Gains seen, membership to vote on contract

NEW YORK—Surrounded by dozens of transit workers and his top officials, Roger Toussaint, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, announced Dec. 27, shortly after 11 p.m., the results of his union’s Executive Board meeting: They voted overwhelmingly to accept the new contract offered by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“By a vote of 37 in favor, four against, and one abstention, we voted overwhelmingly to approve the contract that was presented and to forward the contract to the 33,000 members of Local 100 for ratification,” Toussaint told the press.

This comes after the union struck against the MTA for three full commuting days after the authority put its “final offer” on the table. That proposed contract differed in many ways, but the main issue over which the union struck—and won—was around the issue of pensions.

“They wanted 30-62 for newcomers; we still kept it at 25-55,” explained Ronnie Santobello, who drives the B65 bus in Downtown Brooklyn. “You would had to have 30 years of service, aged 62, to retire at 100 percent. Now it will remain as 25 years of service, and you can retire at age 55.”

Also, the MTA wanted new hires to pay six percent of their salary towards retirement, but keep the rate at two percent for current workers. Local 100 saw these as life-or-death issues, fearing that such a two-tiered system would be a weapon the transit authority would use to divide and, ultimately, to destroy the union.

“They were trying to divide us,” Santobello continued. He said that current workers would still have been doing as well, but that he did not want to see new hires worse off. “That divides us … there’d be fighting within the union. I think with our new contract we’ll remain strong.”

The contract also provides for other gains: Over the next three years there will be a raise of three, four and three-and-a-half percent, respectively. Also, one of the members on hand explained, there would be a rebate to workers who paid into their pension at an old rate of 5.3 percent. This rebate, which can amount to thousands of dollars in some cases, will cover more than half of the workers.

“It provided for medical coverage, health benefits coverage … so that retirees don’t lose coverage when they move from active life to retired life,” Toussaint said. “We did agree on the establishment of a premium for health benefit contributions of 1.5 percent of wages.”

Toussaint added that the contract establishes Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday, provides state disability insurance to workers, additional pay for workers who are assaulted on the job. For the first time ever, he said, the contract establishes paid maternity leave, and additional benefits to the spouses of those who are killed or die while working for the MTA

“It provides for widows of members who die … health benefits, and to helping improve the relations between transit workers and the Transit Authority, and establish a greater degree of respect and appreciation for the sacrifices that our members undertake in this city every single day, moving over 7-8,000,000 riders every day; waking up every day at three or four o’clock in the morning to make sure that the city moves,” Toussaint continued.

“We’re definitely in a better place. Everybody thinks it was just about the wages, but it wasn’t. It was about respect, the pension, and health care,” Santobello said. “We made a stand—not just for us—but for all unions, because as everybody knows the cops, the teachers, the firefighters, they kind of got a raw deal on their contract. That’s why … all the other unions were behind us: Because if we take a bad contract, they’re going to move it onto all the other state and city workers, like a chain of dominoes. It’s not that we wanted to strike, but they gave us no alternative.”

The next and final step is for the contract to be put to the vote of all members.

“I think it will be an overwhelming majority to ratify,” Santobello said. “I think the lifetime benefits and leaving the pension where it is alone makes it worth it.”

Santobello and other workers acknowledged the fines they might still face under the Taylor Law—which prohibits public employees from striking. The union could still be fined a million dollars for each day its members were out, and individual members could still lose two days pay for each day they did not work. Most said they were glad nonetheless, that the strike was worth it.

“It was! We had to do what we had to do. Transit didn’t believe that we were even qualified to do that, but we showed them. We showed them that we believe that we should be treated fair and equal as employees,” said Jaynelle Williams, a station agent at the Utica Avenue stop of the 4-train.

Williams continued, “That loss brought a hundred years of gain! We made history and we’re gonna be there all the way down the line.”