NewsAnalysis: Next steps in transit workers fightback

Many New Yorkers were inspired by the strike of Transport Workers Union Local 100 against the efforts of the Metropolitan Transit Authority to cut back on workers’ pensions and health care. People understood that the two-tier benefit system being insisted on by the MTA would create mistrust between veterans on the job and new workers, damaging the union’s strength and credibility.

The three-day strike in December resulted in a proposed contract that contained many important gains. However, many transit workers didn’t like the provision that would have instituted a health benefit tax of 1.5 percent on wages and overtime pay. The formula allowed the percentage to increase beyond 1.5 percent if the cost of health benefits rises faster than wages. This is certain to happen if health care costs continue to shoot up as they have in recent years. The 1.5 percent worker contribution would go into the general funds of the MTA.

New York’s Taylor Law outlaws strikes by public employees. In addition to fining the union, the law makes individual strikers liable for stiff fines. After paying the Taylor Law penalties and the 1.5 percent health care tax, transit workers would end up effectively with no pay increase in the first year of their new contract.

Transit workers knew that despite crying poverty due to rising health costs, the Transit Authority actually had a surplus of over $1.5 billion, with more to come from an anticipated federal refund from the Medicare Part D prescription drug program.

As a result, the members of Local 100 narrowly voted “no” on the new contract.

Now both the MTA and the state Public Employee Relations Board are pushing for the dispute to be resolved by binding arbitration. Arbitration would likely result in a worse deal than the contract offer which was voted down, since the arbitration process is tilted sharply against the workers. In the arbitration process, members no longer have the right to vote on the contract.

In a last-ditch effort to prevent an arbitrated settlement, the union’s executive board has called for a second vote on the previously rejected contract offer. If the vote this time is “yes,” it is hoped that public pressure will push the MTA to agree again to the original contract offer. The MTA maintains that it is not legally required to do so.

In the meantime, the MTA is trying to enlist the courts to cripple the future ability of Local 100 to enforce any labor contract. The agency is calling for huge fines on the union and the elimination of its dues checkoff system. Most of the union’s revenues come through dues which pay for the substantial paid staff needed to fight for workers’ rights on a day-to-day basis, at arbitrations, at disciplinary hearings, to oversee safety, and to fight for workers injured on the job. It would be virtually impossible for Local 100, whose members are spread out in hundreds of shops, depots and locker rooms all over the sprawling transit system, to collect dues without checkoff.

Supporters of the transit workers should mobilize for the April 7 court hearings on these penalties. It is urgent that workers and commuters rally at the courthouse to show their solidarity with the union in its fightback.

Several New York City transit workers contributed to this article.