Thousands rally to back NYC transit workers

NEW YORK – Over 4,000 transit workers and thousands of others marched on City Hall Dec. 16 as contract negotiations went down to the deadline between Transit Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). Later the union announced a tenatative agreement, negotiated under the threat of millions of dollars of fines and possible jail sentences if the TWU was forced to strike.

The City Hall demonstration, sponsored by the TWU and the Municipal Labor Coalition, was one of a series of mass actions seeking to counter a fierce media attack on the union and workers’ concerns.

At the rally labor leaders and elected officials urged workers to 'speak with one voice' in public worker contract negotiations and in confronting private sector layoffs.

Bob Masters of the Communication Workers told the crowd, '$6 billion in tax cuts have gone to the richest 10 percent of New York State.' Barabara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, an American Federation of Teachers (AFT) local representing 20,000 City University of New York employees, said, 'They’ve given billions in tax breaks and now they want to balance the budget on our backs.'

Two days before the deadline, the State Supreme Court issued an injunction, invoking the state’s Taylor Law, which makes it illegal for city workers to strike and imposes heavy fines on any strikes. Not satisfied with these provisions, Mayor Michael Bloomberg filed a lawsuit demanding a $1 million fine against the TWU on the first day of a strike, doubling each day, with a $25,000 fine on each striking. Despite this interference in the collective bargaining process, the union membership voted overwhelmingly to strike if necessary. Alberdo Candelaria, a train operator for 16 years, told the World, 'We are not doing this to inconvenience riders. We are struggling for our survival.' Vivian Kronegay, a train operator since 1993, told the World, 'The MTA wants to cut wages and benefits while Bloomberg is raising property taxes. How do you take care of your family.'

The MTA had demanded no wage increase and pension and health care takebacks. The tentative three-year contract agreement includes a $1,000 lump-sum payment in the first year with a 3 percent increase in the second and third years.

Health care was a primary concern of TWU members. The tentative agreement provides improved health benefits including establishment of a retirees’ prescription plan and coverage for domestic partners and part-time traffic checkers, as well as creation of a child care trust fund and more funding for worker training.

The tentative agreement also addresses two key union issues: improved safety procedures and reform of the harsh disciplinary system which in the last three years has resulted in 48,000 disciplinary citations against the MTA’s 34,000 workers. Candelaria commented, 'They want to run trains with one worker as motorman and conductor. If something happens to the motorman it creates a dangerous situation for all the passengers as well as the workers.'

The MTA and the city waged a media scare campaign aimed at the seven million transit riders, threatening a fare increase as an outcome of any wage or benefit increase for the workers. Now the city and MTA claim the agreement makes a fare hike inevitable. The MTA has been sharply criticized for keeping its books hidden and for its continuing contracting out, part of the privatization schemes being pushed by right-wing Republicans as the way to deal with escalating budget deficits.

With the city projecting a $6 billion deficit, Bloomberg used the transit negotiations to open an attack on work rules in upcoming municipal contracts. Although the agreement includes the merger of bus lines which will result in savings for the MTA, management failed in its drive to require workers to do jobs not part of their regular assignments, referred to as 'broadbanding.' TWU Local 100 president Roger Toussaint said the city is now spinning the agreement to try to 'corral all the other labor unions in the next rounds of negotiations.'

Mike Schulman, co-chair of the New Action Caucus of the AFT, told the World, 'Budget deficits face every union now. We need to tax on those who can afford to pay. For example the real estate industry has been getting handouts for years. We can’t continue to support money for the war machine while are billions drained from public coffers and people sacrifice.'

The tentative agreement was approved by the TWU executive board by a vote of 31-9, with two abstaining, and will be sent to the membership for approval.

Dan Margolis contributed to this article. The author can be reached at jleblanc@pww.org