Archive for Transit Labor
Here in New York City, the idea of a driverless train seems like a fantasy. After all, our subways have not one but two people responsible for operations, and any suggestion that trains could operate with one — let alone zero — operators seems laughably futuristic and far-fetched. Of course, within the city, the JFK AirTrain operates automatically, and numerous international subways runs safely with one driver or fewer.
So why can’t American transit agencies embrace driverless trains? The answer isn’t really a secret: Work rules along with aggressive and often misleading public campaigns have led to entrenched and redundant jobs. Management hasn’t adequately embraced one-person train operations or even driverless trains as a cost saving measure, and the upfront capital costs are a barrier to a rapid rollout of such a technology. It’s a perfect storm of mitigating factors, and it’s going to become an issue as transit agency labor costs continue to climb.
Yesterday at The Atlantic Cities site, Stephen Smith from Market Urbanism tackled this very issue. After providing an overview of the international scene and other failed U.S. attempts at reform, he levied his sights on New York City:
And New York? Fuggedaboutit. Upgrades to Paris’s Métro have proven that retrofitting century-old subways for driverless operation is possible (and arguably safety-enhancing, with platform screen doors installed at stations that restrict access to the tracks until a train is safely docked and aligned), and Glasgow’s subway, which predates New York’s by almost a decade, is only five years away from driverless capabilities.
New York’s subway, on the other hand, hasn’t even advanced to the 20th century in terms of labor-saving efficiencies, never mind the 21st. Almost all of the subway’s trains have two paid employees on board at all times, long after other rapid transit systems around the country folded driving and door operation into one job. The city has slowly been winning concessions from its drivers union toward so-called “one-person train operation” and other efficiency measures, but it’s starting from a low base.
New York is an outlier in labor intransigence, but public sector transit unions are a potent force in setting transit agendas in American cities – more so than in Europe and Asia, where high ridership creates a large and wealthy rider constituency to demand efficiency and counteract the political power of transit unions.
I believe Smith’s analysis doesn’t dive deep enough here into a few underlying issues. The first is a problem of management. The MTA hasn’t aggressively pushed OPTO or driverless trains as a cost-saving measure. If the option is between losing frequent subway service or losing an employee on the train, the choice is an easy one. Unfortunately, considering the MTA’s track record with both costs and on-time delivery, it’s tough to see an OPTO treatment happening any time soon at any reasonable price.
Second, the TWU is firmly entrenched against any cutbacks in onboard staffing levels. They take advantage of public fears over safety and the supposed impossibility of such train operations while relying on the fact that New Yorkers have a very limited knowledge of the way things work elsewhere. I don’t expect the unions to support anything that eliminates over 600 jobs at peak hours, and the issue hasn’t even come up in recent negotiations.
Finally, transit ridership isn’t a constituency demanding efficiency. Perhaps this has to do with the city’s love-hate relationships with its subway system spurred on by uneven and misleading coverage of transit politics and economics. Perhaps it comes from the passable-to-decrepit appearance of the subway system that doesn’t inspire confidence. Whatever the cause, subway riders are agitating only for no fare hikes and more service but not for efficiency measures.
Smith thinks it’s only a matter of time. “The only question is,” he writes, “will riders demand it in time to actually improve service, or will transit agencies hold out until they’re forced to use it to save existing service from cuts?” Considering the lead time for deployment, if it isn’t the former, the latter may be a struggle.
As the MTA and TWU enter month six since their previous contract expired, negotiations have been awfully silent for a while. MTA Chairman Joe Lhota brough that out in the open today though with a forcefully worded piece in the pages of The Post today in which he calls upon the TWU to make some sacrifices. After years of streamlining operations, he writes, it’s time for the TWU to give back as well.
It’s not yet common knowledge, but the agency is in an era of cost-containment and -control unlike anything in its history — as even a quick glance at the MTA’s financial statement reveals. Annual expense reductions in the operating budget — that is, savings that recur year after year — totaled about $700 million in 2011 and will grow to $890 million in 2015. That’s 11 percent of our discretionary operating budget.
How did we do it? We eliminated more than 3,500 positions, including 20 percent of our headquarters staff. We renegotiated vendor contracts. We froze wages for all non-union employees. We rebid employee health care. We reduced unnecessary overtime and consolidated redundant functions. The list goes on and on . . . and this work is far from over. In 2012 and beyond, we’ll continue to slash costs while looking for creative ways to bring in revenue…
All the while — during a time of unprecedented cost-cutting at the MTA, and as our nondiscretionary costs spiral out of control — binding arbitration has required that members of our largest labor union get pay hikes of 4 percent in 2009, 4 percent in 2010 and 3 percent in 2011. That’s a whopping 11 percent over the last three years, at a time when New York City’s cost-of-living index rose 4.6 percent.
Managers and non-union workers haven’t been so lucky. They got 0 percent in 2009, 0 percent in 2010 and 0 percent in 2011. Today, these public servants have gone four years without so much as a cost-of-living increase. That’s why the MTA is asking its unionized workforce, during its current contract talks, to forego raises for the next three years.
Labor, writes Lhota, should be “a part of the solution.”
On Twitter, TWU Local 100 called Lhota’s piece “outrageous” but didn’t offer up much more. I’m not surprised they don’t see eye-to-eye with the Chairman, but he makes a very compelling case indeed. At a time when non-unionized workers haven’t seen a raise in nearly half a decade and the MTA is clearly at risk of a brain drain of talented workers, everyone has to pay somehow.
Back in October, the L train made some headlines when the MTA promised service increases. With communications-based train control on tap, Transit knew it could respond to complaints of overcrowding once the technology is ready, and in October, the agency issued a 14-month timeline. Things, it seems, are moving quickly.
As Newsday reports today, the MTA will roll out massive service improvements along the L this weekend. “The MTA will add nearly 100 trains each week along the L line starting Sunday, providing much-needed service for the route, which has seen sardine-like conditions for more than a decade,” Marc Beja reports. “Starting this weekend, 16 additional round trips will run each weekday, 11 more will go on Saturdays and another seven on Sundays, an MTA spokesman said.”
The service increase will cost around $1.7 million annually and should help significantly alleviate the L train’s crush capacity problems. “This is not going to be the silver bullet, but this is real good news for L train riders,” State Senator Daniel Squadron, who has long fought for more frequent L service, said. “Anyone tired of the crushing crowds and overflowing trains will now have an L train trip less likely to feel like hell.” I’m not sure what other silver bullet Squadron wants, and this will be welcome news for L riders.
As the TWU and MTA continue to operate without a contract, authority chairman Joseph Lhota took aim at benefits costs yesterday during a hearing with the New York State Senate Transportation Committee. As Pete Donohue recounts, Lhota noted that these costs are “spiral[ling] out of control.” He said, “In fact, but for mandated increases in pension and health care costs, we would not need the 2013 fare increase,” Lhota said.
In response, TWU President John Samuelsen blamed the MTA’s “mismanagement of construction projects,” but mismanagement here isn’t the right word. Perhaps mis-funding is as debt costs have increased the MTA’s operations obligations to the detriment of investment in subway service. Either way the fares are going up 7.5 percent next year.
The truth of course is in the middle. The MTA has turned into an organization funding pension and health care costs for retired workers for years, and these obligations have exerted a tremendous pressure on the operating budget. No one in Albany seems to willing to confront this issue however and the costs continue to mount.
Over the past few years, some high-profile incidents aboard city buses has led to an increased attention on Transit worker safety. Oftentimes, these rank-and-file employees bear the brunt of rider frustrations, and assaults have remained a problem and concern. In fact, assaults are up by nearly 20 percent this year, and earlier this week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Transit Watch, an MTA-funded program that will reward anyone with information of such an assault with $2000.
“Thousands of men and women work on the front lines of the MTA system every day to make sure millions of people can get to work safely,” Governor Cuomo said. “We need to ensure they stay safe as well. Transit Watch puts criminals on notice that if they assault a bus, subway or train employee, everyone who sees it happen is going to help put them in jail.”
Union leaders immediately praised the move. “This is a big win for transit workers, who face physical assaults, verbal abuse and threats every day on the job, and who have long felt that transit assaults are given a low priority,” TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen said in a statement. “We very much appreciate Governor Cuomo’s immediate action to turn a good idea into reality virtually overnight.” The MTA, which is working on a plan to install safety partitions and security cameras in buses across the city, will begin promoting the new reward program soon.
Four months ago nearly to the day, the MTA’s current agreement with the Transport Workers Union Local 100 expired, and since mid-January, the bulk of the authority’s workforce has been working without a contract. News from the labor negotiations has basically dried up, and the two sides are at a public impasse. With the potential for arbitration always lurking, recently developments have once again made me entirely wary of the process.
As the TWU/MTA stare-down continues, a minor arbitration award involving ATU workers could send some economic shockwaves heading our way while also offering an opportunity to disrupt the current negotiations. The award, issued earlier this week, concerns the period from Jan. 2009-Jan. 2012, the same three years covered by the crippling arbitration award issued for the TWU a few years back. Pete Donohue had a brief piece on the award which covers a few thousand bus drivers:
More than 3,000 MTA bus drivers and other workers will get 11% raises under a contract awarded by an arbitration panel.
The panel essentially gave the workers, represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union, the same deal 34,000 Transport Workers Union Local 100 members employed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority won in arbitration three years ago. The ATU pact retroactively covers the period from January 2009 to this January.
The panel, in a 2-to-1 vote, said the MTA can afford the raises by tapping reserves, money slated for capital construction projects or savings from low interest rates. “While using some of these sources may be more difficult than others, the fact is that sources to pay the increase do exist,” the decision states.
For those interested in the entire decision, the 37-page explanation along with a short dissent is available here as a PDF, but Donohue’s summary is the point. Essentially, in a 2-1 decision, George Nicolau relied heavily on the decision authored a few years ago in the TWU case by John Zuccotti to reward the ATU with a retroactive raise. He spent pages talking about the arbitration request, a rather literal interpretation of the Taylor Law and the MTA’s current financial state. It’s one giant mess.
Essentially, Nicolau determined that “the public interest” is better off if the MTA takes some of its cash reserves that would normally go to cover weather emergencies and budget deficits that crop up over the year to give raises at a time when few other employees seeing their earnings increase. At worst, this pushes the MTA’s finances ever closer to a steeper fare hike; at best, it provides more ammo in an ongoing labor war.
The dissent was in fact highly critical of the award. “It casts a blind eye towards the catastrophic impacts that this devastating recession has imposed on the public,” Anita Miller, arbitrator and MTA Director of Labor Relations, wrote. “There is no balance in this Award between the expectations of the represented employees and the interests of the public. All of the undisputed intervening economic realities have been rendered essentially irrelevant in the minds of the majority. It simply is unfair to the public, which has already suffered through unprecedented service reductions and which is facing another fare increase in 2013.”
At this point, the award itself is what it is, but the whole process in which arbitrators ignore current economic conditions to find some justification for a wage increase serves as a reminder not to rush headlong into the abyss. The ATU feels empowered by their victory and so too does the TWU. “The panel sharply disagreed with the MTA’s cupboard-is-bare argument, asserting that the Authority could tap reserves, money slated for capital construction projects, and get savings from low interest rates through debt refinancing,” the larger union said. “Funny, these are just the points that TWU Local 100 has been making in our ongoing negotiations.”
Maybe the cupboard isn’t bare yet, but what it’s emptied, the people left footing the bill are the riders who don’t want to pay more and need the system to live, work and play in New York City. What public interests are being served here exactly anyway?
Every now and then, high-profile incidents involving a transit worker on one side and a disgruntled and crazy rider on the other make the headlines. We’ve seen a bus driver murdered and other workers assaulted. Even outside of a crime — which carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years — transit workers often bear the brunt of the irate public. They are yelled at and spit upon. One State Senator now wants transit workers to be better prepared for the abuse, but his suggestion is, well, a bit extreme.
As The Daily News reported today. Sen. Eric Adams of Brooklyn wants to arm transit workers with tasers, something most rank-and-file cops aren’t even permitted to carry in New York City. The TWU rushed to embrace this measure. “Equipping and training our members to responsibly use Tasers will end the assaults that are currently plaguing our members,” union head John Samuelsen said. “Additionally, it will act as a strong deterrent against crime against our riders on the buses and trains.”
Adams’ bill has rightfully languished in committee for a while, but he is amending it to allow bus drivers to carry tasers as well. In response, the TWU, reports Pete Donohue, will be featuring the bill at an upcoming conference on transit worker safety. But does this really sound like a good idea or just a political talking point? Giving cops tasers is generally a recipe for trouble; I can’t imagine how straphangers would feel with thousands of armed transit workers carrying these things.
The NYPD and the MTA, however, are not buying it, and can you blame them? “The MTA makes protecting our transit personnel a top priority in everything we do,” MTA chief Joe Lhota said. “However, the proposed legislation is the wrong way to go about protecting MTA employees. Asking them to carry weapons would cross the line into law enforcement, a function that is best left to the NYPD.”
During yesterday’s discussion on subway stations we love to hate, a few readers mentioned narrow platforms as a major concern. At rush hour, some stations simply cannot handle the crowds, and lately, the MTA has dealt with a spate of accidents, some fatal, at 72nd St. and Broadway, an express stop home of a very narrow platform. John Samuelsen has a solution.
The TWU boss, in an letter to Joe Lhota which The Daily News obtained, calls upon the MTA to bring more employees to oversee platforms at crowded or dangerous stations. The authority has reduced these so-called station conductors from 100 to 40 over the past five years, and they could restore some order. “The platform is so narrow that if a person slips or trips there is a good chance they will be hit by an approaching train or fall onto the tracks,” he wrote.
Samuelsen might be onto something, but I wonder if he would accept my proposal: Bring aboard more station conductors by changing the job responsibilities of station agents to include platform duty during peak hours. This way, the MTA wouldn’t have to spend money it doesn’t have on staffing levels while at the same time, the authority would be developing a more productive work force. It would be a win for the MTA, a win for passengers and a win for the union as well.
As the MTA and TWU amble their way toward some sort of settlement over their current contract dispute, dissent may be brewing from within the Local 100 ranks. As Ted Mann of The Wall Street Journal reports today, Roger Toussaint, the erstwhile leader of the city’s TWU local and the man responsible for the 2005 transit strike, is back on the scene, and he has been aggressive in targeting John Samuelsen’s current approach to negotiations. “The issue is not if they have the [money],” Toussaint said to The Journal. “It’s about getting it from them. And you have to have a real strategy to do that. You can’t just make it up as you go along and hope that no one notices.”
After losing an election to Samuelsen in 2009, Toussaint had faded from the scene, and in fact, he had moved down to D.C. for a few years. Within the past few months, when Samuelsen refused to threaten a strike, Toussaint moved back to Brooklyn to resume his track-shop job with the MTA, and many believe he is angling for a spot atop the leadership structure at Local 100. Toussaint in his interview with Mann slams Samuelsen for his approach toward negotiation. He wants a hardline, and he wants the MTA leadership to hear that even as they continue to threaten a net-zero wage increase.
For his part, Samuelsen shrugged off Toussaint’s words and presence. “Roger couldn’t mobilize 20 members to do anything after the 2005 strike,” Samuelsen said. “He couldn’t mobilize a bunch of kindergarten kids to get online to get cookies and milk, and yet he finds fit to criticize our mobilization in the last year.” Still, the former president’s militant tone, in light of the TWU’s embrace of the Occupy Wall Street movement, must have current TWU leadership watching their political backs.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen first-hand the impact unfunded pension obligations can have on municipal economies. Across our state, cities are borrowing from pension plans to pay current pension obligations, and the entire retiree benefits structure is starting to resemble a pyramid scheme.
In essence, then, an organization with obligations to future retirees can choose one of two avenues: They can sacrifice the future to pay off costs now or they can attempt to build for those future obligations while paring down services today. After years of pursuing the first avenue, the MTA appears to be on the second course, but now TWU members looking to reclaim their old jobs (and argue for increased service as well) want the authority to forego fiscal sanity for more money today.
Here’s the TWU’s essential argument: The MTA has recognized that it will one day have $12 billion in retiree benefits and health care costs to pay out, and the agency has begun to set aside some money in a fund for those future obligations. The fund has grown in spurts over the past decade, but it now totals $500 million. The TWU, in a flyer and at MTA Board meeting protests, says the authority should use this money to increase worker salaries and restore service cuts.
Yesterday, Occupy Wall Street representatives and TWU officials railed on the MTA Board for what amounts to a semblance of fiscal responsibility. “The transit workers serve the 99 percent,” Tony Murphy, a member of Occupy for Jobs, said. “It is beyond ludicrous for the M.T.A. to claim a retirees fund as an excuse to deny justice to the transit workers.”
With some TWU members calling for the return of station agents — a dubious idea considering the jump in ridership last year even as station agent staffing levels decreased — union officials toed a hard line. “Enough is enough,” Maurice Jenkins, a TWU Local 100 vice president, said. “Utilize the GASB funds.”
The MTA had other thoughts on the matter. “We are doing everything we can to work with the fragile budget conditions that we have,” MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota said. “Their reference to money that’s squired away to pay for retiree health care—we have a $13.2 billion unfunded liability, of which we have put against it $470 million. It’s nowhere near enough. It’s a problem, and we need to continue to fund the funds so that we can make sure that the retiree benefits are there when the retirees of the MTA need it.”
Another Board member echoed Lhota’s take. “You’re essentially borrowing money that actuarially you’re told that you need to have to protect people’s benefits in the future,” Allen Cappelli said. “So it’s not a fiscally prudent thing to do. It’s the kind of practice that gets government agencies into trouble. And then if you run into a crisis and you don’t have the money, then you’ve got to raise fairs and cut services, and we’re trying to avoid that kind of instability.”
Now, I don’t begrudge the TWU for searching for ways to secure raises for their members; that’s what a good union is supposed to do. But while most unions are willing to sacrifice their future members for the current staff, here, the TWU is concerned with current payments without keeping an eye on what they have coming to them in the future. The MTA is, for worse, saddled with high levels of future obligations thanks to a low retirement age and a generous benefits package. Union members can’t enjoy those luxuries while asking the MTA to tap into a fund to pay those benefits now. If so, the losers will be the fare-paying public who will be saddled with these costs one way or another.