Aside from sympathizing with the plight of New York City residents left to beg rides or trudge to work in frigid temperatures, Upstate New Yorkers probably assumed they didn't have much at stake in last week's transit strike.
Wrong. In fact, the three-day illegal walkout highlighted an issue with ramifications far beyond New York City. That issue is the cost of pensions for government employees.
Like other government employees throughout New York, the transit workers are eligible for guaranteed pensions that are lavish by the standards of the people who pay their salaries. Members of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union can retire at 55 at half pay, after as little as 25 years on the job.
Few private-sector workers can even think of affording retirement before reaching their early 60s. Most of us depend on individual retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s, that tie our future standard of living to what we are willing to save now.
In this year's contract talks, the state Metropolitan Transportation Authority sought to raise the retirement age to 62 and to increase the amount that employees contribute to their own pensions. Because the state constitution prohibits any change in the pension of current workers, the MTA's proposal would have affected only future employees. Nonetheless, citing pensions as a make-or-break issue, the TWU staged an illegal walkout that staggered the economic engine of the whole state.
Why did the union leaders expose themselves to jail and enormous fines over a moderate change in retirement benefits for their future members? And why is this important to Syracuse and other Upstate regions?
First, the MTA essentially was making the first serious effort in 30 years to reverse a rising tide of pension benefits for government workers in New York. A management victory would have been a positive precedent for taxpayers throughout the state. Small wonder that other public employee unions were rooting hard for the TWU.
Second, far from looking to ways to cut pension bills, state legislators including members of the Central New York delegation have spent much of the last decade encouraging government workers to feel entitled to even more. Both the Senate and Assembly unanimously voted in 2003 to give transit workers the ability to retire after 20 years as young as age 50.
Fortunately, like some of the other most outrageous pension sweeteners, the TWU bill was ultimately vetoed by the Gov. George Pataki. But the Legislature has been keeping up the pressure on tax-funded retirement costs. In 2005 alone, huge majorities in both houses passed at least 46 bills expanding pension benefits for public workers in New York. Hundreds of similar measures are in the hopper.
The transit workers agreed to return to work after the MTA showed some willingness to lay aside the pensions issue. But that doesn't mean the issue is dead. Public-sector pensions in New York are set in state law, not labor agreements. The strike should be seen as the long-overdue to signal to enact comprehensive reforms to curb the rising cost of pensions for every level of government in the state.