N.Y. transit: countdown to a contract

NEW YORK — As of this writing there has been little progress in contract negotiations between Transit Workers Union Local 100, which represents some 34,000 workers who operate the New York City Transit system, and their employer, MTA-NYCT. With the Dec. 15 contract deadline fast approaching, the possibility of a strike by NYC transit workers is looming ever larger.

It was clear from the beginning that the MTA would drag its feet. On the morning of Oct. 14, TWU 100 President Roger Toussaint, a former track worker, opened negotiations at New York City’s Roosevelt Hotel. In a room packed with TWU members and supporters, Toussaint laid out the union’s objectives in great detail. The MTA’s chairman, billionaire real estate developer Peter Kalikow, on the other hand, made a short meandering statement that offered little of real substance.

The union’s major “main table” demands include a substantial increase in wages, MTA support for retirement at age 50 after 20 years of service, and for refunds of extra pension contributions made by many members, enhancement and extension of the safety initiatives won in the last contract, and the protection and improvement of existing health benefits.

Over the past several years the New York labor scene has witnessed negotiations between municipal employee unions and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg drag on for years past contract expiration dates. This is unlikely to be the case in the transit negotiations, however. Toussaint has made it very clear that for New York City transit workers a deadline is a deadline.

The wage increases in the recently settled municipal employees’ contracts were bought with givebacks: work rule concessions and lower pay for new hires. It is unlikely that any settlement between TWU and MTA-NYCT will be characterized by similar givebacks. With the MTA now reporting a surplus of over $1 billion, Toussaint has stated that the money is there for a settlement that rewards transit workers for their increased productivity, evidenced by a 38 percent increase in riders since 1990, achieved with a smaller workforce. This contract will not be settled on the backs of new hires and TWU 100 will not “sell the unborn,” Toussaint has repeatedly said.

The MTA is asking for various concessions, including work rule changes, the consolidation of job titles, and health benefit givebacks for new hires, all in the name of improving operational efficiency and enhancing cost effectiveness. For instance, the MTA is asking that station agents do the work of cleaners and platform conductors, and that cleaners take on some of the duties of light maintainers (electricians), without any increase in wages or upgrades in benefits.

With negotiations approaching their final days, bargaining will become more intensive. Union members and members of the public hope that a strike can be avoided, but they are also hoping that the MTA will begin to take the negotiations seriously.

The union is shifting into high gear. Since mid-November, Tuesdays have been “Days of Action.” Transit workers at shops, bus depots, rail car maintenance and overhaul barns and other worksites, system-wide, are conducting informational pickets and other activities designed to bring their issues to the public and to make it clear to management that Local 100 members stand together.

For the Nov. 29 “Day of Action,” Toussaint was joined by the Rev. Jesse Jackson at a major bus depot on Manhattan’s West Side. Jackson had come to lend his support to TWU members conducting a lunchtime rally for a fair contract.

The next main table session was scheduled for Dec. 7. New York City’s 34,000 transit workers and the 8 million daily riders of the New York City transit system are anxiously awaiting its outcome. Also, since what is achieved in these negotiations will impact workers across the New York metropolitan area, they are being watched with keen interest by the broad spectrum of New York labor.

Meanwhile, a meeting of the entire TWU 100-represented transit workforce was scheduled for Dec. 10. At this meeting, the union’s leaders were to report to the members on the progress of the negotiations. Based on developments prior to Dec. 10, a vote at the meeting could give the union’s executive board authorization to call a strike when the current contract expires at midnight Dec. 16.

Gary Bono (gbono@cpusa.org) is a transit worker and member of TWU Local 100.