Tuesday, December 20, 2005

In A New York Minute

For this evening’s post I must vent about the subway strike in New York City. All politics is local as Tip O’Neill used to say and for the moment this issue is more important to me than Iraq, the Supreme Court, domestic surveillance and just about anything else you can think of.

As a New Yorker I feel like a child of two divorcing parents who both cheat and drink too much. Both the MTA and the Transit Workers Union are reprehensible. The culture of MTA’s management is a reflection of Governor George Pataki’s stewardship. Governor Pataki has operated very much in the President Bush mold: packing the MTA with corrupt cronies who have disgracefully mismanaged their finances and profited obscenely at the expense of all New Yorkers. For years any attempt to get a true accounting of what is really going on has been impossible. Consequently our subway fares continued to increase with no tangible upgrades in service. Now we learn there is a billion dollar surplus they were hiding! I don’t trust MTA’s management and truly believe they want the surplus for their own greedy hands rather than reaching an equitable solution with the union.

Nonetheless, the more I learn about the points of contention I can’t really sympathize with the union. Typically I am pro-labor as many liberals are. However, this union is not operating in the real world. A transit union worker is striking so he can retire on a lucrative pension in his fifties but not contribute a nickel to this pension? Excuse me but what planet are they living on? Most of us in today’s global economy don’t even have pensions. The best many can hope for is a 401K that their employer contributes nothing and hopefully isn’t raided by some corrupt CEO such as “Kenny Boy” Lay.

While the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson cynically cloak themselves as the voices of working people during this strike, it is low wage employees who are hurt more than anyone else. We have people who survive paycheck to paycheck in this city that either can’t get to work or must utilize more expensive alternatives they can’t afford. My sympathy is for people like that, not the union. What about the poor woman in her forties with kids to support and no pension? She’s has to wake up three hours earlier and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge in late December. She’s not earning anything close to a transit worker in this city and her finances are severely damaged by this strike. How come Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson don’t stand with those people instead?

As always we New Yorkers are far more civil and cooperative with each other than we’re given credit for. That was true on 9/11. It happened during the blackout in August 2003. Today New Yorkers were helpful and patient during a day of horrible turbulence and inconvenience. It was gratifying to bond with my fellow Brooklynites as we collectively braved the December chill and treked across the Manhattan Bridge. We deserve better than Governor George Pataki’s cronies at the MTA and transit workers who don’t appreciate how well off they truly are.


pansophia said...

The BART union activity in the Bay Area is very similar, and I have the same kneejerk reaction. Wait, I'm not getting good terms for my employment - why should they!

On second thought, though, this is a "dog in the manger" reaction - begrudging something for someone else because I don't have it. What we should be doing is expanding the notion of collective bargaining and taking a new look at how the Dept. of Labor is defining "Exempt" employment. We should be striving to improve working conditions for more people, and that starts with supporting union activity. Even if it means if someone else is getting more than you.

I'd also question whether even a seemingly high salary is cushy in New York. I know BART salaries are high relative to most people with desk jobs. The economy in the Bay Area is geared towards highly compensated doctors, lawyers, dotcom millionaires, etc. Everyone else is struggling. I try to remember even if the Train Conductor makes three times as much as me, he or she is still struggling in an economy geared toward people making much larger salaries than either of us.

Robert Ellman said...

I know what you're saying and I'm generally supportive of unions. But I think their current action will actually undermine the labor movement not faciliate worker rights. In effect they have given the legitimate fight for worker benefits a bad name.

Also, in the end they're going to accept a far lesser deal then what they were originally offered. With fines and lost pay their leverage is dropping preciptiously and the ordeal that millions of working New Yorkers have been put through will all be for nothing.

Now that doesn't exempt management from THEIR culpability for all this. They are as corrupt and greedy as they come. So, my attitude to both sides is "a pax on both your houses."

pansophia said...

The question you have to ask yourself, though, is how much your bad impression was created by media spin. The media chooses how it wants to report things and selects what to quote. It's not just government influence - if the media thinks it will sell more papers off of public outrage (stirred up by resentment that some guy is getting more than you while holding your daily routine hostage), then it will make the unions look bad.

Robert Ellman said...

A fair point about the media because they do often distort the perspective of labor. Nonetheless, the STARTING salary for a transit worker is $47,500. Far less than an entry level salary for a police officer or firefighter in New York. Less than people who risk their lives. This strike was uncalled for and ultimately self-defeating.

I think the union leadership actually did a dissservice for the labor movement. The ultimate deal they sign onto will be less than the offer they received at the 11th hour.

Anonymous said...

I think it is about greed. The MTA has plenty of faults but the Union needs to wake up and realize that their pension demands are simply unreasonable. With the raising cost of health insurance and life span increasing every day the idea that they don’t want to increase the contributions of NEW (only) workers or increase the retirement age to something more reasonable like 62 for NEW (only) workers is ridicules. Even the ATU (the international transit union) is against the strike and say that they should stay at the bargaining table.

The thing that is really most sad is the amount of hardship that it will place on the lowest wage earners. The people that don’t have vacation time, the ability to telecommute, or other ways of dealing with the strike (like $50 cab fares if you can find a cab). These are the people who are really going to be hurt.

- NJ Liberty

Anonymous said...

The TWU evokes no support from me.
The workers are being docked two days pay for each day they miss work. The Union treasury is being
fined 10000000 per day. I would let
them freeze for breaking te law.

Robert Ellman said...

I had a bad typo in comments I posted previously. I meant to write that at $47,500 transit workers were making far MORE than entry level police officers and firefighters in New York City. Apologies for any confusion. l

Anonymous said...

I just don’t understand you people. We are fighting for the little guy. It’s real easy for someone in a white collar job making $100 grand a year plus bonuses to say that the union guys are whining and don’t know how good they really have it. The working man has to fight for every penny he gets. We’re not going to let them turn us against our brothers so the next generation of union guys gets screwed. Before you know it, they will tell us that we can’t retire until we’re 99!

Now let’s talk about working conditions: as a transit worker we are stuck spending most of our damn lives underground like rats working for a company that does not give us an ounce of RESPECT!

I say let’s break the back of the MTA, I don’t care if it takes 6 months!

United we bargain – divided we beg

Anonymous said...

I think 'pansophia's' and 'united we bargain, divided we beg's comments hit it dead-on. It is only by supporting union activity that we can hope to strengthen unions and the number of workers who are included in them. All statistics show that union workers have higher salaries, benefits, and quality of working conditions than their non-unionized counterparts. That is something that we should be supporting and striving to expand, not undermining. The fact that the strike was deemed illegal should also gravely concern us. All across the board, the Bush-led NLRB and local counterparts are undermining both unions' rights and workers' rights to unionize and engage in collective bargaining.

I think that Rob's point that it is the poor in NY who are really being hit hardest by the strike is a very trenchent one. The divide between the haves and haves-not in NYC is extremely stark, and growing only starker. It is not by reducing everyone to the same lowly, un-unionized, begging-for-meager-wages demoninator, however, that the situation will ever improve.

Anonymous said...

From the head of the Urban Studies department at Fordham:


  One of the most disturbing things about the public discourse on the Transit Strike is that the media, elected officials, and many citizen are predisposed to see the Union as a disruptive force and the MTA as acting in the public interest. Many people would not be upset in the least to see the TWU broken, or at least dramatically weakened, and think that if the TWA and the city could determine wages, pensions and working conditions without union interference, the city would be a better place

I think this view of unions is extremely shortsighted, especially in the light of  New York City's history. Is New York  a better city now than it was 50 years ago, when more than half the city's work force was unionized?  Does it have better schools, public services, and better cultural and recreational opportunities for its poor and working class residents?

Based on my own research in the Bronx African American History Project and the material offered in Josh Freeman's book "Working Class New York" the answer to this question is a resounding NO!  Here are some of features of New York life in the 40's and 50's, which  the city unions fought for. which are no longer with us today.

1. Supervised recreation programs in every public elementary school in the city from 3-5 PM and 7-9 PM, which included sports, arts and crafts and music. These programs were free and open any young person who walked through the door.

2. First rate music programs in every public junior high school in the city featuring free instruction for students in bands,orchestras and music classes. Students in those classes could take home musical instruments to practice

3. Recreation supervisors, as well as cleaners, in every public park in the city, including neighborhood vest pocket parks, who organized games and leagues and prevented fights.

4. A public housing program that constructed tens thousands of units of low and moderate income housing throughout the city and staffed these with housing police, ground crews and recreation staffs to make sure the projects were safe, clean and well policed

5. Free tuition at the city university, at the community college, college and graduate levels, for all students who met the admissions standards

6. Parks department policies which made sure that parks in the outer boroughs  were kept as clean and environmentally sound as  Central Park or parks in wealthy neighborhoods

7   Free admission at all the city's major zoos and museums

These policies, all of which were eliminated during the 1970's, meant that children in poor and working class communities had access to recreational cultural and educational opportunties which are today only available to the children of the rich

These programs were not there because of the foresight and compassion of the city's business leadership. They were there because unions fought for them and demanded that elected officials they supported fund them

This is not to say that unions are right in every dispute, or that they are immune from arrogance, greedm and corruption.  But it should give pause to those who think that our lives would be better in a union free environment

Let me leave you with a some numbers. In the early 1950's when 33% of the American work force was unionized, the United States had the smallest wealth gap ( between the top and bottom 20 percent of its population) of any advanced nation in the world. Now, when 13% of our workforce is unionized, we have the largest.

Is this progress?  Let's think long and hard before we blame unions for city's and the nation's economic problems

Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University
December 21, 2005




Anonymous said...

The central point;that is being overlooked is the violation of the Law. One can logically make a case
for each side. But, whether its
wiretapping without a warrant, or
violating the Taylor Law; society
has to be governed by Laws.

pansophia said...

//STARTING salary for a transit worker is $47,500.//

That's not much for New York. If Police Officers and Firefighters make less, then they should be demanding more. Salaries should reflect the cost of housing and living expenses.

People in the private sector do make much more, and they don't have to make the sacrifices involved in striking to do it.

//The people that don’t have vacation time, the ability to telecommute,//

These are the people who need to unionize themselves, or at least support Labor law reform. I made $9/hour (no health insurance) for my first job in New York, and I can't imagine doing that for much longer than I did. I wouldn't have been able to afford cab fare, either. The thing to do is to support efforts to make sure even entry level employment offers a living wage, not decrease the pay and benefits of the people who provide vital public services.

//features of New York life in the 40's and 50's, which the city unions fought for.//

Wow, I didn't know that. Thanks for sharing the list!

Anonymous said...


Wouldn't it be best to let workers be paid what they are worth and not what they "need" based on where they are choosing to live.