One more thing for the Big Apple to worry about: a transit strike. On Wednesday, the Transport Workers Union rallied in lower Manhattan, amassing 10,000 laborers to protest management’s demand for an austere contract. “We’re here to shut it down,” members vowed.
Striking is illegal and seems irrational — but we aren’t living in law-abiding or rational times, and in the chaotic vacuum of national politics, the union may think it has found its moment.
A strike would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. The 2005 Christmas-week strike was a failure, resulting in fines so high that the union had to sell its headquarters. The union also temporarily lost the right to collect dues via payroll deduction.
Afterward, the union changed management and tactics. Being close personal friends with Gov. Andrew Cuomo — and patient — paid off. In 2012, the union’s then-chief, John Samuelson, did something that had never happened before: allow the union to work without a contract. Cuomo was still in his first-term freeze-spending mood, and Samuelson waited him out.
By 2014, Cuomo had changed moods, and the TWU got a five-year contract, retroactive to 2012, that kept up with inflation, plus parental leave and better health care. In return, the union would pay 2 percent of wages to health care, rather than 1.5. In 2017, the TWU got an even sweeter deal, with better-than-inflation raises and new perks, no givebacks required.
This goodwill has evaporated.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is broke. Its New York City Transit budget has shot up to a projected $8.7 billion next year, from $6.3 billion in 2011, with labor costs rising to $6.7 billion from $4.7 billion, or 43 percent.
The MTA faces a projected $800 million deficit over four years. Congestion pricing won’t save it: That money is for physical upgrades. Nor can the MTA find the money in management. It is already slated to cut 2,700 white-collar jobs — and if it fails, deficits will be bigger by a half billion dollars.
So the MTA has made an offer: inflation-based raises, but in return, doubling workers’ health-care contribution to 4 percent and changing rules so that workers don’t earn overtime until they have worked 40 hours in a week, instead of by the shift.
The TWU doesn’t like this but isn’t inclined to wait as before. Under President Tony Utano, the union has reached into the past for a more radical strategy. The signs and rhetoric at last week’s rally were from a different era, painting MTA Chairman Pat Foye as “Pat Fraud” and calling Cuomo a “liar.”
New Yorkers may think they can rest easy, because the TWU learned its 2005 lesson and won’t risk breaking state law prohibiting strikes again.
But the union faces a temptation: the national vibe going into the 2020 election. Bernie Sanders, who won the union’s endorsement four years ago, gave it access to his mailing list to invite supporters to the rally. Elizabeth Warren was out on picket lines supporting striking Chicago teachers last month. Sanders and Warren need minority supporters, and the TWU is mostly minority.
TWU workers are well-paid: Average cash earnings are $89,000, and benefits take the total to $134,000.
They aren’t arguing for what Sanders and Warren supporters want. Were Congress to adopt universal health care, the TWU would likely want to opt out.
A strike may enrage New Yokers, but lawbreaking works in the union’s favor on the national stage: The TWU can spin this as civil disobedience in favor of health care for all, to be funded by billionaires. Nobody thought much about transit workers in 2005; now, they are cool.
There is one force to stop a strike: Cuomo’s fear of voter anger. But the subway isn’t the Long Island Rail Road; the people impacted aren’t going to vote Republican in 2022. And if there is anything worse than a strike, it may be no strike: What might a terrified Cuomo end up giving away?
Some union factions think that leadership is too scared of Cuomo to act. It will all come down to who is more scared of whom.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
Photo by Daniel Barry/Getty Images