N.Y. transit union spurs fight for safety

NEW YORK — In June the New York Legislature passed a measure sponsored by the Transport Workers Union designed to enhance the safety of union members and all workers who toil in proximity to the moving trains in New York City’s subway system.

On July 3, the bill was signed into law by the newly elected Democratic governor, Eliot Spitzer, over the objections of some officials of the Metropolitan Transit Authority and New York City Transit (NYCT).

Management objected to the bill because it effectively ends NYCT’s self-enforcement of safety regulations, which the union has long condemned as ineffective.

Over the last several years, the union has cited NYCT management’s intense pressure to keep the system moving no matter what, coupled with a “blame the victim” culture, as contributing to the high frequency of fatalities, injuries and near-misses to which TWU members have been subjected.

In a recent message to the entire union membership, TWU Local 100 President Roger Toussaint demanded an end to the “tug of war” between “management’s constant call to do more” and “transit workers’ need to live longer.”

The deaths on the tracks of TWU Local members Daniel Boggs on April 24 and Marvin Franklin on April 29 brought the issue of the dangers of transit work, and the inadequacies of the self-enforcement system, to the forefront of public attention.

The former Republican governor, George Pataki, had blocked a previous track safety bill, and the present Republican-controlled state Senate balked at the track safety legislation in the most resent legislative session. However, the two deaths put pressure on the Senate to act, although not without foot-dragging and attempts to weaken the bill.

Once the Senate acted, the bill was quickly signed by Gov. Spitzer.

Among the measures mandated by the bill is the creation of a three-member Track Safety Task Force comprising a representative from the NYS Department of Labor and the presidents of TWU Local 100 and NYCT. The new panel will take its place alongside a six-member union-management task force that was set up at the union’s initiative in the wake of the two recent fatalities.

Other safety initiatives stemming from the new legislation, the existing task force, or the union include pre-job and on-track safety audits; improved flagging protection for workers on the tracks, including measures to control the movement of trains on tracks adjacent to work areas; improvements in communications of train operational conditions to work crews; and expedited identification and repair of faulty emergency telephone and “power down” boxes. In addition, the testing of a special “alerter device” designed to give workers prior warning of oncoming trains has been fast-tracked.

Environmental contributors to accidents on the tracks such as noise and poor illumination are also being addressed. Noise from machinery used in a work area can mask the sound of approaching trains, so a number of noise abatement measures have been implemented.

Rules regarding adequate lighting of work areas have been in place since 2004, but were often ignored by transit managers.

Now the union intends to use the tools provided by the new law and the joint task forces to insure compliance with safety and health regulations and to create a culture of safety on the tracks.

gbono @cpusa.org