It’s been over nine months since the most recent TWU contract with the MTA expired, and except for some fits and starts, word of negotiations have been largely silent. Partly, that’s because MTA head Joe Lhota vowed not to conduct discussion through the media, and party, that’s because the two sides haven’t been meeting too frequently. According to recent reports, although Lhota and TWU President John Samuelsen have an open phone line, the two have met only around 15 times over the past year.
As the MTA pushes for a net-zero wage increase — a huge assumption underlying their most recent budget projections — The Wall Street Journal clues us into other goings-on at the union. In an article that appeared in Saturday’s paper, Journal reporter Ted Mann notes that internal union politics may be playing a role in the long, slow negotiations. Essentially, with union leadership elections fast approaching, speculation from certain corners of the TWU is that Samuelsen wants to shore up his position before accepting a contract with labor concessions.
Here’s Mann’s take:
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its largest union on Friday held contract talks for the 15th time this year, an unusually slow pace that has prompted criticism of the labor organization’s president. The MTA has prodded John Samuelsen, the president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100, to come to the table more often, according to correspondence reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. And Mr. Samuelsen’s internal union critics have seized on the speed of negotiations as a sign that he is putting off a contract full of painful concessions until after a union election in December.
Mr. Samuelsen defended his approach, saying the union is hamstrung by the effects of an unpopular 2005 strike that gutted its finances and crippled its organizing power. A more aggressive posture—with the threat of a strike in play—wouldn’t work, he said. “This union is simply not organizationally prepared to strike,” Mr. Samuelsen said. A strike is “off the table, not forever, but it’s off the table.”
Mr. Samuelsen’s union critics haven’t advocated a strike but said he is being too conciliatory with the MTA as it tries to extract concessions that would result in no net pay increase for workers. “If it’s the case that the [union] administration has planned its contract strategy around its elections, then everybody should be angry about that,” said Joseph Campbell, Mr. Samuelsen’s leading opponent for control of Local 100, which represents more than 35,000 MTA workers.
In a sense, Mann’s report allowed Campbell to take a very public stand in attacking current union leadership. Campbell, a Roger Toussaint ally, questions Samuelsen’s willingness to push the MTA to the brink. He fears that the net-zero wage increase, or something close to it, will come to pass and clearly wants a more strident union leadership. “Traditionally, TWU has been one of the most militant unions, and that’s why we’re respected in the city among the unions,” he said. “Right now, we don’t see ourselves in that position.”
Samuelsen has defended his position even as he has routinely canceled planned negotiating sessions with the MTA brass. “Yes, this is a new course for Local 100,” the current president said to The Journal. “But we’ve never been in a massive economic downturn, and so shortly after a strike that devastated the fortunes of the TWU.”
It is, ultimately, tough for us to know what’s happening. The union elections loom large, and Samuelsen could be playing the waiting game on a bad deal. He may also be trying to outlast the MTA and push the agency toward arbitration again. That outcome, though, is less than desirable for the MTA — which lost big at a hearing three years ago — or the TWU which would be putting its fate into the hands of an unknown. And so we keep on waiting for a contract that will have ramifications for all of us.