NY politicians, bosses slam transit workers

 BY MARTY GOODMAN

“This is a fair and equitable contract for transit workers,” declared John Samuelsen, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, at an April 17 press conference that announced a tentative contract with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the state-run agency that operates New York City’s subway and bus system. At President Samuelsen’s side were New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (Democrat) and MTA boss John Prendergast.

TWU Local 100 represents 34,000 city subway and bus workers. They’ve been without a contract since Jan. 15, 2012.

The five-year tentative agreement includes a 1% and 1% retroactive pay increase for 2012 and 2013, plus 2%, 2%, and 2% raises over the next three years. The union had insisted on raises that matched the cost of living, yet with employee health-care deductions increasing from 1.5% to 2% in the tentative deal, the agreement actually represents a wage cut. Inflation in the New York City region went up 2 % in 2012, 1.7 % in 2013, and is anticipated to rise 2.1 % in 2014 and 2.9% next year.

Previously, the MTA had been demanding three zero raises in any contract. The MTA declared that any raise without offsetting union concessions would strike a “devastating blow” to the MTA budget. It was all lies. Throughout, Samuelsen consistently rejected zeros at the table.

Moreover, the proposed contract dangerously divides the workforce by adding two years to reach full pay for new workers, increasing the time period from three years to five years. This is a shocking return to the divisive TWU contracts of the 1990s, which especially punished cleaners—an overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic workforce. This new racist pact with MTA bosses will see cleaners start at a mere 60% of top pay and progress to top pay at an even more gradual rate than all other new employees.

Lastly, the tentative contract does not contain a “no layoff clause,” i.e. a job-security agreement. In 2010, 950 transit workers were laid off during the administration of Democratic Gov. David Paterson due to a phony MTA “budget crisis.” They were rehired over a period of two years of relative union inaction. No Democratic or Republican politician demanded their immediate rehire (former Governor Paterson now sits on the MTA Board). Ironically, the current TWU leadership was elected for their opposition to membership health-care costs and the absence of a contractual “no layoff clause.”

The new agreement does have some gains, however. New will be an unprecedented two-week maternity and paternity leave, added death benefits, and some improvements in medical coverage.

The temporary deal was quickly accepted by Local 100’s compliant Executive Board 33-0, with two abstentions. The membership will vote and the contract will be counted sometime in late May, Samuelsen has indicated.

Since the expiration of the contract in 2012, there has been little TWU fightback except for a spirited rally of 5000 transit workers last October and a lobbying caravan to the state capital in Albany earlier this year. Clearly, the TWU’s strategy was to depend on the twin parties of the 1% rather than on a sustained struggle to win a decent contract—which is always a losing strategy.

Largely unaddressed is the $32 billion MTA bond debt to Wall Street crooks. Tax-free income is paid to rich MTA bond holders by the mostly working-class ridership. The MTA budget is underfunded by both Democratic and Republican administrations in Albany, while the rider’s share of the budget, 55%, is the highest amongst the nation’s major urban transit systems.

In April, the MTA sold $500 million worth of new MTA bonds to wealthy investors (minimum purchase is $5000!), without protest from a single union leader or politician. By law, the MTA bondholders must be paid before 60,000 MTA workers. Bond sales pay for ongoing construction, typically running way over budget, and for maintenance repair costs, not salaries. Socialists demand full funding for mass transit and all public services! Make the greedy rich pay!

Since the MTA/TWU contract was announced, a small “Vote No” movement has begun and is gaining traction amongst rank-and-file workers. Socialists say, “Vote no!” on this giveback contract!

Gov. Cuomo, up for re-election in November, is famous for his full-stop support for the anti-union charter-school movement and tax-breaks for the rich. He secured an appalling three-zero-raise contract with two state unions in 2011 under threat of 10,000 layoffs. Cuomo pressed especially hard for the TWU deal after receiving a public letter, full of undeserved praise, from Samuelsen. Cuomo knows the big TWU sets a contract pattern. A weak contract would exert great downward pressure on all New York City and state unions.

Directly impacted are the workers at the MTA-run Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), whose contract with several unions expired in 2010. The TWU pact, despite Samuelsen’s public pledges of “legal” solidarity, was a body blow to LIRR prospects. One anonymous LIRR union official described the TWU deal in Newsday newspaper as “terrible.”

After MTA stonewalling, a federal “Emergency Board” panel was empowered to study the issues. The MTA rejected its recommendation of a 17% wage hike over six years, combined with a 2% member health-care contribution. A second board has been convened, but is thought likely to repeat the previous findings. If rejected by the MTA, workers may strike in late July, union officials say.

The TWU deal is also disappointing for 152 city unions whose contracts expired under the billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who steadfastly refused to negotiate. The cost of city union back pay is estimated at $7 billion. Bloomberg, with votes from a majority Democratic city council, left no money in the budget for contracts. Untouched, however, are massive tax breaks for the rich and a mostly untaxed Wall Street stock exchange.

Bloomberg was replaced by Bill De Blasio in January, enthusiastically supported as a “progressive” Democrat by the labor bureaucracy. De Blasio promises to negotiate but, like Bloomberg, openly demands givebacks. The mayor has said that there is no way the city could afford to pay full retroactive pay to all 152 unions. The “progressive” mayor says, “If they want to talk about retroactive pay, that’s their right, but they have to show us the cost savings to go with it.”

Following the transit pact, the influential New York Daily News, in an editorial entitled “Stay on Track, Bill,” advised, “His (De Blasio’s) obligation now is to deliver contracts that are essentially cost-free,” adding, “TWU members are contributing 2%, de Blasio can accept no less from the city workforce.”

Now, more than ever, there is a need for a united front of all New York unions—one that will reject all givebacks and separate deals with bosses. It would mobilize the ranks to fight Wall Street and its mouthpieces in the Democratic and Republican parties. Unions should open their doors to big citywide rank-and-file meetings to discuss a fightback. The rank and file has the guts and, by working together, we have the greatest power of all—the power to shut it down!