The transit discussion in New York this week have largely focused on fare hikes. Yet again, riders are being asked to pony up more for the same subway service so that the MTA can cover its outstanding obligations — including pension and benefits for retirees and debt assumed for capital projects. The riders aren’t alone though; over the past few years, the MTA has frozen salaries for non-union employees, cut its workforce and engaged in some serious internal cost-cutting.
There is more to be done though. The TWU, the MTA’s largest union, is currently without a contract, and Joe Lhota is toeing a hard line on wage increases. After salary bumps in the previous two contracts that far outpaced inflation and wage increases in the private sector over the past seven years, Lhota is vowing a net-zero increase in labor costs. In other words, if the union secures a wage increase, the MTA will once again start laying off workers. It’s all part of sharing the fiscal pain.
Today, Newsday, a paper from the bastion of ill will directed at the MTA, took the time to opine on the current fiscal happenings at the authority. It’s a balanced piece that asks the MTA to do more with internal reform. The paper writes:
If approved, the scheduled fare increase would be the MTA’s fourth in five years. The MTA’s board has little choice but to sign off on the fare hikes, already part of the budget, as a way to keep the system in good repair day after day. But riders must be given something of value in return, such as fundamental reforms to operations and labor contracts that ultimately will result in savings in the years to come…
A gigantic unknown for the MTA, its customers and its employees at the moment is the upcoming bargaining talks with the Transport Workers Union . The encouraging news is that MTA chairman Joseph Lhota knows his agency has no choice but to make its dollars go further than they’re currently going. As contract negotiations loom, Lhota has budgeted precisely $0.00 for raises that don’t entail money-saving changes in work rules — and good for him. Beyond work-rule changes, the MTA needs to streamline operations and consider selling off excess property.
The legislature enacted a partial rollback of the MTA payroll tax, but that’s as far as it should go. A legal challenge to the remaining part of the tax, which was successful in a lower court, is likely to fail on appeal, as it should. With recession-battered commuters at the breaking point, the MTA is taking a creative new approach. It’s something like this: workers, managers and riders making shared sacrifices along the way — to keep the system rolling. This week, riders learned what their part of the bill might look like. It isn’t pretty. Lhota must squeeze excess from management, and the unions need to step up. It’s hard to imagine anything else working.
From Long Island, we have a newspaper noting that the payroll tax needs to stand for economic reasons and will stand for legal reasons. But we also have a voice in the wilderness calling for real labor reform. Work rules aren’t sexy and don’t draw headlines, but they, as much as anything else, are responsible for the MTA’s fiscal ship leaning askew. Lhota’s ability to exact concessions from the union will determine the MTA’s future just as much as the looming fare hike will.