In attempting to secure a fair contract, the transit workers of New York City not only shut down the largest public transportation system in the country, but inadvertently brought to light the obstacles facing today’s labor movement. The negotiations, the previous spending habits of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the media onslaught, and the lack of solidarity from other unions all expose the disregard many people have towards workers. The contract reached between Transit Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 and the MTA does include some improvements for the workers. The way in which the negotiations and the strike played out reveal the overwhelming power wielded by the ruling class and yet the ability of the people to rally together in solidarity, bring a city to its knees, and achieve some measure of victory.
The previous contract between the MTA and its workers expired on December 16, 2005. On that day, a limited strike began against two private bus lines in Queens. Unable to agree on a contract, the TWU 100 extended the deadline to December 20. Still unable to reach an agreement, the TWU 100 went on strike at 3:00 am that day. Joining the TWU 100 were Local 726 (Staten Island) and Local 1056 (Queens) of the Amalgamated Transit Union. @Key demands of the workers included:
• an 8% salary increase per year for 3 years
• lowering the age of retirement from 55 to 50
• pay for maternity leave
• more money spent on station maintenance Key demands of the MTA included:
• 3.0, 4.0 and 3.5% raises over the next 3 years
• a two-tiered pension system which would raise the retirement age from 55 to 62 for newly hired workers (the MTA offered to drop this if new employees paid for 6% of their pensions instead of the current 2%)
• to have new employees pay for 1% of their health insurance (current employees pay nothing for their health insurance)
The two-tiered pension plan was the main point of dispute for the workers. If the MTA had hoped the current workers would be willing to sell out future hires, one would think they’d at least have enough sense to offer current employees a decent raise. Nevertheless, they refused to come even close to the 8% demand made by the workers, and considering current inflation rates, the offer of an average 3.5% annual raise was barely a raise at all. Meanwhile, the proposed raising of the retirement age to 62-years-old would have made new hires lifelong workers. While the MTA noted an increased life expectancy as a reason for wanting to raise the age, transit workers live significantly shorter lives due to harsh working conditions. The average transit worker in New York City lives six years past retirement; upping the retirement age by seven years would thus make them workers until death. Contributing to the shortened life span is the fact that transit workers have to deal with conditions not dealt with in other sectors. Many workers develop health problems they’d never had before, such as allergies and asthma, plus they deal with dirty restrooms and rat-infested workspaces on a regular basis. This, combined with other problems such as long hours and lack of bathroom breaks, has significant effects on the workers after years on the job.
Furthermore, the MTA’s attempt to negotiate pensions wasn’t even legal under New York’s Taylor Law. Officially called the Public Employees Fair Employment Act, it was passed in 1967 after transit workers struck the previous year. Section 201, part 4 lays out the basic definitions to be used in the law. According to this section, employers are allowed to negotiate only certain aspects of a contract. For example, wages, salaries, and hours are all included in what employers are allowed to negotiate. Other aspects, such as retirement funds, are not to be handled through collective bargaining, but are instead decided by the state legislature. While the MTA blatantly violated one portion of the Taylor Law, officials blasted the workers for violating another section of it. Section 210 of the law forbids public employees from striking and penalizes them two days pay for every day on strike. Thus, the MTA was able to put the focus on the illegality of the strike and simultaneously ignore the fact that they, too, were in violation of the same law.
Indeed, the MTA’s actions towards the workers were hostile every step of the way. The directors at the MTA did not feel they had to justify any of their actions. Instead, they sought to take as much as possible from their workers without even trying to appear sympathetic. All the while, they have been giving themselves huge raises while claiming to have a deficit.
When raising ticket prices, denying worker demands for improved safety, and negotiating contracts, the MTA cites a deficit, yet these supposed money problems have a way of disappearing during other times. In 2004, while the MTA sought to raise fare prices and institute a new state tax, it approved a 22% raise for executive director Katherine N. Lapp, raising her salary from $192,500 to $235,000. In addition, MTA directors have voted themselves a 20% pay increase over the last five years.
After claiming to have a very modest surplus in 2005, it was discovered the MTA actually had a surplus totaling, at the very least, a whopping $833 million. TWU 100 estimated the surplus to be as much as $1 billion. Hours before the December 16 contract expired, the MTA voted to spend the entire surplus.
Despite the reasonable demands made by the workers and the financial surplus available, the workers had insufficient public support to continue the strike over a long period, perhaps because of its crippling effects on daily life.
The reaction of the ruling class was typical. Billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg called the strikers thugs. The MTA tried to make the workers look greedy. Major Democrats failed to support the strikers: Senator Hillary Clinton declared herself neutral on the issue and said she supported the Taylor Law. The mainstream media presented a brutally anti-worker depiction of the situation: they treated the strike as a rash decision that wasn’t worth it; they pitted workers against each other by focusing on the problems faced by commuters and the losses experienced by retailers; they emphasized the illegality on the part of the workers; the much talked about cover of Rupert Murdoch’s NY Post superimposed bars over the face of TWU 100 President Roger Toussaint with the words “JAIL ‘EM.”
The mainstream’s response to the strike was appalling but not surprising. What is most disappointing about the way this strike played out was the lack of support the strikers received from other unions. Not one union struck in solidarity with the workers, and other union leaders failed to so much as verbally support the transit workers, let alone join them on the picket lines. Even the workers’ own union turned on them, when the TWU International informed Toussaint it would not support a strike at the last minute of negotiations. TWU International called the strike illegal and unsanctioned, instructed the workers to scab during the strike, and sent lawyers to argue on the city’s behalf.
While every facet of the mainstream turned its back on the strikers, certain groups and individuals stepped up to do all they could to support the strike. The New York Metro Area Anarchists formed an ad hoc group to support the TWU 100 and called for a four hour a rally at the Brooklyn Bridge on the second day of the strike. The Troops Out Now Coalition organized a rally on the third day of the strike and handed out leaflets to motorists. These are just a few of the many groups who came out in support of the workers, not to mention the various individuals who dropped banners, called Pataki and the MTA, signed petitions, and stood on the picket lines with the workers.
Given the odds stacked against the workers, they were able to at least have some successes in the contract. While they accepted the MTA’s low pay raise, they were able to reject the two-tiered pension plan, plus they got maternity pay, state disability coverage and Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday. @When TWU 100 went on strike, the goal was not to overturn the Taylor Law or challenge the capitalist system; they simply wanted a fair contract. Despite such moderate demands, they had no choice but to strike due to the MTA’s initial refusal to compromise on their offers. The fact that the workers were met with resistance from so many different angles, despite having such reasonable demands, shows the hostility this country has towards workers.
This was a struggle that revealed the priorities of those who claim to be friends of labor. The transit workers learned the hard way that union leaders cannot be depended on. While various leaders failed to come through for the workers when it mattered most, it was the people, who are not bound by political or business interests, who came through and stood in solidarity with fellow workers.