jobs throughout the city.

Posted by: Nathan Newman at December 13, 2002 10:00 AM

I'm an NYC resident who is not looking forward to a transit strike but is still trying to sort out her opinions on the matter. I'm not ready to take sides, but I do find that 50% level of taxation a little hard to believe. I'm single, I have no mortgages or other tax deductions, and I make $17-ish an hour in a 35 hour a week job and take home 75% of that after all federal, state, and city taxes are taken out of my paycheck. That obviously does not count sales tax.

I also don't think, however, that citing the existence of $1600 studios is incredibly illuminating; Jane Galt is right that you can find affordable housing in the 'burbs, and yes, New Yorkers have the longest commutes in the country, but it's just the price you pay for living in New York. It's not unliveable; it's just inconvenient.

I also think Jane Galt has a point about the TWU's raise demands being a little unreasonable in the face of practically non existent inflation, though I'd like to know whether her claim that we're actually experiencing deflation is supported by evidence or by her own observation of price fluctuations. (This was from an earlier post.)

Also, (this is inspired by Jane's original post) is the characterization of TWU jobs as "safe" entirely fair? As I recall about a month ago two transit workers died in a single week through no negligence of their own. I don't know what the overall injury rate is for transit workers; I'm just raising a point.

Isn't it the case that NYC gets a disportionately small amount of the total state public transportation budget considering the number of people here who use public transportation? It seems like that's something Pataki could start seriously addressing if we're to avoid this in the future.

Mostly just questions, not assertions!

Posted by: Katie at December 13, 2002 02:37 PM

I'd like to get into the issues raised in NN's excellent posts but don't have time now.

One factual point tho: If Jane Galt has ever paid anything like 50 percent of her income in taxes, she was probably the most heavily taxed individual in NY state by a wide margin. She should either provide some support for this claim or retract it.

Posted by: JW Mason at December 13, 2002 03:01 PM

Yes, I'm a little puzzled by Ms. Galt myself. A few months back on MaxSpeak she claimed to come from union family. Now her family is big transit professionals, who talk nothing but transit figures over dinner. Then she knew from experience about the unions in Chicago. Now, she's a long-time New Yorker.

Every strike that comes along she "knows more about it than you do." She's got that knack for being in the right place at just the right time - why it was she who made out the paychecks just last year!!!! How could you even think of arguing with her? Why aren't you listening to her?

Frankly, Jane, your act is getting a little bit old.

Posted by: Steve Cohen at December 13, 2002 09:49 PM

"Nathan, you have once again displayed your ignorance of the topic at hand."

This "appeal to authority" is the hallmark of a deceptive debater.

Posted by: Les Dabney at December 14, 2002 03:00 PM

I thought I read on her blog a while back that she had a business installing computers and networks. Perhaps I misread.

Posted by: Barry at December 14, 2002 07:25 PM

This parallels a discussion I had a couple of months ago with Ms. Galt on her board. At that time she insisted that longshoreman got paid $100,000/yr as per the management's line (and in contradiction to any Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers that I could find).

She also continued to repeat the "they get paid double time for weekends" argument even after I posted the link to the actual contract that proved this wrong. Apparently the union she worked for must have gotten double time for weekends, and this infobit has taken up permanent residence in her brain - new facts be damned.

Posted by: mcdruid at December 14, 2002 09:24 PM

The issue of traffic deaths in NYC is actually an interesting one.

In a typical year nowadays, there are about 500 motor vehicle fatalities (including car/pedestrian) in NYC. This is down considerably from the peak number of about 1,300, which occurred way back in 1929.

I can think of lots of reasons for this: in 1929, every driver was a beginner; cars and trucks had unprotected fuel tanks, high centers of gravity, lots of sharp hardware inside and out, and no turn signals or brake lights; and traffic laws were still being developed. But it's also true that NYC accomodates vastly more auto traffic much more safely today.

Moreover, though I don't have the numbers handy, NYC's current vehicle fatality rate per 100,000 population is the LOWEST for any sizeable geographic area in the United States. The New England Journal of Medicine published a report a few years ago which documented that the negative correlation between traffic deaths and population density was almost perfect. Manhattan (NY County) had the highest pop density and the lowest death rate, and Loving County, Texas had the lowest pop density and the highest death rate. The other counties were tightly clustered along the curve between those two points.

Obviously safety is always a prime concern when designing transportation systems. However, claimed risks should be kept in perspective. Texas and Nebraska and Colorado, for examples, should be worrying a lot more about vehicle fatalities than New York City.

Posted by: Larry Kestenbaum at December 16, 2002 08:12 AM

I followed that argument, and she didn't say her father was in a union. She said he did the collective bargaining agreements for the heavy construction industry. I think that's consistent with being involved in New York transportation. Anyway, she's the one who worked on the union payrolls. She did them at the World Trade Center. I can't find the post where she talked about it.

You guys are also confusing average with maximum salaries. She didn't say all the transit workers made $100K. She said they topped out there. Frankly, you guys aren't engaging anything she's said, just quibbling with stupid details.

Posted by: Aurora Leigh at December 16, 2002 10:23 AM

Aurora, She said far more than that salaries "topped off" at $100,000. She said that few were making near a regular 40-hour work week salary. And she is flat wrong as news and info I posted showed-- most operators make only a few thousand extra each year in overtime.

And her posturing as a working class prole-- despite being the child of a professional and a highly skilled professional herself -- is part of her rhetorical game. So calling her on it is fair play.

And Galt has not made small mistakes. In her comments in the original post on her site (see comments near end), her calculations of the costs of the union demands were TEN TIMES the actual number. She misplaced a decimal point. You can write this off as a tiny mistake, but her lack of common sense that a raise for 34,000 people could add up to billions of dollars makes her whole analysis suspect.

The sad thing is that Jane Galt is one of the more intelligent conservatives in the blog world. It's amazing how much false crap is taken for granted and goes unchallenged as "fact" among conservatives.

Posted by: Nathan Newman at December 16, 2002 10:33 AM

And immediately admitted I was wrong, which is more than I've seen you or any of the people sent to my site do, even when they were blatantly, extravagently in error. As you have been several times, including your assertion that top union salaries were probably around 50K.

I come from a union family, though I'm surprised to hear I mentioned it. My father, who is indeed a highly educated (not to mention highly Democratic) professional, now heads the organization that does, among other things, the collective bargaining agreements for the construction trades working on public contracts in the New York City area. Why this is illegitimate, and disqualifies me to speak on the subject of unions, eludes me, since you, Nathan, a highly educated professional, seem to feel you're qualified, and I doubt that you tell the union folk they aren't allowed to speak on the subject of how grossly overpaid they feel us highly educated professionals are. This entire line of "prove your proletarian bona fides" is completely retarded. When did the left get to be the organization that judged ideas by the parentage of those proposing them?

My opinions are not my father's; they are mine, based on many years of hearing my father talk about transit issues, large and small, and my own experiences working with unions and studying labor law and practices in business school. The larger point, which is still valid, is that I know a hell of a lot more about

a) Calculating a union payroll
b) The transit system in New York

than anyone arguing with me appears to. You, Nathan, are promulgating a bus transit plan despite the fact that you seem to know absolutely nothing about except that it is being pushed by a union. Several of the people referred to my site have undertaken to educate me about "facts" like the MTA's ownership of the WTC, a history of the subways lifted from a not-very-thorough reading of The Power Broker (which is certainly an important book, but hardly the only thing one need read to be acquainted with New York transit, nor exactly unbiased), lengthy harangues about the MTA's surplus, which no one seems to be aware was the result of a one-time gift of $300 mm from Governor Pataki to keep them from raising the fare, most of which is probably gone, and which is certainly not going to be repeated; and other assorted sorta-true-but-not-in-the-way-you're-saying rants, the errors of which would have been made apparent had anyone been interested in checking the stories they were repeating. For example, the audited IBO figures on historical MTA budgets are readily available, but no one checked them, perhaps because the $100-200 mm annual operating deficit didn't make as pretty a story. In short, people are treating a thrown-together mishmash of talking points from pro-union web sites without doing even elementary fact-checking, and when I argue the points, attacking me for insufficient proletarian consciousness. The "bourgeois mentality" tactics of the left are perhaps the most embarassing part of its intellectual history, and it's not going to get me or anyone else who doesn't already agree with you to take you seriously.

I stand by the assertion that most people get overtime, as clearly they do, since the average worker is making more than $10K over their statutory rate. Clearly also the senior end of the distribution is coming pretty close to $100K, since the junior end will probably be pulling in less than half that average, and the distribution of workers in the transit system should have a fatter left tail, as the workforce numbers seem to be stable.

Oh, and let me clear up the mystery of my tax rates: like many people in the city, I was (and am) self employed, doubling my FICA bite. I paid, as I recall, 12% state and city tax, unincorporated business tax, and assorted other sundry taxes on my ill-gotten loot. I was also single with no deductions. You can take my word for it, or not; as a lawyer, I'm sure you know I'm not going to offer anyone my tax returns unless they have a subpoena.

Posted by: Jane Galt at December 16, 2002 10:24 PM

OK, Aurora, one point for you. I've gone over the MaxSpeak thread of October and I concur that Jane never made the claim of having been a union member. I simply inferred it from her frequent mentions of her and her family's dealings "with" unions.

She DID, however, claim in the MaxSpeak thread to be a "good Chicago girl", whereas in this spat, she claims to "live in this city. I grew up in the New York City transit community". So I wonder in what sense she was ever a "Chicago girl." I don't know, could it be in the sense of the "Chicago Boys", those Milton Friedman acolytes down at the U of C? How'd I guess?

And man, she does flog her one stint as a payroll clerk (temp, perhaps?) to be a profound font of knowledge, which taught her all she needs to know about union economics, sufficient to trump every claim of union advocates, and more powerful than even her U of C MBA which she rarely mentions in debates. Her little "stint" served not only to buttress her claims about NY transit, but also the West Coast ILWU strike.

"I know and you don't". Spare me. I also had a "stint" - eight years as the financial officer of a union local of at its height two thousand members. I, too, knew what everyone made, but I don't use it as a debating tool. Like all statistics, she can "prove" anything she likes with them, and when it gets too much for even her, she's not shy about falling back on "everyone knows."

So please, Jane, give it a rest. There are also things that *I* know which *you* don't, but I'm not going to beat you over the head with them and I'm still not nearly as impressed with you as you are.

Posted by: Steve Cohen at December 16, 2002 10:58 PM

Speaking of "elementary fact-checking:"

According to the 1994 contract (couldn't find a more recent one, but I doubt this part has changed), union workers only get time and a half overtime - not double time as Ms. Galt repeatedly, repeatedly claims. Nor do they appear to be paid extra for weekends. Night differential was a whopping 26 cents an hour (maybe that's changed, probably not by a lot).

Since the hourly reportedly maxes out at about $24/hour, in order to make a hundred grand a year, the workers would have to put in 67 hour weeks. If they want to work like that, I can't begrudge their six figures.

Posted by: mcdruid at December 17, 2002 04:25 AM

Jane, nothing you've said gives you more authority to talk about union payrolls, since folks like Steve Cohen obviously can take that on and, in the trenches as an organizer and other union work and years of research, I've dealt with union salary issues.

And while you claim that union workers make on average $10K over their statutory rate, that merely means that many are making far less and some outliers are making far more. And where do you get the figure of $10K? The lack of evidence and sources are what many people object to in your posts. I haven't made arguments based on "insider knowledge"-- you have -- so you made your personal background and claims that you use for your own authority relevant.

BTW I could have just as easily for propaganda purposes emphasized the $33,000 starting salary for many MTA workers, but preferred to deal with average salaries for realism. But you insisted on the propaganda number of a few supposed outliers making $100,000-- which is why you lost credibility on the whole argument.

As for a couple of misstated comments posted on your web that you cite about the MTA, I didn't make them. I've cited only pretty much clear publicly available knowledge and facts. I never disputed that the MTA may have real deficits-- I merely have asserted that the proposed raises were not so huge given other factors such as reasonable federal and state spending or proposed fare increases.

Posted by: Nathan Newman at December 17, 2002 06:06 AM

Of course, if a significant number of workers are making $100,000 through overtime, then the MTA could probably reduce it's wage bill by hiring more workers and reducing overtime.

Posted by: mcdruid at December 17, 2002 04:26 PM

One other thing.... using averages and maximums is inherently distorting. If a few people are somehow (by working 80-hour weeks and sleeping at their worksite) making $100,000 a year, it distorts the average, as anyone as smart as Jane ought to know.

In this kind of distribution, the median is a much better indicator of central tendency than the mean. Jane managed to pull up just short of admitting that in her 12/16 10:24 pm post. What are those medians, Jane? I'll bet they're right about on Nathan's $54,000 to $56,000.

One more thing... your average transit worker does more to benefit society in a week than you average lawyer or MBA does all year. They deserve their pay.

Posted by: Kevin at December 19, 2002 03:55 PM

This is what the PMA did in their PR against the longshoremen: they publicized the average rather than the median. If you look carefully at the numbers on their website, you would estimate that the median is around $70k - a substantial discount off the $100k average they were touting to the media. If you trust their numbers.

Posted by: mcdruid at December 21, 2002 01:51 AM

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