Archive for Transit Labor
Word from Albany on Friday that, pending State Senate approval, Tom Prendergast would become the next MTA CEO and Chairman came as little surprise. Prendergast had been a runner-up during the previous search for an agency head, and he has the experience and respect within New York City to lead the MTA. He is unlikely to leave on his own before his term runs out but faces a number of looming challenges.
Sitting atop the list is the status of the contract with the TWU. The MTA’s largest union has been without an agreement for nearly a year and a half, and the MTA budget currently assumes a net-zero wage increase. Still, on Friday, John Samuelsen’s team issued kind words for Prendergast. “It’s a good move by Governor Cuomo. Prendergast has vast knowledge of the system, and that’s really what the MTA needs – not a bean counter like Walder or a person with big financial and political connections like Lhota,” union spokesman Jim Gannon said. “We’ve always had a good working relationship with Prendergast, despite a few flare-ups here and there. But on the whole, everyone on this side of the table respects him.”
Despite the TWU’s conciliatory tone, Prendergast will not easily bend or break for the MTA simply cannot afford him to. In today’s Daily News, the newly-appointed MTA CEO and Chair spoke at length with Pete Donohue about a variety of issues facing the MTA, and labor issues took up a chunk of the discussion. In a nod to a long-standing issue, Prendergast spoke about one-person train operations or OPTO.
“There are some lines that are more conducive to one person train operation than others,” he said to the News. “There are some that are more conducive to OPTO only at certain times of the day, and there are some lines where you may never use OPTO. It’s not always about savings. It may be the savings are reinvested in other parts of the system. So, if for argument’s sake, you save (a certain number of conductor positions) and put them on platforms that are extremely crowded, and you have fewer people falling to the tracks, that’s a better utility of resources.”
Interestingly enough, Prendergast has also called for a rapid expansion of automatic train operations in order to boost line capacity. The TWU has pushed back on this issue over concerns that it could lead to zero-person train operations. All of this, furthermore, is a lot more than recent MTA heads have said on this hot-button issue and provides a glimpse into the MTA’s labor future. Prendergast, according to the article, will try to get OPTO on lines with lower ridership totals at first. The overnight R shuttle service into Bay Ridge could be a prime spot for such a test.
Meanwhile, in a nod to the union, Prendergast spoke about the need to reallocate employees and encourage worker flexibility. Prendergast wants to restore customer service agents as many of those red-vested employees lost their jobs during the 2010 service cuts. Prendergast noted that moving to OPTO could give the MTA the ability to restore some of these positions. He also discussed the concept of platform conductors — MTA employees tasked with crowd control at some of the more popular stations. It’s a nascent idea at best.
That’s the good stuff with regards to labor, but Prendergast hit upon some other issues in the interview as well. We’re in for a lot of service changes as the agency copes with Sandy damage. Vital equipment will have to be replaced sooner rather than later due to saltwater corrosion, and Prendergast warned of the system “be[ing] out of service at a more impactful level.” That fare hike scheduled for 2015 is still firmly on the table, and Prendergast is skeptical of recent calls for mayoral control of the MTA. “If you’re going to take the responsibility,” he said, “you have to have the funding to go along with it.”
Even as the MTA and TWU seemingly get nowhere in their ongoing labor negotiations, a few key issues have risen to the top of the agenda. While calls for unnecessary, costly and useless subway slowdowns have garnered headlines, issues concerning part-time employees have become contentions. The MTA wants to cut overtime pay by instituting part-time bus drivers while the TWU objects strenuously to such a plan.
Esme Deprez of Bloomberg breaks down the conflict:
The biggest U.S. transit agency’s proposal to use part-time bus drivers to cut costs is one of the most contentious points in contract talks now in their second year with its largest bargaining unit. The plan is part of a package of measures, including three years of no wage increases, that union leaders hope to derail when they send hundreds of workers to swarm the offices of lawmakers in Albany next month.
Leaders of Transport Workers Union Local 100 say allowing an army of part-time drivers would shrink paychecks, threaten public safety and harm the economic stability of families. “There’s no such thing as a part-time family or a part- time mortgage,” said Jim Gannon, a TWU spokesman. “If some schmuck wants to work part-time, go get a job at Best Buy.”
…Mass transit, especially in metropolitan areas, requires the most vehicles and workers during morning and evening rush hours to meet demand. Work rules that the MTA calls “outdated” require eight-hour shifts. During midday lulls, workers are often paid even when they’re not driving. Shifts lasting more than eight hours can’t be broken up between multiple employees, forcing the MTA to pay one worker overtime to do the whole thing. One bus driver with a base pay of $55,994 in 2009 more than doubled his take-home with $70,473 in overtime pay, according to a 2010 audit by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
In 2010, overtime cost the MTA $560 million for the extra wages, or 13 percent of payroll, the equivalent of employing an extra 7,000 full-time workers, according to the authority. This year, it budgeted $506 million. Toll and fare increases that take effect in March are expected to bring in only $450 million a year.
The TWU has framed the debate in terms of both job security and safety. It’s tougher for union members to make ends meet with only one job if some members are working only part-time jobs, and union leaders allege that part-time workers will not “abide by agency policy requiring approval of outside employment and sufficient rest between shifts.”
The MTA, meanwhile, says shifting some bus drivers to part-time status could save $13 million annually. It’s a small amount in the grand scheme of the MTA’s budget but would both represent work-rule reform and highlight a serious commitment to shaving labor dollars. Right now, though, the issue is just lingering — as are the overall contract negotiations — until some middle ground can be found. As usual, without real labor reform that goes well beyond full- and part-time distinctions, riders will pay, one way or another.
When the TWU’s contract expired on Monday, January 16, 2012, it seemed as though the MTA and its largest union would figure out a way to resolve the situation amicably. After all, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had appointed Joe Lhota to head up the MTA with an eye toward the contract negotiations, and both state and union officials were optimistic of a short stand-off.
Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. Here we are, 13 months later, with no end in sight. Joe Lhota didn’t move the ball too far, and the TWU rejected one of his more generous proposals last fall. Now, the former MTA head is involved in a campaign for the Republican mayoral candidacy, and the MTA has had no full-time Chairman/CEO for 50 days and counting. If Gov. Cuomo even knows there’s an absence to fill, I’d be a bit surprised.
Today, we learn from The Post that the two sides haven’t talked in three months. To make matters worse, the two sides can’t agree on why they haven’t spoken since November. Jennifer Fermino reports:
The 35,000-member strong Transport Workers Union Local 100 — which has been without a contract for over a year — claims the MTA has refused to negotiate since ex-chairman Joseph Lhota quit to run for mayor. “We have informed the MTA that we are fully prepared to continue bargaining,” the TWU said in a contract update to its members.” They responded that they won’t be ready to come back to the table until after Gov. Cuomo appoints, and the State Senate confirms, a new chair of the agency.”
It’s unclear when that will be. Cuomo has not named a successor to Lhota. But MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz called the TWU’s claims “pure fiction.” An agency official blamed said the TWU refused to schedule time to come to the table. The MTA has continued contract talks with other workers unions, the official said.
According to Fermino, the TWU had previously rejected an offer that would have guaranteed a four-percent raise spread out over five years but with other givebacks as well. A Metro-North union had rejected a similar contract, and in the full statement available on the union’s website, TWU officials claim rejecting such an offer strengthens their position. I’m not so sure it’s as cut and dry as that, but I know one thing: Riders are going to suffer.
As the union makes abundantly clear in its statement, it will not accept “big work-rule givebacks and huge out of pocket increases in the cost of medical benefits.” Additionally, as the union made clear, its recent focus on subway platform safety is a not-so-veiled attempt at promoting its own ends rather than true concern with public safety. In both cases — through higher wages and greater pension obligations or through slower, less effective and more costly train service — the public loses.
It’s hard to say what’s going to happen over the next few months. Andrew Cuomo will eventually appoint someone to head up the MTA, and that someone will eventually have to address the TWU’s contract. But even the best-case scenario probably means a late March or early April confirmation date for the next MTA CEO. Meanwhile, the concerns of the riders, as always, are being ignored, if not pushed aside entirely, and transit offerings will suffer because of it.
Every organization has an end-game. It’s the goal an organization most wants to achieve no matter the costs, and the goal such groups go about pushing directly or indirectly. Right now, the Transport Workers Union Local 100 has two end-games: Leaders want to push the MTA toward a contract solution 13 months after the last three-year deal expired, and they want to ensure that union jobs are maximized.
Enter the great — and terrible — train slowdown idea. As you, dear reader, are well aware, the TWU has latched onto two high-profile subway murders to proclaim an epidemic that doesn’t exist. Despite the odds stacked overwhelmingly against anyone who’s at least showing one iota of care getting struck my a subway train — let alone killed — the TWU has made this their cause du jour. In part to protect union members how suffer the heavy psychological toll when trains they are driving strike someone and in part to get into the papers, the TWU has been promoting a call to slow trains down to 10 miles per hour as they enter stations.
The costs of these slowdowns are well documented. Streetsblog determined the economics of such a move could cost the city over $1 billion annually, and the MTA says a slowdown would add 13 minutes to a 2 train ride from 241st St. to Times Square. In other words, a 50-minute ride would take over an hour, and New Yorkers, who seem to support a slowdown without thinking too much about it, would be a singing a different tune within days.
As this debate has played out, I’ve come to both despise its existence and ponder the effectiveness of the TWU’s campaign. Not known for being particularly media savvy, the TWU has created a call that politicians and the vaunted People-On-The-Street can support without so much as a thought. I’ve been left wonder what’s the TWU’s end-game, and recent comments by the union on Twitter and its leaders at last week’s City Council hearing have me inching toward an answer.
Gothamist’s Ben Yakas has a very thorough report on the TWU’s take on the issue. In speaking with Yakas, TWU officials used particularly strident language to describe something that happens, give or take, to one out of every 10.8 million riders — and a third of time intentionally so. “We’re trying to snap the Transit Authority out of their unconscious state about it, from just ignoring it,” TWU VP Kevin Harrington, ignoring the fact that the MTA isn’t ignoring platform safety, said. “[Change is] going to have to come from the riders, because the Transit Authority is inured to doing anything by years of ignoring the issue. They dont think it’s an issue. They’re just stonewalling until it goes away.”
TWU President John Samuelsen used even more over-the-top language than that. Calling riding the subways “Russian Roulette,” he said the MTA’s claims that slowing down trains would cause overcrowding are false because the MTA could just add more trains: “The truth of the matter is, they have the ability to add capacity in rush hour situations. That’s an economic choice on their part, and a political choice on their part. They can do it. The question for them becomes: is it worth adding capacity to save three [subway] incidents a week. And to save an avalanche of fatalities over the course of a year? So the question for the company is, do we add service, and stop the daily game of Russian Roulette on the station platforms, with folks getting killed on the platforms, or do we add capacity to stop the deaths?”
Never mind the fact that slowing trains down would actually limit the number of trains per hour that could move through the tunnels and never mind the fact that we’d all be getting to work, school and play a lot slower than before. Let’s instead focus on what Samuelsen wants: He wants more trains on the rails. Why? Because more trains lead to more jobs.
Stephen Smith from Market Urbanism picked up this thread on Twitter on Thursday and suggested that that the MTA could implement OPTO as a solution to this pickle. It would lead to more trains but the same number of jobs, and all of a sudden, the TWU had no answer. “No OPTO [is] needed if the point is to provide more service,” the union said via Twitter.
So is this really about customer safety or is this about finding ways to increase the number of trains on the rails and thus the number of jobs to be had? The cynic in me is leaning toward the latter, and I must say that it’s a brilliant PR move by the union. It has politicians and riders advocating against their own interests to push for a measure that would lead to more union members working more train shifts. It’s a brilliant marketing move and a terrible operations policy.
The City Council’s Transportation Committee is in full-fledged oversight mode today. Even as “no criminality” remains the norm for the daily pedestrian deaths caused by drivers, the committee has decided to hold an emergency hearing on subway platform safety. With 54 deaths out of 1.6 billion riders, this is only a problem due to a pair of recent high-profile incidents. It’s always tragic when someone gets hit by a train, but in terms of pressing problems, this is not one of them.
Still, the show must go on. As the MTA embarks on a new public awareness campaign and eyes subway track sensor technology, the TWU has continued to push for slow trains. Preying on outsized public fears and stoking the flames of general unease with subway platforms, union members — including one dressed as the Grim Reaper — will be distributing the MetroCards you see above and at right this afternoon at some Lower Manhattan subway stations. It is not, by any means, a calm or rational approach to discussing the problem (if there’s even a problem).
As the cards show, the TWU wants three things. It wants trains to slow to a crawl while entering stations. Even at 10 miles per hour though, a huge subway train can do considerable damage to someone who jumps or falls in front of it. Additionally, the dollar cost of such a slowdown would be quite significant, and the MTA says slower trains would seriously reduce travel times and system capacity, leading to dangerous overcrowding.
Second, the TWU wants eyes on the platforms. I can’t disagree with this even if it is a blatant ploy for more jobs for union members. When I pass through Times Square each morning, MTA workers are on the IRT platforms making sure people are safely entering and exiting trains. No harm can come from watchful eyes as long as they are doing their work and contributing to safety.
Third, the TWU wants an emergency power shut-off in station booths. I struggle to see why this is a bad idea. As long as proper protocols are put into place, the only issue I can see concerns the amount of time it would take to power back up. I’m not familiar enough with the technical details of power delivery to the third track to go in depth on this request.
So two of the TWU’s three requests seem sensible, but the first one is obscuring the others. They’ve managed to turn slower trains into some mindworm that Transportation Committee Chairman James Vacca has whole-heartedly embraced, and their public statements are either misleading or misinformed. In defending their bloody MetroCards, a TWU spokesman called slower trains “a quick, easy and no-cost solution” when it is clearly not a quick or no-cost solution.
I believe the union has turned this into such a public matter due to the state of its current contract. Negotiations are stalled until the MTA has a permanent head, and it’s been nearly 13 months since the last agreement expired. But cooler heads should prevail. A train slowdown just isn’t the right answer, and neither is incessant fearmongering.
As I briefly mentioned on Monday afternoon, in response to two recent high-profile 12-9 incidents, the Transport Workers Union Local 100 had mulled issuing a slowdown order, urging TOs to crawl into subway stations. Tonight, more details of the order emerged, and the MTA responded forcefully, citing the Taylor Law. As we near the one-year anniversary of the expiration of the last TWU contract, accusations of politicking are in the air.
The TWU poster [pdf] that has gone up throughout the system hit the Internet tonight, and it urges TOs to enter stations with “extra care.” It says, “Whether someone jumped, fell or was pushed in front of the train, more than 150 T/Os have had to deal with the after-effects of their train hitting someone on the tracks. None of the 150-plus 12-9s were caused by improper operation by any T/O. However, we might prevent some 12-9s by coming into stations more slowly.”
But how slow is “slowly”? Pretty slowly. “In the interest of safety, enter every station as if there is a pair of yellow lanterns at the entrance,” the sign says. “Slow down, blow your horn, and proceed with caution. Preventing a 12-9, and saving yourself the emotional trauma and potential loss of income that go with it, is worth a few extra minutes on your trip. If you are asked where you lost your time, say you were operating safely to prevent 12-9s.” The double yellow lantern essentially means the trains would head into stations at around 10 miles per hour, well below current accepted speeds of 25-30 miles per hour. Such a rate would slow down operations significantly.
The MTA, meanwhile, responded forcefully. As Pete Donohue reported, MTA officials believed the TWU was simply acting, in part, to draw attention to its current contract negotiations. “Any slowdowns in the system which results from this concerted union activity may be considered a job action,” Christopher Johnson, Transit’s V.P. of Labor Relations, said to The Daily News.
In a subsequent statement, the agency elaborated: “Some of the actions the [TWU is] recommending, if implemented, would result in even more hazardous conditions due to overcrowding on platforms and onboard trains. There are other, more effective ways of making the system safer than slowing down train service and we are committed to working towards them.”
Transit officials explained the impact of any potential slowdown to The Wall Street Journal:
Slowing one train on its way into a station has the effect of slowing all the trains behind it in the system, MTA spokesman Charles Seaton said. The backups that would result from requiring every train to slow down significantly at each station would mean fewer train trips every day, Mr. Seaton said, reducing the efficiency of the subway system, which moves about 5 million passengers a day.
And with many subway lines already operating over or near capacity at morning and evening rush hours, reducing the trains’ speed would likely lead to increased crowding on station platforms. That condition already raises safety concerns on the oldest and narrowest station platforms in the system.
“It would certainly make it a lot more difficult to get on board trains, and platforms would be much more crowded,” said Mr. Seaton, who added that MTA officials hadn’t noticed drivers abiding by the slow-down order as of Monday afternoon.
There is no doubt that these train/person accidents create lasting psychological problems for the T/Os. Matt Flegenheimer adroitly profiled those issues in a Times article earlier this week. But these slowdowns are simply unnecessary. There are, as Market Urbanism’s Stephen Smith noted on Twitter, no subway systems in the world that mandate station approaches at such slow speeds, and such a move would negatively impact operations.
So the labor battle continues, as it has for a year. This is the first potential TWU action since Joe Lhota, a leader TWU head John Samuelsen seemingly respected, departed the MTA. It likely won’t be the last until and unless a new contract is in place. And so we wait.
As the region’s transit network struggles to regain its footing now ten days after Sandy swept through the area, the MTA and TWU are squaring off over employee pay for the hurricane days. With the transit network down last week, few New Yorkers could get to work, according to a missing from TWU President John Samuelsen, the MTA promised to pay workers who could not get to their jobs on October 29 and 30. Now though, Samuelsen alleges that the MTA is reneging on its deal.
In a statement, the TWU head had some harsh words for his Transit counterparts.
Today the MTA reneged on the agreement they made with TWU Local 100. They have thoroughly demonstrated that their word means nothing, and that they do not know the meaning of good faith.
In some departments, we were outright told to stay home with pay for Monday and Tuesday. We were not given the option of coming into work. In every department, we were prevented from getting into work because of the decision of the Governor to shut the system down. The decision was not ours and we should not have to bear the cost.
By this decision, management shows what they truly think of the round the clock effort we have made to get the bus and subway system back running after Hurricane Sandy. They show how little respect they have for their workforce. During the hurricane, and then during the mammoth effort to restore service, the MTA praised local 100 for the incredibly difficult work we performed. But actions speak louder than words, and we must never forget this assault on our paychecks. Every worker at the TA, OA and MTA Bus should remember this when asked to make an extra effort “for the good of the service”. Unfortunately, the MTA does not deserve our “extra effort”.
New York City Transit President Thomas Prendergast though had a different take on the matter. Transit has promised to pay everyone who came to work and those who could not as long as the latter group phoned in to explain their absence. In the much the same way that you or I must call my supervisors if I can’t make it to work, so too did Transit expect their workers to do. “If someone never called in, never let us know what they were going to do, and never came into work, we’re not going to pay them,” Prendergast said to The Daily News. Transit officials do not want to set a precedent of paying workers who “shirk[ed] their responsibilities” during the storm because it could lead future employees to do the same during the next emergency.
Don’t forget: It’s now been nearly 11 full months since the last TWU contract expired, and labor negotiations have no been progressing quickly or steadily. This is but the latest salvo in a key battle over the MTA’s short- and long-term budgetary future.
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.
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.
For months now, the MTA and TWU Local 100 — its largest union — have been coexisting in a steady state of unease. TWU members have been working without a contract since mid-January, and MTA CEO and Chairman Joseph J. Lhota has been working with TWU President John Samuelsen, in private, to hammer out a deal. After vowing to keep negotiations out of the press, though, Samuelsen broke that vow in a big way yesterday while bringing the issue of one-person train operations back into the open.
The details are sketchy, but apparently, the MTA recently broached the topic of OPTO with the TWU. In response, Samuelsen and, for some reason, two reverends from Brooklyn took to Huffington Post to voice their objections. While also speaking out against part-time bus drivers, Samuelsen voiced his objections to OPTO on the same old grounds we’ve been hearing for years:
While the MTA currently uses OPTO on shuttles and on the G train during nights and weekends, these trains only use four cars when in operation. Expanding OPTO to full length trains increases the risks to passengers while they are entering or exiting the trains, greatly raises the difficulties and hazards involved if a train has to be evacuated, and makes it harder for a passenger who needs assistance to get it. This is especially important at a time when crime on the subways is rising. We believe that the presence of uniformed conductors on our trains is vital for the safety and assistance of passengers, especially in our full-length trains.
In response, the MTA had nothing to say. Lhota offered up a statement while taking a shot at the union: “Unlike John, I’m going to honor my promise not to negotiate in the press.” I don’t blame him; penning an open letter and publishing it to the Huffington Post isn’t only a trite cliche but a rather public statement. But at least it gives us a glimpse into the negotiations, and it appears as though the MTA is at least trying to exact work-rule changes that most sensible transit agencies adopted years ago.
And what of Samuelsen’s arguments? First, let’s do away with his appeal to rising crime rates. The numbers are going up because people’s gadgets are getting lifted at a higher rate. With a strong sense of safety, straphangers are more willing to play it faster and looser with high-priced electronics than they should, and petty thieves can snatch and grap. No amount of on-train personnel will change that.
His other arguments are an appeal to personal fear. If a train has to be evacuated, having one person on board makes it that much harder. Of course, that’s true, but how often do trains have to be evacuated? The last time a train ran into such an emergency was during the blizzard of December 2010, and even then, having a train conductor and a train operator did little to get customers out of the system any faster. It’s a spurious argument at best and one that can be dismissed with a simple cost-benefit analysis. The cost of employing two people on every single train the MTA runs far outweighs the minor benefits of one extra person during an extremely rare evacuation.
And so we are left at an impasse. The MTA wants to enact a net-zero wage increase when this TWU contract is eventually renewed, and the TWU wants more jobs and more money for its employed union members. OPTO has been a sticking point for the better part of a decade, but it’s also a future that New York needs. A mess of public negotiating though doesn’t help anyone.