December 20, 2005
Hostage For the Holidays

By John Avlon

Every three years, New Yorkers are held hostage during the holidays by the transit workers of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It is a time-honored negotiation technique but a dangerous game that brings our city to the brink of functional shutdown. New Yorkers have every reason to be fed up with it. This isn’t a strike for workers; it’s a strike against workers.

The benefits of 38,000 transit workers do not outweigh the rights of 8 million New Yorkers. And yet the old school Transport Workers Union sees only its own interests in these negotiations. Judges have continuously determined that this strike is illegal because it is a strike against public safety. As Calvin Coolidge famously said dealing with a Boston police strike (and which Giuliani administration Deputy Mayor Joe Lhota posted on a sign outside his office during transit negotiations six years ago), "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time."

The estimated economic losses to the city as a result of a strike are astronomical: $440 million a day in lost business and $12 million a day in lost tax revenue. There is also the very real potential cost in lives lost, with crippling traffic delaying ambulances, isolating individuals in the coldest months of the year.

Finally, there is the more pedestrian inconvenience of a strike. Subways are our city's lifeblood. Without them, New Yorkers - the vast majority of whom do not own cars - will essentially be held hostage in their neighborhoods. And given our recent stretch of freezing weather, the ability to walk to work will go from unappealing to impossible for many people.

When you get beyond the rhetoric of oppression and look at the real numbers, the MTA's case as victimized workers begins to look more petty, pathetic, and myopic. The average annual salary for a transit worker is well over $50,000 – for a 7 ½ hour workday before overtime. Bus maintenance workers receive an average salary of $68,000 a year; train operators make $62,000 a year; station agents over $50,000 a year and conductors over $53,000 a year. Add to this generous public subsidy the fact that transit workers take an average of 13 days sick leave a year and you have a picture of a classic overfed, me-first, feather-bedding local union of the past.

The New York Transport Workers Union operates like the 1970s never ended. It’s crafty but cartoon-ishly militant union president, Roger Toussaint, faces the greatest threat to his leadership from the left wing within his own union, who are concerned that he is not radical enough for the rank-and-file. After all, there has not been a transit strike in this city since 1980, and by some labor calculations, the union is overdue for a flexing of its muscle. Therefore, there is a personal and political incentive for him to push this as far as he can to prove his leadership. That is dangerous and dysfunctional. One man's ego should not be able to grind our nation's greatest city to a halt.

But before transit workers get too arrogant even as they look at their next prospective strike three years down the line, they should realize that technology already exists that would make them irrelevant. Already, trains in Paris, Cairo, and Calcutta operate with computerized or automated systems. In Paris, the Meteor Project was launched in 1998, with an automatic piloting system that controls the train line's traffic, regulates speed, manages alarm devices, and allows for traffic of automatic and traditional conductor trains on the same line. There have been no serious accidents reported since this system deployed in the late 1990s, and more than a billion people have been transported. Computers make the trains run on time and they don't threaten to walk off the job. All of us are replaceable, but some are more quickly replaceable than others.

Already, the MTA spends 80% of its operating budget on personnel expenses. Of the one-year billion-dollar windfall surplus that it currently has on the books, more than $450 million will go to pay for existing unfunded pensions. We have an aging labor population whose entitlement costs from pensions to Medicaid are going to bring our city and state to the brink of bankruptcy in the coming years because of unwise long-term labor agreements made in the past. The transit workers - and all municipal workers - need to understand this reality and adjust their expectations accordingly. But instead, transit workers are resisting proposed salary increases and fighting to secure unsupportable entitlements such as the right to retire at age 55 with full benefits. That's not fighting oppression; that's fighting for the right to live in a fantasyland subsidized by hard-working New Yorkers who will retire at age 65 or older.

The delusional days of wine and roses for labor leaders are over and they are never coming back. Today, we need to think in terms of generational responsibility. Labor relations need to be more than a publicly subsidized job-protection scheme that passes the buck to the next generation. That means not forcing today's schoolchildren to fund Florida retirements for workers who've been off the job for 25 years. The reality is that Unions’ don’t have that much public goodwill left to waste.

Every time the transit workers hold our city hostage during the holidays, they lose credibility and the sympathy of New Yorkers. Now, for the first time in 25 years, America's largest city has been stopped in its tracks by a transit worker strike. Last time – in the balmy April of 1980 – it took 11 days to resolve the issue. However long it takes this time, we will predictably and pathetically be caught in the same web three years from now. That’s why we should take steps to break this cycle of municipal threat and mass victim mentality right now.

John Avlon is a columnist for the New York Sun and the author
of Independent Nation.

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