Home Transit Labor Musings on the transit strike five years later

Musings on the transit strike five years later

by Benjamin Kabak

In 2005, straphangers across the city had to contend with no subway service for three days. (Photo by flickr user JUgoretz)

December 2005 was supposed to be a banner month for the MTA. In an effort to live down the now-discredited claim about two sets of books that convicted felon and then-Comptroller Alan Hevesi had espoused two years earlier, the authority handed out discount fares to regular straphangers and tourists alike. The holiday fare program, deemed neither a success nor a failure, is a relic of a financially secure past, but the end of December in 2005 saw the city’s first transit strike in 25 years. We’re still living with the aftermath of that strike today.

December 22 — today — marks the five-year anniversary of the end of that transit strike, and then, as now, few people could tell you which side won. In 2005, the TWU claimed to be victorious. “In the face of an unprecedented media assault, the average New Yorker supported the TWU and blamed the MTA for the strike,” the union said in a statement. But leaders faced criminal sanctions, and the TWU lost its mandatory dues provisions. The union was the driving force of the strike and left the MTA with no alternatives. Today, current President John Samuelsen is trying to rebuild a union still awash in bitterness and in-fighting caused by fallout from the strike.

With history as our guide, we can see today how the strike and its impact is still felt in the way New Yorkers view the MTA, and perhaps the union was right. While few New Yorkers would say they supported the TWU’s efforts to lower the retirement age to 50 and the qualifying years to 20, most are still content to blame the MTA for the strike. At the time, riders expressed their disgust with the situation through obscene messages graffitied onto MTA signs, and when the strike ended, everyone just wanted to ride the rails again.

Currently, the MTA suffers from a credibility gap. Straphangers immediately assume that whatever the MTA is doing costs too much and takes too much time. The authority is beset by bureaucratic waste, and its attempt to make every dollar count have not led to an increasingly positive public perception. The MTA is far from the worst authority in New York state, and yet it has a reputation that proceeds it.

That reputation stems directly from the transit strike. For three days at the height of the holidays, the MTA and the TWU engaged in what can artfully be described as a pissing contest. The TWU knew its strike would not pass legal muster, and the MTA knew the public would not respond positively to three days without mass transit. Yet, the authority knew that it had to dig in on certain issues to keep costs down, and the TWU tried to make a stand. The public didn’t care who was right, who was right or what would benefit them in the end. They just wanted their subways back.

Today, the TWU is still bitter over the outcome of the strike, and current union leaders think their relationship with the MTA is at an all-time low. “If it was starting to change,” Samuelsen said of his union’s cooperation with the MTA, “Jay Walder’s coming to town has only intensified the average worker’s disdain for the MTA.” Only the TWU head could proclaim to hate his bosses and get away with it without explaining the why of it all.

The next few months could be telling ones for the MTA and the TWU. The union’s contract is up again, and after three years of doling out arbitration-awarded raises while its balance sheet went south, the MTA is prepared to toe a hard line. The authority doesn’t want labor costs to rise over the next two years, and in fact, the authority can’t afford to have labor costs rise over the next two years. Its leaders are prepared to toe a hard line over the next year.

And so five years after the transit strike ended, the city hasn’t progressed much. The MTA and TWU are still at odds, and labor relations might be even worse than they were in 2005. The riding public doesn’t care to apportion blame. They’re not sympathetic to the TWU’s cause, and they’re still skeptical of anything that comes out of MTA HQ. We won’t have another transit strike in the future, but these are rough times indeed for the MTA, for the TWU and for the seven million New Yorkers who rely upon New York City Transit to get around town everyday.

You may also like


Marty Barfowitz December 22, 2010 - 1:26 am

The congestion pricing debate convinced me that the TWU is the absolute dumbest of New York state’s public unions. There we had $350 million in federal money and a steady new revenue stream that was ALL going to go to supporting transit. Yet, the TWU couldn’t find it within themselves to support congestion pricing and mobilize for it in any meaningful way. I found that mind-boggling. The TWU’s leadership almost seems nihilistic. They somehow need to get it through their thick skulls that if the public hates the MTA then, ultimately, that is also bad for the people who work for the MTA. Ben is right. The TWU seems to believe that whatever they do, no matter how outrageous, idiotic and destructive, the public is always going to blame the MTA, not the union. Yet, when the system starts to go down the drain, it’s TWU workers getting laid off.

Nesta December 22, 2010 - 8:03 am

“That reputation stems directly from the transit strike” this sentence by you Ben is ridiculous! The MTA has EARNED the distrust of and hatred of the public well before 2005!

Benjamin Kabak December 22, 2010 - 8:47 am

Talk to people who lived through that transit strike, and they will go off on it. I think a lot — not all but a lot — of the ill will leftover from 2005 is why people distrust the MTA so much.

Ray December 22, 2010 - 8:13 am

Why no strike in the future? Seems the issues will only get more contentious as tech crashes head on with obsolescing labor roles. The fighting is guaranteed for at least a generation. One wonders how many more contract cycles remain before TWU is rendered irrelevant, by computer based train control, contactless fare systems, voice recognizing AI help lines, industrial robots (painting walls, cleaning floors and collecting refuse), whatever. The public will expect MTA managers to embrace the efficiency, service and reliability of the proven tech they readily find elsewhere. TWU workers need to prepare for the future, just like everyone else.

JK December 22, 2010 - 9:05 am

The ingredients are there for a strike in late 2011, when the TWU’s contract expires. Both sides leadership may believe a strike benefits them politically. Cuomo has called MTA dedicated funds “fungible,” and the state senate GOP majority wants to eliminate the suburban Payroll Mobility Tax. So, it looks likely that Jay Walder will have a big budget gap to fill — again. The TWU leadership is always under pressure to be as rabid as possible, and nothing shows street cred like a strike. But a strike maybe exactly what Cuomo and business interests want to provoke. There are going to be huge budget cuts in state government, and TWU will look unreasonable demanding raises in the face of mass layoffs of state employees.

Alon Levy December 22, 2010 - 10:15 am

One major difference from 2005 is that right now there are Western European countries with 40% youth unemployment.

Andrew D. Smith December 22, 2010 - 9:17 am

“Currently, the MTA suffers from a credibility gap. Straphangers immediately assume that whatever the MTA is doing costs too much and takes too much time.”

You always write as if this credibility gap is unwarranted, but it seems entirely fair to me. I have never read of a single metric by which the MTA could be considered world-class — or even in the ballpark — in terms of accomplishing anything quickly or cheaply. I do think things are getting better under Waldner, but there’s a long way to go.

“The MTA and TWU are still at odds, and labor relations might be even worse than they were in 2005.”

They will always be at odds if MTA management has any inclination whatever to serve the public. The greater its ambitions for improving public service, the more they will be at odds. Why? Because every worker wants ever more money for working ever less while the public benefits by changes that pay workers less to do more work. (There are limits on either side, of course. If the MTA lowered wages to zero, it would have no workers and thus the public would not benefit. If employees got $1m a year to sit a home, no one could ride the MTA and there’d be no money to pay promised salaries. But we’re really far from hitting either of those extremes so the two sides will fight it out.) Thus, more conflict with the TWA at least shows that mgt wants to improve things, even though conflict won’t necessarily help the public if it’s handled poorly.

One other note on this: One benefit of eliminating all the government subsidies to the MTA is that it limits how much the TWA can get. Excess demands that reduce ridership revenue can only hurt the TWA, which will limit demands. If, on the other hand, more funding comes from sources other than riders, then that money can be largely consumed by cagy bargaining that allows workers to take all the money without doing anything for it.

Al D December 22, 2010 - 9:50 am

Additionally, the strike was called at the peak of the holiday shopping/tourist season, AND during what were some of the coldest days of the years, colder than what we’re experiencing now. So, Roger Toussaint, here’s to you, SCROOGE. I recall that the strike backfired terribly on the TWU and they took more of a pounding than the MTA because really, they were attempting to preach to the choir, retirement at 50 and after 20 years of service. The average working person can only dream of such things and here goes SCROOGE, preventing the average worker from earning a living while insisting that, basically, the TWU are better than the rest of us.

To heck with you, TWU, and get a grip on reality.

Edward December 22, 2010 - 12:02 pm

By far the best comment on SAS this year!

John December 22, 2010 - 10:34 am

As annoying as the strike was (and I suspect the no-traffic-below-96th-Street edict served to exacerbate some of that anger from outer borough commuters) it still wasnt as bad as the 1966 strike, when a dying Michael Quill and incoming mayor John Lindsay got at loggerheads for two weeks, until Lindsay gave in, setting the stage for the massive run by other pubic service unions on the NYC treasury, and which eventually led to both the creation of the MTA in 1968 (in part because Lindsay wanted to bump the next round of union negotiations onto a willing Nelson Rockefeller’s shoulders) and to the city’s brush with bankruptcy in 1975.

If Andrew Cuomo actually does plan to make a stand against the wages, benefits and retirement plans of the public sector unions, the TWU make become the high-profile test case next year, barring a major turnaround in the state’s finances or a return to the 1960’s MTA mindset of offsetting higher wage and benefit costs via reductions in preventive maintenance spending. We all know how well that strategy turned out.

jj December 22, 2010 - 12:00 pm

The commuters lost in the short-term ,

but Toussant’s TWU stewardship will go down in history as one of the stupidest union officials of all time .

The MTA has always been a joke , so their reputation hardly suffered , as everyone thinks the worst of them anyway

Eric F. December 22, 2010 - 1:26 pm

This strikes me as a “pox on both your houses” post which is way too even handed. I had no idea until the strike that TWU members got to retire so early, and it really shocked me. I recall the Alice in Wonderland nature of the NPR coverage, making the claim that supporting the TWU was crucial because it enabled entry into the middle class for its workers. As if retiring in your 50s is something typical for middle class Americans! The TWU won and the insanity of gold plated public employee benefits continues. The MTA should be criticized, but for its lousy tactics and lack of spine, not for its contract stance.

Nathanael December 24, 2010 - 7:02 am

The NYC local of the TWU really doesn’t have a leg to stand on, and although I generally support unions, I really hope that they get shellacked, at least unless they sack their bosses in favor of ones who are willing to cooperate to improve the subway system.


Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy