As the MTA has dealt with a budget deficit of $751 million this year, the authority has asked everyone to chip in. The agency is enacting nearly $100 million in service cuts to the city’s bus and subway network at the end of June; it plans to layoff numerous employees, some unionized and some not; it’s also searching high and low for new ways to cut administrative costs. With fare hikes seemingly off the table until 2011 and no more service cuts coming our way, the MTA’s ability to cover its deficit without a new source of revenue remains tenuous at best.
This week, the MTA unveiled plans to layoff even more workers come Independence Day. According to a report in The Times today, the authority will axe 550 employees who work on buses. Those pink slips will be handed out on June 27th when the city loses dozens of bus routes. Another 120 subway car inspectors will be fired as well.
Union officials, of course, spoke out against the cuts. John Samuelsen, head of TWU Local 100, said that his union will “not  be blackmailed into allowing Jay Walder and MTA management to gut our contract.” Implicit in that statement is the belief that the MTA wouldn’t fire these workers if the TWU gave up the raises it has earned that will cost the MTA nearly $100 million this year.
Samuelsen instead would prefer to see the MTA shift stimulus funds to cover the operating deficit, and in an extensive interview with Streetsblog’s Ben Fried yesterday, he said as much. Walder and the MTA were given a billion dollars in federal stimulus money in 2009. Out of that billion dollars they could have used roughly $100 million to pay down the service cuts and to use for the operating budget,” he said. “So Walder, who had that money in the bank, and probably still has that money in the bank, refused to use that $100 million, and instead enacted $93 million in cuts across the board, Long Island Railroad, Metro North, and New York City Transit, and MTA bus.”
When asked by Streetsblog what he is doing in Albany with the power of the union to help the MTA, he spoke about forcing Walder to spend: “One thing we’ve done is we’re working on a bill in Albany that’s being carried by Joan Millman in the Assembly, and by Bill Perkins in the Senate, that will force the MTA to use 30 million of that available 100 million. It’s essentially the state legislature directing Jay Walder to use available funds that he has in order to stop the service cuts.”
Yet, Samuelsen is missing the forest for the trees. Will $30 million taken from the capital budget — the underfunded capital budget that supports numerous jobs throughout the state — make a difference in the MTA’s bottom line? That $30 million represents less than 5 percent of the agency’s overall deficit, the MTA would still be enacting service cuts and layoffs. Throwing a cup of water on a fire won’t stop the flames.
Meanwhile, Samuelsen is using his labor clout to push a bill that would “put a two year moratorium on any kind of service cut that the MTA proposes that could have a potential negative impact on rider safety in the subway.” Who will fund this measure, I wonder? The answer: Without more service, the MTA will have to enact higher fares.
While the TWU seems to be exploring legal options to restore the money the state stole from the MTA toward the end of 2009, the union is in no hurry to support revenue-generating proposals. When it comes to congestion pricing, Samuelsen said, “there’s a recognition by the union that we don’t want to hurt middle or working class people that have to drive their cars into Manhattan, or small business owners. But there’s also a recognition on our part that that’s an excellent funding mechanism for mass transit, and that it’s green, it’s good for the economy. And we’re down with that. So we’re still debating that amongst ourselves, what our exact position is going to be on that.”
The debate should be over. The only middle or working class people or small business owners who drive to Manhattan on a regular basis are those who can afford to pass the costs of congestion fee onto their customers. Plumbers, delivery men and other service-based drivers will simply up their costs while enjoying higher productivity due to decreased production. The overwhelming number of middle or working class New Yorkers simply do not drive into Manhattan on a daily basis, and most don’t own cars to begin with. The strawman should not defeat common sense.
In a way, it’s not surprising to see this reaction from Samuelsen. His number one priority is to defend his union members and their jobs. I’d be surprised if he weren’t trying to force through legislation that mandates the MTA to keep workers in stations, but at the same time, he has to recognize reality: The MTA is broke and staffs at levels that are far higher than necessary. We don’t need two-person teams running trains; we don’t need a person at every station entrance 24 hours a day. We don’t need antiquated work rules.
What we need is flexibility and a willingness to bend in the face of an unprecedented economic crisis. While I’ll be living with reduced service in two months, what will the union do with its political power? What will it give up?