While news from the transit world has trickled to a crawl during the cold, snowy days of winter, all eyes have shifted to the east where a labor dispute is playing out that could have ramifications that echo from Montauk to Manhattan to Manitou. With the Long Island Rail Road’s largest union creeping toward a strike and MTA CEO Tom Prendergast’s warning of a huge fare hike if the MTA can’t fulfill its net-zero labor dreams, the next few months could be more important for the MTA’s future than most straphangers realize.
When we last saw this tale, Prendergast had just issued his warning. If the MTA has to grant wage increases to all of its unions without any hope of work rule reform, the fares will go up. It’s the only way the MTA can cover these increased costs, the MTA Chairman has stressed. It’s not a new line from the man who sits in that role, but it’s one inching ever closer to reality. Meanwhile, the MTA and the UTU are living in an era in which the first Presidential Emergency Board determined that the MTA could pay for raises with endless Pay-As-You-Go payments and the MTA’s never-ending ability to borrow more money. Welcome to fantasyland.
So this week, the politicking and maneuvering picked up a bit with a bunch of members of Congress urging the MTA to avoid a strike. Their argument relied on the same one put forward by the PEB without a nod to the MTA’s financial reality. Here’s the Daily News’ take:
Twelve members of New York’s Congressional delegation urged the MTA to soften its hard-line wage freeze stance as a March 21 strike date loomed for Long Island Rail Road workers. In a two-page letter Wednesday to Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Tom Prendergast, the lawmakers called for MTA officials to rethink their position despite what they called the agency’s “past financial stresses.” “We urge the MTA to reconsider its insistence on a wage freeze or concessions to fully pay for wage increases,” read the letter from the office of Rep. Steve Israel (D-L.I.)…
In the letter, Israel and his fellow lawmakers argued for the MTA to return to the bargaining table by pointing out that the presidential panel found the authority could afford to pay for a rise for LIRR workers. The letter, which was signed by all four Long Island Congress members and most of those from New York City, quoted the panel’s argument that “it simply cannot be concluded that the MTA’s current financial position is one in which it is unable to pay for wage adjustments.”
But in speaking at an Albany hearing last month, Prendergast raised the possibility of a 12% fare hike for 2015 if all contract-less MTA workers received raises like those recommended for LIRR employees. Prendergast predicted “dire consequences” — including the possibility of a $2.75 subway ride, up 25 cents, and a $125 unlimited monthly MetroCard, up from the current $112.
To avoid a strike, the MTA will request a second PEB meditation, and the UTU will not be able to walk off the job until late June. There’s no indication that the MTA will accept anything other than a finding favorable to the agency, and it’s possible that they’ll push the issue until the end. The public wouldn’t be happy with a strike, but the LIRR is one railroad that should be pushing for labor reforms. Meanwhile, I’d dispute the stance that the MTA has a “hard-line wage freeze stance.” They’ll willing to grant a wage increase as long as work-rule reform comes with it.
Still, the larger issue here is the fact that of the MTA’s 60 unions, 59 of them are working without a contract. The TWU is agitating for raises too, and if the UTU earns its contract, the other labor unions will push for a similar resolution. At that point, the increased costs of labor — which do not factor into the MTA’s rather optimistic budgets — will fall on the shoulders of the riders. Should the MTA grant wages if everyone else has to pay more? Should work rule reform follow a bump in salary? The answers to these questions will set the tone for the MTA’s economic structure for the foreseeable future.