Contract talks between Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) were back in the headlines in recent weeks. Members of the PSC and other public-sector unions in New York City should be paying close attention, as the results of transit bargaining could have a significant impact on their own negotiations.
The State Legislature’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo on April 25, urging pressure on the MTA to grant at least some raises. “Many of us believe that there is money in their current budget...to grant a modest cost-of-living wage increase for TWU Local 100’s 40,000 members,” the letter stated.
At this year’s May Day, 2012 march, union president John Samuelsen told thousands of union members and Occupy Wall Street supporters that the MTA was mismanaging its budget, failing to prioritize service and the basic needs of employees. “Samuelsen denounced the MTA’s April 25, 2012, vote to relinquish its $1-a-year lease on its building at 370 Jay St. in Brooklyn,” reported the civil-service weekly The Chief. Samuelsen told the crowd that the authority’s decision to instead rent office space in Manhattan, at 2 Broadway, meant “flushing $63 million down the toilet that could restore every ounce of service [cut in 2010] for New York’s working families.”
The debt-saddled MTA is demanding draconian measures, including a wage freeze, a giveback of five vacation days, more part-time bus operators, and upping the employee health-care contribution, in addition to increasing health insurance co-pays. Management also wants workers to get overtime only for working more than 40 hours in a single week, rather than after eight hours worked in a day.
In the May Day march, a large contingent of Local 100 members carried signs saying “We are the 99%, we’re worth more than 0%,” and “We deserve more than three zeroes.” Earlier this year, the TWU reportedly countered the wage-freeze demand with a proposal for 1% annual raises in the first three years, and 2% annual wage hikes in the last two years of the agreement.
The MTA could meet that, but it has said that any raises must be funded through givebacks in work rules and other benefits. The April 25, 2012, legislators’ letter suggested an alternative: tapping part of a special fund for future retiree health-care costs, which has grown rapidly since it was created six years ago. As a public agency, the MTA is not required to pre-fund these benefits; some experts say the current level of the fund is more than generous, while others disagree.
The MTA’s demands are based in part on the concessionary wage pacts the two largest State unions – the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) and the Public Employees Federation (PEF) – settled with the Cuomo administration last year in order to avert layoffs. Whether the TWU wins a wage increase, and how it is paid for, will either help or hurt other New York public-worker unions, whose contracts are under negotiation.
Joshua Freeman, a historian at the Graduate Center and author of a TWU history, In Transit, observed earlier this year that some sort of pay increase for transit workers was likely. Freeman noted that while the union didn’t have a lot of leverage over a cash-strapped agency, neither did the MTA have a lot of leverage over the union. The CSEA and PEF agreements, he explained, came in response to Cuomo’s threats of severe layoffs. “I don’t think the MTA can lay off a large number of its workers and still operate the system,” Freeman said.
Few predict the union will strike, as it did for three days in Dec. 2005. Though the TWU has won clout in negotiations by being one of the few public-sector unions willing to strike in the last generation, it also paid a price for doing so. The union suffered financial penalties under the Taylor Law which forbids public workers in New York from striking, and was barred for more than a year from collecting dues directly from members’ paychecks. In the current fiscal and political environment, Local 100 leaders opted not to walk out when their last contract expired in January.