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New York Post

 

Curbing Union Excess

March 14, 2011

By Nicole Gelinas

Small steps for NY’s timid pols

New York pols aren’t about to eliminate most collec tive-bargaining rights and automatic dues collection for public-sector unions, as Wisconsin just did. But if they care about the public good, they could take some baby steps to show that they’re not entirely in the pockets of union labor.

Lawmakers could untie one of the taxpayer’s hands in negotiations on the MTA’s pact with the Transport Workers Union. Backroom talks on the agreement, which expires in 10 months, will soon start in earnest.

Start with the binding-arbitration rules that govern the MTA’s biggest workforce, the 38,000-strong Local 100 transit union. Under the state’s 44-year-old Taylor Law, the TWU may not strike (although it did in 2005). In return for (theoretically) giving up this power, the TWU gets an advantage: If it doesn’t like what the MTA offers it in wages, health benefits and work rules during negotiations, it can throw its contract into independent arbitration.

By law, both sides must agree to the pact the arbitrators draw up -- a process rigged against taxpayers and transit riders.

State law directs that the MTA and the TWU each pick one representative on the three-person panel to write the agreement. Because both parties must agree on the third panelist, he or she is supposedly neutral.

But the midpoint between the MTA and the TWU hardly represents the public interest. The MTA is often voluntarily lavish with its union, because being union-friendly never hurt its execs later on in life.

Plus, the law biases arbitrators toward raising wages: They must consider what comparable public- and private-sector employees make. If one big-city mayor gives away the store to his unions, arbitrators must consider those raises. Given the process’ other flaws, they may use those excessive salaries as an excuse for a similarly unaffordable award to the TWU.

Another problem: The law directs arbitrators to consider the MTA’s “ability to pay” - without really specifying what that means. Arbitrators should think about fares, service and the public’s interests, but the state doesn’t spell out what and who comes first.

The MTA has the “ability to pay” for otherwise unaffordable contracts, for example, if it slashes capital investment -- likely causing breakdowns in a few years. Or it can refrain from saving money during surplus years for deficit years -- inevitably leaving it needing a bailout, like $1.3 billion that state lawmakers gave it in 2009 by enacting a new tax on downstate payrolls. But none of that is in the public interest.

All these factors went into the current contract, arbitrated in 2009. That $300 million-a-year deal awarded workers two years of 4 percent raises during a historic recession, plus added health-care goodies.

It also awarded a third year of 3 percent raises, which the MTA is appealing in court. Absent direction from Gov. Cuomo and lawmakers, that award will overshadow future talks, especially if the appeals court upholds it.

What’s the incentive for the TWU to do anything it doesn’t like, when it can wait out the MTA and appeal to “neutral” fairy godfathers? Lawmakers should take away this leverage before negotiations.

Optimally, Albany should get rid of binding arbitration. If nobody can agree, let the TWU work without a contract (with no wage increases). Workers who don’t like it can quit.

Even if lawmakers don’t go that far, they can take smaller steps -- in order to avoid a voter revolt forcing more drastic action later.

First, change the law to bar arbitrators from considering other contracts. Just because New York City jumps off a cliff doesn’t mean that the MTA should. The only thing arbitrators should consider is whether pay is so low that the MTA can’t keep qualified workers.

Second, ensure that arbitrators consider “affordability” beyond a one-off surplus -- even beyond the contract up for renewal. If the MTA can afford to give a raise only by using borrowed money to pay for all of its capital investment, it can’t afford it.

To do these things, New Yorkers need state legislators to care about something other than their own interests. Remember, State Sen. Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn), before he was caught last week (allegedly) taking bribes, was horrible on the MTA -- preferring that New York borrow a billion dollars against long-term assets to give to the MTA in 2009 rather than confront its union.

Kruger’s GOP colleagues have a chance to show that they can put the public first. That’s especially true because many lawmakers, particularly suburban ones, have castigated the MTA over its bailout tax for two years straight -- as if it wasn’t their fault.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/curbing_union_excess_ZifwNvPLRhLI8w1BCPNXhM

 

 
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