Transit workers confront
New York City’s real ‘rats’
Unionists to Transit Authority:
‘Find the money’
Some 10,000 transit workers rally in Manhattan October 30. TWU members are fighting for their health benefits, for improved wages, and to end hated disciplinary system.
BY SETH DOBBINS
NEW YORK--Flanked by two giant inflatable rats representing the Transit Authority bosses, some 10,000 members of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 turned out in the rain for a rally and march here October 30 as part of their fight for a contract. They demanded improved health benefits, sick leave, and wages, as well as an end to an abusive disciplinary system. The current three-year contract, which covers 34,000 transit workers and 20,000 retirees, expires December 15.
In the face of claims by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and city officials that union demands can’t be met on account of the "budget deficit," TWU members responded defiantly, "Find the money!"
Blowing whistles and horns and beating drums in front of the Transit Authority’s headquarters in midtown Manhattan, the crowd responded enthusiastically to speeches by union officials with chants of "Second class no more!" Some 10,000 unionists took part in the rally.
Many workers interviewed at the rally said health care was one of the main issues in their fight. The union has accused the MTA, a state agency, of holding back money from the employer-funded Health Benefit Trust, saying it is already $30 million in the red and in danger of running out. In addition, the Transit Authority is demanding a medical plan with higher prescription costs, deductibles, and co-payments.
"I get prescription drugs and they want to take that away when I retire," said Sandy Olson, a train operator on the No. 1 subway line. "I think I’ve worked hard enough to get adequate medical coverage," said Olson, an 18-year union veteran.
Tony, who works as a mechanic on city buses, explained that the lack of prescription coverage for retirees effectively means that "you can’t retire."
Many signs in the rally read, "Five sick days are not enough."
A tollbooth operator who did not give her name reported that they are demanding 12 sick days a year. "We have to come to work sick just to feed our families," she said. She was also concerned that the current contract does not cover the cost of contraceptives as had been the case in previous years.
The MTA is pleading poverty, blaming the September 11 attacks and the declining economy for an alleged lack of funds.
A worker from the paint shop, Mike Matthews, however, pointed out that the MTA has 9,000 bosses and supervisory personnel, all with better health coverage than the workers.
Workers also expressed outrage at the extremely severe disciplinary system. "We call it the ‘guilty system,’" said Darryl Harrison, a conductor. Asked if this meant "guilty until proven innocent," he said, "No, it means you’re guilty, period."
Sheila Jack, also a conductor, said supervisors often take workers off the train arbitrarily to discipline them, and try to do so without the union rep being present.
In 2000, more than 16,000 disciplinary warnings were issued to this workforce of 34,000 people.
Speakers at the rally called on the MTA to provide child-care for union members. "I need child care now" was a popular sign.
The union is also fighting for improved wages. Several unionists at the rally pointed out that their wages and benefits are inferior to those of workers employed by the Metro North and Long Island Rail Road commuter lines.
For example, train operators for the city transit authority earn $24.35 an hour, while Metro North operators make $31.89. Workers in skilled trades such as sheet-metal workers, structural ironworkers and electricians earn $8 to $19 less per hour than the officially prevailing wage scale.
The Transit Authority has increasingly turned to contracting out work. It hires nonunion workers in many divisions, creating new job titles for similar work. These "non-represented" employees receive better pay and benefits than TWU members.
Show of force by cops
The New York City Police Department mobilized hundreds of cops to the rally, many in full riot gear and some on horseback or on motorcycles. They fenced in the transit workers and acted aggressively. The union had previously received a permit to march over to the offices of Gov. George Pataki for a second rally. But, as TWU Local 100 president Roger Toussaint reported to the assembled workers, the police revoked their march permit at the last minute, so they had to walk along the sidewalk to the second rally. Toussaint accused the cops of "intimidation."
The transit workers’ contract fight comes at a time when Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration is calling for "fiscal discipline"--that is, slashing public employees’ jobs and wages as well as city services in order to pay off the city’s debt to wealthy bondholders.
The MTA has announced a $663 million budget deficit for next year, and has suggested that it may seek to jack up subway and bus fares by 50 cents to $2.00.
TWU Local 100 has joined other organizations in a "Save the Fare" campaign to oppose the fare hike, rejecting attempts to pit transit workers against transit riders.
Paul Martin, whose job is fixing MTA stations, noted that the MTA had received $2 billion in government aid "because of 9-11. Where has all that money gone?" he asked. "It’s there."
Contract negotiations between the union and the Transit Authority began September 20. Since then, the union has been organizing a series of actions leading up to the December 15 expiration date. More than 5,000 transit workers rallied September 25 at the Brooklyn headquarters of New York City Transit, which is part of the MTA. On April 24 some 5,000 workers rallied to defend their health-care benefits.
The union was strengthened by a two-month-long strike last summer by 1,500 TWU members who operate buses in the borough of Queens for three private bus companies. The workers pushed back the city administration’s attempt to cut their medical benefits.
Threat of antilabor Taylor Law
The antilabor Taylor Law bars strikes by public employees in New York State. Nonetheless, dozens of workers at the October 30 rally carried signs reading, "First-class contract or strike," and several workers interviewed said they were prepared to strike if necessary to press their demands. Toussaint stated in September that "we will do everything possible to arrive at a contract on December 15, but we will not surrender our right to strike."
The big-business media has been cranking up its antiunion propaganda in response to the transit workers’ fight. The New York Post ran an editorial September 30 that sought to portray the transit workers as selfishly holding New York City commuters hostage for unreasonable demands. Citing the Taylor Law, the editorial claimed that "no such right [to strike] exists" and that if Toussaint "precipitates a strike he could--and certainly should--find himself in jail...and his members could--and certainly should--find themselves fined two days’ pay for every day on the picket lines."
MTA chairman Peter Kalikow, a real estate tycoon, also happens to be the former owner and publisher of the Post.
John Giambalvo, an emergency response road car inspector and 20-year member of the union, compared the threat of the Taylor Law with the federal government’s intervention against the West Coast longshore workers. In face of such threats, he emphasized the need for "solidarity among all the locals."
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