Over the last few months, the MTA’s generally tenuous relationship with its union workers — and in particular, the Transport Workers Union — has become strained, and it’s starting to fray. The trouble started when an arbitration panel awarded the TWU 11 percent in raises over the next three years, and although the process was called “binding arbitration,” the MTA could legally appeal the decision on certain grounds. When the agency opted for this path, labor peace started to deteriorate, and things are slowly coming to a head.
We start first with a non-TWU story and with a follow up to last week’s tragic accident that left a pedestrian dead after getting struck by a bus while he was cross the street. On Tuesday, I reported that this bus driver had been suspended for texting behind the wheel. Protests by the Amalgamated Transit Union, though, led to a simple suspension.
Yesterday, the Daily News added a shocking twist to this sad story. The driver had been posting nasty notes about passengers on his Facebook page. According to the report, these notes were about “killing, committing suicide and beating people.” Now, the MTA Inspector General Barry Kluger has initiated a probe to find out why Transit did not initiate a psychological evaluation of Jeremy Philhower and why the agency faced such fierce resistance when they it tried to dismiss this driver. This accident — seemingly avoidable — should lead to a change in the way these cases are handled by both the unions and the MTA.
Next, we arrive at an Op-Ed by Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute. She takes the MTA to task for its role the TWU arbitration process:
Arbitration likely was a ruse, although we don’t know for sure. We can guess that neither Gov. Paterson nor the MTA thought that awarding huge raises would fly publicly, especially when the MTA needed a multibillion-dollar bailout.
But nobody wanted to annoy the TWU. It seems likely that the arbitrators were brought in to insulate the pols from public anger. Just two weeks ago, Paterson maintained this fiction, saying that, though “we don’t have the money,” the arbitrators “probably made the correct ruling technically.”
And the MTA wasn’t exactly careful, on behalf of the taxpayers, to assure a pristine process. It was almost unbelievably outrageous, as we learned long after the fact, that the “indepen dent” arbitrator on the three-man panel — former Deputy Mayor John Zuccotti, who represented the public — agreed, with the MTA’s support, to fork over his $116,000 “fee” to a TWU-controlled charity.
That is, the MTA used a supposedly independent process to wash a payment back to its “adversary” in the arbitration.
Gelinas calls for the state legislature to fix the way the MTA negotiates with its unions. She wants to see an end to what she terms “backroom deals,” and she wants the authority, going through some lean economic times, to be able to exert pressure on the unions to get more out of their workers. The politics of Gelinas’ Manhattan Institute may be more to the right than those of many New Yorkers, but she raises some questions here for the MTA that need to be aired.
Finally, with the MTA Board set to meet next Wednesday, the TWU will host another Day of Outrage protest in front of MTA headquarters. Meanwhile, the Union has appealed to the U.N.’s International Labor Organization in an effort to get New York State’s anti-strike Taylor Law repealed. Although the United Nation’s labor commission has no binding authority over New York state law, a statement against the Taylor could, in the words of one labor expert, “influence decisions by local lawmakers.”
I get the sense that, if the law allowed them to do so, the city’s transit unions would be on the verge of a strike. As the MTA’s appeal continues, as cost-cutting measures come into play, these labor wars will only grow more acrimonious.