The now three-day-old strike by New York’s 34,000 bus and subway workers, crippling mass transit and estimated to have affected some 3.5 million daily commuters, is being played out in the media — particularly television and radio outlets — as a natural disaster. That’s a pity, because the case could easily be made that the strike was forced on the workers, an outcome of venal public policy and inept state and city political leadership.
Hardy pedestrians crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in sub-freezing weather from their tony Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill enclaves are greeted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as heroes, a reception even survivors of Hurricane Katrina did not get. Meanwhile the union is vilified as self-interested and threatened with extinction for breaking the state’s anti-strike Taylor Law. New York’s billionaire mayor decried how “the leadership of the TWU has thuggishly turned their backs on New York City” and joined the governor in slamming the union’s “lawbreaking.” Daily News columnist Michael Godwin chimed in that the brave new competitive world of the 21st Century requires that workers grow up and give up benefits.
It’s ironic to hear the mayor, for one, bleating about the rule of law and how “no negotiations should proceed until this illegal, selfish strike ends.” This is the same law-abiding civic leader who bragged in “Bloomberg on Bloomberg” (p. 59) that breaking the law was just part of his inspired path to riches.
“Among old McDonald’s hamburger wrappings and mouse droppings,” the former media giant bragged, “we dragged wires from our computers to the keyboards and screens we were putting in place, stuffed the cables through holes we drilled in other people’s furniture — all without permission, violating every fire law, building code, and union regulation on the books. It’s amazing we didn’t burn down some office or electrocute ourselves.”
From the union’s standpoint, the mayor is an irritant, but it’s the state-run Metropolitan Transit Authority that brutishly opposes wage, benefit and pension improvements. In an 11th hour stroke, its bargainers even demanded pension givebacks. The union says its effort to storm heaven is also about winning respect. And it’s about the future of organized labor in one of the nation’s last union towns.
In remarks at a 3:00 a.m. news conference Dec. 20 announcing rejection of the MTA’s final contract offer, Trinidadian-born Roger Toussaint, president of the once powerful and historically militant Transport Workers Union Local 100, described the strike as “a fight over whether hard work will be rewarded with a decent retirement….a fight over the erosion, or the eventual elimination, of health-benefit coverage for working people in New York.” The former track worker and quondam opposition leader called it “a fight over dignity and respect on the job, a concept that is very alien to the MTA. Transit workers are tired of being underappreciated and disrespected.”
He amplified these remarks in comments later in the day to NY1, the city’s all-news cable station:
“The MTA and Mayor Bloomberg are pursuing their own agenda in these contract negotiations, and that agenda is to use the transit negotiations to establish a new inferior pension tier and then impose it on hundreds of thousands of municipal workers after forcing it on the transit workers. They are also attempting to impose inferior health standards on transit workers and then impose it on future generations of city employees. This is about a larger issue, a larger fight. Then they raised the new proposal that new hires pay 6% of their wages toward their pension. Right now transit workers pay 2% of their wages toward their pension. It is a 200% increase. Their intention is to run over the rest of the labor movement with that new pension element.”
Labor observers widely agree that tossing in the pension issue at the 11th hour — the brainchild of billionaire real estate mogul and MTA chair Peter Kalikow — was a provocation. Kalikow was notorious for sitting out the authority’s contentious 2003 negotiations with the union, which almost ended in a strike, and he seems to have effectively torpedoed this one, too.
Toussaint certainly saw it as incendiary. As he told NY1,”Were it not for the pension piece we would not be on strike.” Of the city dailies, only The New York Times focused on how the fight over pensions was caused by an indelicate last minute intervention by the MTA head. And that notice was only featured in The Times Metro section and below the fold.
The respect angle is no exaggeration or appeal to industrial nostalgia. Both subway and bus work is dangerous, and track work alone is a prime cause of life-threatening pulmonary ailments. Yet after working a job where pay reaches a $53,000 ceiling in one of the most costly cities in the nation, more than one in three transit workers received some form of disciplinary reprimand in the past year, many serious: proving, depending on your point of view, that transit employees are either woefully bad workers or that management is pervasively punitive. Even critics of the strike consider that the authority’s managerial style is capricious if not barbarous.
“Everybody treats us like crap all the time. We’re tired of being treated like we’re the garbage of the city,” one transit worker told Newsday.
That lack of respect highlights a racial element to the dispute, too. With a majority of transit workers African American or Afro-Caribbean, the mayor’s “thuggish” charge is being widely accepted as a racial codeword . It was one Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post repeated, while also calling Toussaint a “coward” (Dec. 20).
While it would be a mistake for strike supporters to take the race bait — this is a class fight and the city unions supporting the TWU know it — it is also inconceivable that the epithet “thug” would have been used against the still sizable white and largely female teachers union, or the predominantly white Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, both outspoken strike supporters.
Wages, while no longer a sticking issue at the bargaining table, are also a sore point. The starting salary for a track worker is $16.51 an hour, or $578 per week, before overtime, which with New York City prices and high taxes leaves disposable income uncomfortably close to the poverty line. These are, in short, not well-paid workers, and even the union’s tacit acceptance of the MTA’s final wage offer will not change that status. Another complication is that TWU International President Michael O’Brien, a political enemy of Toussaint’s, is putting distance between the parent union and strikers. He has fiduciary as well as partisan reasons for doing so. Public employee strikes are illegal in New York State, and exorbitant fines are meant to be punitive if not preventive. Whether as Judas goat or fiscal Solomon, O’Brien wrote an open letter to Local 100 members recommending they “cease any and all strike or strike-related activities and … report to work at their regularly assigned work hours and work locations….The only road to contract victory for the membership [is] not by strike but continued negotiation.”
There is even a possibility at this writing that the TWU Local 100 leaders will be jailed for criminal contempt for breaking an injunction the city won last week, though MTA sources concede that jailing Toussaint could be a flashpoint, creating a martyr and prolonging the strike.
The union makes a good point — using classic “an injury to one is an injury to all” logic — that what they confront today will be in the face of every other municipal union tomorrow. So it is particularly galling that while New York City is flush in revenues, it is still governed by an austere fiscal ethic and a far-from-rational fear that the combination of defined pension plans and longer-lived retirees could bankrupt the city and the state. Yet the numbers don’t compute. The NYC Independent Budget Office (IBO) projects an increased $2.2 billion in tax collections over June estimates. The bountiful increase, chiefly in property transfer, business, and personal income taxes, is complemented by snail’s pace growth in city spending. Bloomberg has made the hallmark of his administration miserly spending measures, including small contract raises that often do not match increases in the cost-of-living. Even these small raises are tied to what is euphemistically called “productivity gains,” meaning a shrunken workforce does more.
The IBO — though it carefully excludes labor settlements because they are difficult to anticipate — estimates spending by city agencies growing at less than 1 percent a year through 2009, the last year of Bloomberg’s administration. It also concludes that recent settlements between the city and the teachers, police, sanitation, and other uniformed services unions fell below or did not exceed administration expectations.
What is extraordinary about this labor action is that a victory for the TWU means that other workers will be in a better position to resist take-backs, too. The union movement talks a good solidarity game. What the TWU is doing is walking the walk, too. Instead of greasing the skids for further concessions on health care and pensions, TWU is in a position to proactively help other workers win back benefits lost in the past. Is this a turning point for working people? It’s hard to say. The labor movement has had more turning points than the Minotaur’s maze, but Governor Pataki, Kalikow and Bloomberg may have painted themselves into a corner by forcing a strike. Even Henry Stern, a lapsed liberal who was Parks commissioner under both Ed Koch and Rudolph Giuliani, publicly questioned the wisdom of Kalikow’s timing.
The real gun to the head of subway and bus workers, as it is to other public employees, is the anti-strike Taylor Law. Formally, the 1967 Public Employees-Fair Employment Act, and written after the 10-day TWU strike of 1966, it reads: “No public employee or employee organization shall engage in a strike, and no public employee or employee organization shall cause, instigate, encourage, or condone a strike.” Under the statute the union stands to lose $1 million a day in fines.
While supposed to make both job actions by unions and unfair labor practices by employers obsolete, the statute actually functions to hamstring unions without at the same time forcing public sector employers to bargain in good faith. Because it contains so few sanctions on employers, the Taylor Law actually makes a strike more likely, not less, especially by workers sufficiently fed up, as the transit workers clearly are, to risk everything. Win or lose, the Taylor Law has to go — replaced by a state labor law that levels the playing field. Right now, the state’s collective bargaining playing field looks more like a caged professional-wrestling ring, where the bouts are scripted even as the pain is real, and the bad guys are set up to win.
Speaking of bad guys, if there is one villain of the piece, it is Gov. George Pataki, the three term incumbent who on the eve of the strike was renewing Republican acquaintances in New Hampshire in preparation for a much bruited about presidential run. Appearing with union meat in his teeth would be invaluable in courting the Republican nomination.
His hand-picked MTA chair, Peter Kalikow, is not just a real estate tycoon and former New York Post owner but a Republican big stakes player and a former campaign treasurer for rightwing and oleaginous ex-Senator Al D’Amato. He also comes with a history, having gone through a bankruptcy in the early 1990s when he owed a dozen banks more than $1 billion against assets in the area of $500 million. Creditors got less than 20 cents on the dollar and former Post reporters still fume about the severance they never received. Kalikow, meanwhile, got to keep his Fifth Avenue duplex, his yacht and waterfront estate in Montauk. His chief aide at the real estate company, Richard Nasti, who was present at this year’s negotiations, was allowed to plead no contest to a bogus, mob-linked circulation scheme while both were at the New York Post.
Nasti was also forced to resign from the MTA for influence peddling, but still works for Kalikow.
Writing in 2003 in the Downtown Express, veteran Post beat reporter Jerry Tallmer remembered how Kalikow
“left behind a debt of $4.5 million to the government in unpaid (or unforwarded) withholding taxes, and a declaration of bankruptcy — cooked up, I have always been convinced, with [Rupert] Murdoch. That bankruptcy ultimately enabled owner redux Murdoch to wipe out the paper’s contract with the New York Newspaper Guild, force the Post unit into a strike, break the unit, and fire all 287 Guild members — one of whom, chairperson Harry Leykis, a scrappy, ultra-loyal Post staffer for 25 years, died of a heart attack not long after. Harry, like all of us, had had many thousands of dollars in severance pay wiped out overnight, thanks to the corporate bankruptcy laws.”
Before the strike, Kalikow told New York Magazine writer Craig Horowitz that “Making money is no longer paramount. ‘I do this,’ he says, ‘because I want my legacy to be something other than money.'” Judging by his action in this strike, he won’t be remembered for his money.
Michael Hirsch is a New York-based labor writer.