December 24, 2005
Bankruptcy Of The Unions

By John Avlon

The Christmas-time transit strike of 2005 has proven at least two things: the moral and now actual bankruptcy of the union, and the resilience of New Yorkers.

The streams of people trudging miles from home to work and back in the cold - bundled up, iPods on, feet-aching and fog-breathing - were not uncomplaining, but they were defiantly upbeat, in that "at-least-we're-all-in-this-together" way. Our sometimes fractious city rallies when times get tough. We are best when things are at their worst because that is when our obvious common interests outweigh the special interests which too often divide us.

The Transport Workers Union Local 100 has become the ultimate symbol of special interests in our city today. It is a role they chose, and it is a legacy that will live longer than the inconvenience of these past three days. Their illegal strike in the name of workers was a strike against workers.

And that's why this failed strike may prove to be a watershed moment in modern labor movement. Because the Transport Workers used up not only $3 million dollars in court-imposed fines - effectively bankrupting the local union - but they used up whatever remaining reservoirs of public support the public-sector unions enjoyed.

The mood of the city was well captured by a cartoon in the Daily News depicting transit union boss Roger Toussaint as a medieval torturer, stretching the suffering people of New York out on the rack while asking "Now do I have your sympathy?"

Unions are quick to invoke the language of oppression, but a look at the facts show the absurdity of the claim. Transit workers enjoy an average salary of well over $50,000 for a seven-and-a-half-hour workday with free health care and a fully-taxpayer subsidized retirement at age 55. The average New Yorker works longer hours for less pay. Those who have health care benefits pay a portion of their salary for the privilege, and retirement kicks in at age 65 or older. The union walked off the job after rejecting a uniform 10% pay raise spread over three years - in the private sector, pay raises are earned through individual performance, with no annual guarantees. Most people are paid through profits their work helps generate, while the union is paid out of the pockets of all New Yorkers - who are already among the highest taxed citizens of the United States.

Armed with these facts, looking at the 7 million New Yorkers who use mass transit every day walking to work while strikers screamed and walked the picket line, it wasn't hard to figure out who the oppressed workers were in the picture. This was a fight for special rights, not equal rights.

Likewise, union leaders can't resist reaching for the rhetoric of racism. Roger Toussaint shamelessly invoked the memories of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks in a desperate attempt to frame the debate with borrowed moral authority. Equating the effort to overturn unjust laws of the Jim Crow era to a refusal to accept a 10% pay raise only debases the real civil rights heroes of the past. When Mayor Bloomberg called the strikers cowards and thugs, the union was quick to call the mayor racist. All their mock indignation revealed was the extent to which unions always want to bring it back to race. They are living off the fumes of the 1960s.

There was a time when labor unions were engaged in a heroic battle to achieve basic rights and security for workers who were genuinely oppressed by big business. But the influence of organized crime on organized labor - captured in films like "On The Waterfront" - began to dilute their public support. In recent decades, periodic strikes hastened the shift of American manufacturing jobs overseas. Globalization represents a significant challenge to unions - they should be looking to organize in places where worker oppression still exists undiluted, like Communist China, rather than focusing on increasing unrealistic and unsupportable benefits in the United States.

Unions need to make a case for their continued relevance rooted in the realities of today. Maybe that's why the national transport workers union took the unusual step of refusing to support this local union's strike. They must have sensed the unreasonableness of this step and the broader damage it could do.

As final negotiations between the MTA and the Transport Workers continue with subway trains again rolling underneath our streets, work is not done.

Twenty-five years ago, after the last New York City transit strike, Ed Koch memorably said that "the city won the battle in the streets, but the MTA lost it at the bargaining table." Mindful of that past experience, we cannot allow history to repeat itself. The union must be made to understand that future strikes are not in their interest.

To this end, there should be no amnesty offered. Judge Jones of the New York Supreme Court imposed a $1 million dollar fine on the union for every day of an illegal strike. With $3 million dollars in their bank account, it is not a coincidence that the TWU decided to end their strike after three days. One more day and they would have to put their Upper West Side headquarters up for sale. No doubt, strike leaders hope that they can get away with shutting down the city, allowing bygones to be bygones after a bit of muscle-flexing. But forgiveness of fines would only encourage future strikes. We have seen that the feel-good labor deals of the past have a real cost we can't afford.

With the trains again running and the holiday season humming, the best present New York can give the nation is a new era of labor relations brought about because we were tougher than a transit strike.

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

John Avlon

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