When I wrote up some thoughts in advance of Friday’s “emergency” MTA Board meeting on time-and-attendance issues, I cast the blame for the MTA’s skyrocketing overtime costs on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s shoulders. After all, it’s via his own Subway Action Plan that caps on overtime were lifted, and it’s via his own Subway Action Plan that management, based on a directive from the governor himself, is sparing no expense in repairing the subway.
Other than Larry Schwartz, Cuomo’s hand-picked MTA Board enforcer, very few people at the meeting on Friday seemed to disagree. What I didn’t quite expect was a pubic blow-up between the labor faction on the MTA Board and the Cuomo faction with the transportation professionals caught in the middle. What started out as a ill-advised stunt by Schwartz due to a few bad headlines that would have blown over in time has exploded into an all-out war of words between MTA labor unions and Cuomo’s handpicked MTA appointees. Set against the backdrop of looming labor negotiations, it’s tough to say how this boiling dispute will play out, but it seems clear that at least between labor and Larry Schwartz or labor and Pat Foye, battle lines have been drawn.
To recap briefly: The meeting started out as I expected it to. Schwartz, an MTA Board member since 2015 and head of the Finance Committee since September 2016, began with a laundry list of specific cases of egregious overtime going back to 2010 when Andrew Cuomo was New York’s Attorney General. Schwartz, as Finance Committee chair, receives overtime reports on a monthly basis and why he waited until headlines started rolling in to raise the issue is a good question. He ended his diatribe with a call for an independent outside assessment of MTA overtime practices, and nearly immediately he faced significant pushback. A few Board members seemed to nod to his his idea, but Polly Trottenberg, in particular, objected to more outside consultant-like spending. The union reps were apoplectic.
Vincent Tessitore, the LIRR labor rep, went first. You just pointed fingers at every single MTA worker our system,” he said, blaming management for requiring more overtime. “Do you think our workers want to stay overnight? No, and when they want to leave, they’re ordered to stay overnight…I’m embarrassed for this board right now…You can’t call the[ workers] out like that.”
Norman Brown pushed a similar line. “If you don’t want them to work overtime,” he said to Cuomo’s MTA Board reps, “then don’t ask them to work overtime…Who do you think are going to be responsible for implementing all the genius ideas the Deans of the Engineering Schools and Alix Partners comes up with?”
But John Samuelsen, the former head of TWU Local 100 and current president of TWU International, spared few words, calling the increase in overtime a “management problem.” To Schwartz he said, “You’ve been on the Board for four years. What have you been doing?”
If you’re so inclined, you can watch Samuelsen’s epic rant in full. He was livid. “This is all high theater. This is all nonsense,” he astutely summarized at one point.
The most telling bits from Samuelsen’s comments were on a proposal for the MTA to use biometric devices to track time and attendance: “We’re going to get overtime to maintain the biometric devices in a state of good repair, and you’re going to come back to the board and say ‘There’s fraud in overtime maintaining the biometric devices.'”
Finally, he shifted his attention to the Subway Action Plan — which MTA CFO Bob Foran, NYC Transit President Andy Byford and a slew of other MTA management types correctly fingered as the key driver of overtime increases over the past two years. “The MTA came to the TWU and asked the TWU to lift the overtime caps. The company needed so much work done that they came to us and bargained to remove the caps,” he said. To raise these issues now, he continued, “that’s outrageous. Do they even realize how outrageous this is?”
After these fireworks, the finger-pointing continued for a while, but the animosity in the room was palpable. Most MTA Board members seemed hesitant to embrace yet another consultant agreement, but after the Board meeting, Pat Foye sided with Larry Schwartz (i.e., Andrew Cuomo). “I support the MTA proceeding with retaining special counsel to conduct an investigation of the timekeeping and attendance systems of the MTA and overtime abuse. We owe the taxpayers and our customers an explanation of how some have abused the system and ensure it never happens again,” the new MTA CEO and Chair said in a statement.
TWU Local 100 President Tony Utano put out his own statement: “The MTA already spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on outside consultants – more than $2.1 billion over the last five years! But Foye and Board Member Lawrence Schwartz will spare no expense blaming workers for their mismanagement. Workers don’t assign themselves overtime or write their own paychecks. Management does. Foye and Schwartz know that but are trying to pull of a Trump-like distraction. The MTA board should reject this farce of a proposal.”
Now, on the one hand, this is a lot of posturing, and the TWU made sure not to name Cuomo in their statements both during the Board meeting and in press releases over the weekend. After all, as recently as September, the TWU and Cuomo were buddy-buddy with the union providing a lot of support for the governor in his primary fight, and as recently as a few weeks ago, the TWU was instrumental in supporting Cuomo’s congestion pricing push.
Could the relationship have soured this quickly through a few missteps by Cuomo’s guys atop the MTA? It’s possible it could have. The press around overtime spending has been clear to point out that Cuomo approved the LIRR labor contracts that led to a few examples of egregious overtime use and that Cuomo pushed the Subway Action Plan. Cuomo can’t hide from those headlines, but he may use them to foist concessions on the unions during negotiations this year. Or he may be using Schwartz and Foye as fall guys so he can ride to the rescue with the promise of labor peace. It’s happened that way before, though Cuomo’s comments on Sunday during which he accused workers of theft and fraud crosses a line the governor hasn’t crossed before.
The main problems as I see it now are two-fold. First, Cuomo, via Larry Schwartz, has torpedoed morale among the rank-and-file at the MTA. Morale had already been low for a variety of reasons, including Cuomo’s heavy-handed management style, but now his hand-picked Board members are painting a workforce of tens of thousands in broad brush strokes thanks in part to a de minimis number of bad apples. In fact, Foye identified only five cases of outright fraud concerning overtime, which is notable for agency with over 74,000 employees.
The second main problem concerns overtime reform itself. The MTA needs overtime reform. The agency relies too heavily on overtime for too much work, and management doesn’t have a good handle on controlling overtime or rationing it properly. Overtime accounting — which working hours count for OT — often means that weekends, which is when most work needs to happen, count for overtime from the get-go, and thus, a 55-hour weekend work period means overtime pay for every single worker involved in the weekend shifts. Thus, overtime just grows and grows and grows. (For a very deep dive on the need to reform overtime and the roles both management and labor can play in that reform effort, I urge you to read this post published Sunday from The LIRR Today.)
Ultimately, what we saw on Friday shouldn’t have been allowed to happen. It was a careless move, thoughtlessly executed by Larry Schwartz, and one that throw a bomb into the already-delicate relationship between the MTA Board and labor with management left to pick up the pieces (and, as the agency heads did, mend fences with the rank-and-file). This isn’t reform by any means, and if this scorched-Earth approach is one that Cuomo plans to take with no regard for outcome or process, things may only get messier before someone serious about MTA reform takes over.