The latest phase in the ongoing struggle of New York City’s transit workers for a just contract began Aug. 4 with the opening of arbitration hearings. The arbitration procedure is going forward at the insistence of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and over objections by the union. The union says that by demanding binding arbitration the MTA is illegally ignoring a revote by the union’s members accepting the contract.

In first-round hearings the union, New York’s TWU Local 100, and the employer, the MTA, made presentations to a three-member arbitration panel. The panel is composed of one representative chosen by the union, one by the MTA and a third member, agreed upon by both parties, who serves as chair. The union’s representative on the panel is prominent N.Y. labor lawyer and political figure Basil Paterson. For its representative, the MTA chose its labor relations boss Gary Dellaverson. The chair is veteran arbitrator George Nicolau.

The MTA’s opening presentation disregarded many points of agreement reached during previous negotiations. It demanded sharp give-backs: introduction of an inferior pension tier, elimination of some job titles, consolidation of regional bus operations on management’s terms, negation of the union’s arbitration victory that prohibited the expansion of one-person train crews, and a give-back of improvements in sick leave policy.

A team headed by Local 100 President Roger Toussaint and TWU International President James Little presented the union’s position, indicating a new era of cooperation between the progressive leadership of Local 100 and that of its parent union. In the hearings, TWU negotiators held firm in demanding the terms of the member-ratified, negotiated contract.

First-round hearings ended on Aug. 11 when Nicolau ordered a recess until the fall, declaring that the union had not had sufficient time to present its issues. Nicolau also ordered the MTA and the union to continue negotiations outside of formal arbitration, directing the parties to come to agreement on as many issues as possible. These developments are general viewed as being favorable to the union.

Meanwhile, in a less favorable development, on Aug. 10 Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Theodore Jones, the same judge who issued emergency injunctions against the union and imprisoned Toussaint after the December 2005 transit strike, refused to rule on a union lawsuit that sought to force the MTA to accept the ratified contract. Jones claimed he had no jurisdiction in the case, deferring to New York’s Public Employees Relations Board.

During the course of the arbitration hearings, Local 100 members engaged in a series of actions dramatizing their demands, including picketing at MTA board meetings, at the residences of MTA board members and at the offices of New York Gov. George Pataki. Local 100 activists also traveled to Washington, D.C., on Aug. 7 to confront Pataki at a National Press Club luncheon. Calling themselves the “Pataki Truth Squad,” the transit workers greeted the 2008 presidential hopeful with banners reading, “Bad Governors Make Bad Presidents.” In union circles, Pataki’s interference is widely blamed for having sabotaged the initial contract vote and for the MTA’s current intransigence.