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.