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New York Post

 

MTA's Tarnished Brass

January 17, 2011

By Nicole Gelinas

Snow bungling will aid union


The City Council won last Fri day’s bout with the MTA brass over the transit agen cy’s failures in the Dec. 26 blizzard. But MTA riders won’t share the victory -- the Transport Workers Union will.

How? MTA chief Jay Walder -- or whoever is in charge next month or next year -- needs political support to wrest contract changes from the union. Without new work rules, plus altered pay and benefit structures, there won’t be any money to maintain services, let alone improve them.

But the union can head off such requests by pointing sympathetic pols to a litany of management offenses. Add the Christmas debacle to that list, on top of new cost overruns on capital projects that will run into billions of dollars, along with older sins (real and imagined).

Management should get its own act together, union leaders will tell the pols, rather than balance the budget on workers’ backs.

As last week’s hearing made clear, MTA managers just fell headfirst into a snowbank. Walder and his team, notably subway and bus chief Thomas Prendergast, the target of the council’s questioning, screwed up.

We all know that the MTA, like the city, failed to declare a high-level emergency to stay ahead of the storm. That omission meant workers didn’t have the option of reporting to work at the depot closest to their homes. So people couldn’t get to work, as union representatives made clear.

Other failures are more inexcusable. As Councilwoman Debi Rose determined in questioning Prendergast, the MTA left customers stranded for 12 hours at the Staten Island Ferry terminal. When Rose asked why the MTA had suspended service without telling customers, the answer was that the MTA hadn’t made “a conscious decision to suspend service.” The service cut was unofficial; therefore, no announcement.

Yet the MTA has made this same kind of communications mistake many times before, including during the 2007 summer floods. It stands out, too, because Walder has made communications, such as countdown signs and a spiffy Web site, the centerpiece of his administration.

That wasn’t the only communications failure. During and after the storm, Mayor Bloomberg was telling people to take mass transit -- when that was the last thing the MTA wanted anyone to do. The MTA and the city failed here.

Another failure was lack of accountability. The MTA left hundreds of “customers” stranded on an A train in the Rockaways for seven hours. People had no idea what was going on. Who was in charge of rescuing them? No one knows.

Of course, Walder was ultimately in charge -- with Prendergast below him. But when it came to the specific person, the answer was elusive. One guy who would have been in charge -- a lower-level manager -- was away as the storm bore down. Even weeks after the storm, Prendergast couldn’t say who was supposed to fill in.

Prendergast blamed this failure on “prior administration” problems. But even if past generations of MTA brass botched the chain of command, Walder and Prendergast have been in charge for more than a year. Shouldn’t they have fixed it?

And how hard is it to say to any sentient employee in a crisis, “Hey, Bob. You’re in charge of getting people off that train. Report back to me every hour what’s going on?”

Nor did it help that Walder himself was on vacation during the storm. As Prendergast put it, “I don’t know where Mr. Walder was all the time;” he was “someplace else.”

If you’re making mid-six figures courtesy of the taxpayer and put yourself at the mercy not only of unpredictable local weather but the weather wherever you are, and the person you’ve put in charge screws up, you’re to blame.

Plus, Walder’s efforts to stay in charge from afar may have hindered efforts -- something the council didn’t explore. All mid-level managers know the bother of trying to do their jobs while dealing with a boss who is sending a flurry of electronic messages to pretend to be in the loop.

What’s the upshot? Any efforts to use next year’s contract negotiations to make big changes to what kind of work union members do, under what rules, and for how much pay and benefits just got even harder.

Politicians always take every excuse they can to stand with the vote-rich union against management. They can say now: Who is going to trust the brass on changes when they can’t deal with snow?

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/mta_tarnished_brass_liVhq5tV00TUGOdO7T2JMM

 

 
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