Home Transit LaborTWU Remembering the 2005 transit strike

Remembering the 2005 transit strike

by Benjamin Kabak

During the 2005 transit strike, the MTA had to chain off the entire subway system. (Photo by flickr user h-bomb)

It’s now been 15 days the TWU’s current contract with the MTA expired. In the intervening two weeks, the two sides have gone through the public spectacle of negotiations with one side — the TWU — walking away for a few days in dramatic fashion and the other leaking some demands. As John Samuelsen and Joe Lhota work to find a resolution, the union president says he won’t rule out a strike, but a peaceful resolution is the more likely path toward a new labor pact.

For New Yorkers, even the talk of a transit strike is enough to send us back to those cold three days in 2005 when the subways did not run. Just over six years ago, the TWU, defying the law, did indeed strike, and New Yorkers were left without subway service as Christmas neared. As I was for New York’s defining moments of the first decade of the 21st Century, I missed the transit strike. I was in D.C. that week, not due back in New York for a few more days, and by the time I returned to the city, the strike was over. Today, I want to revisis that strike.

Those days in December were heady times for the MTA and the TWU. Concerned with out-year budget projections of steep deficits, the MTA wanted to cut labor costs. In order to restrain pension spending, the authority proposed pension cuts and called upon the TWU to allow conductors to walk through train cars. It was viewed by many as another step along the path toward conductorless cars, and the union balked.

The city began to prepare for a costly strike as negotiations dragged on, and even though the TWU rank and file authorized a strike, analysts were skeptical. Such a strike would, many said, be in violation of the Taylor Law, and the leadership would be risking a lot by leading a strike. The city, meanwhile, was preparing to throw the book at anyone who struck illegally.

As business owners tried to arrange alternate transportation for their workers, the MTA continued to enjoy a December of cut rates. That winter, you may recall, the authority used an end-of-year surplus to offer $1 rides for all pay-per-ride straphangers. It all came to head on December 20, though, as union leadership decided to strike after failing to reach an agreement with the MTA.

With temperatures in the upper 20s, straphangers had to battle the elements and massive crowds as cab share plans were initiated and car trips into Manhattan were carefully limited. A state judge levied massive fines against the TWU as an organization and against its leadership personally for the strike. The Times called it an “unnecessary strike.”

On Day Two of the strike, New Yorkers grew weary. Traffic marred the streets while many simply worked from home. It was a cold winter day for tourists, shoppers, business people and families who could not escape the confines of their neighborhood, and Judge Theodore T. Jones threatened then-TWU President Roger Toussaint with jail time over the strike. On the third day, after 60 excruciating hours, the strike ended. State mediators had convinced the two sides to work toward a deal, and the MTA seemed willing to grant generous raises while dropping demands to raise the retirement age from 55 to 62. The TWU seemed willing to take an increase in pension contributions as well.

Across the city, businesses bemoaned the losses with lost revenue estimated at half a billion dollars. Roger Toussaint faced a short jail sentence, and the union lost its ability for automatic dues check-offs. Eventually, leadership agreed not to authority illegal strikes in exchange for the restoration of that right, but it took the TWU a few years to recover from that strike.

Today, as the MTA is demanding a net-zero labor increase, and the union wants some small raise in its contract, the two sides are at different places than they were six years ago. The union seemingly recognizes the MTA’s financial situation, and the MTA will hold a firm line while keeping dialogue moving forward. The last strike was a reminder of how reliant the city is on its subway system, and while, with no deal in place, the vague threat hovers above the negotiations, I doubt we’ll see a repeat of 2005 any time soon.

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26 comments

Ramiro January 30, 2012 - 12:27 am

A strike would be costly and in my opinion it would be the last stake in the TWU. The TWU has a very poor image with the average rider, and this would make them even more of a villian. As it is, the governor is not in any mood to grant any increases in wages or pensions and this would just make him more motivated in seeking cuts if they did strike.

On a sidenote, I remember that one of my finals had to be canceled for college, and I was forced to take it in the middle of January. No need to say I wasn’t pleased with that strike.

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Links roundup—extended transit edition (with subway food bans, subway love stories & Twitter transit data) « Public Authorities January 30, 2012 - 9:11 am

[…] Remembering the MTA’s 2005 transit strike. [2nd Ave. Sagas] […]

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TWUMember March 22, 2012 - 7:02 am

@UESider, Your post was written as someone who clearly does not know what they are talking about.

To begin, the fare increase was imposed by the MTA, not the TWU. In fact, the TWU lobbied heavily AGAINST the increase. We never want an increase in the fare. Why? One main reason is hundreds of misinformed people such as yourself blame the first person they see, which is almost always a TWU member, claiming we raised their fare.

Second, I can’t speak for any other member, but I can guarantee you, I personally work VERY hard at my job. I am a Bus Operator in Manhattan. I work on average anywhere between 9-14 hours per day, driving up and down busy city streets, dodging taxi cabs, avoiding careless, inattentive pedestrians, helping passengers that may require my assistance, and then fielding complaints from people asking why my bus was late, why they had to wait so long, why is there so much traffic, why are you driving so slow, why are you so stupid, the complaints never end. Buses are late and run slowly due to traffic, foolish, inattentive people that feel in front of a bus is an appropriate location to have a cell phone conversation, cabs that feel their fare is more important than the lives of the people on the bus they just cut off, and antiquated schedules that were based on traffic and passenger counts from 40-50 years ago.

Most of the complaints are indeed legitimate, however many are turned into personal attacks because the operator happens to be the first person they see. Some become assault cases. ALL go unanswered because they were directed at the wrong person. We (operators) have ZERO control over those circumstances. The MTA does, but they choose not to exercise it because they aren’t receiving those complaints. We are, and there is nothing we can do about it.

All of this occurs, and I still have to pay full attention to my job, to get every single person that I carry to their destination safely, which, rest assured, is NOT as easy as you, the comfortable rider, may believe. I take great pride in my job. I am honestly happy when I carry a great deal of people to where they need to be safely and in a timely fashion.

On to the money wasting. You think the money the MTA has is wasted on labor? What about excess supervision positions? Paper waste? Unnecessary depot renaming? Installing hundreds of LED signs on the sides of buses to sell advertisements, just to cancel it two months later because it was finally determined that the signs were too bright and therefore unsafe for operation? (They never bothered to have a test run)

We should be fired for striking? Should we also be jailed, tortured and shot? The right to organize is one recognized by the Federal Government. In fact, the NYS Taylor Law was originally designed to PROTECT workers, but morphed into a law which held them hostage. Lest it be known, the MTA was the first to violate the Taylor Law by attempting to negotiate pensions (which is illegal under that law) BEFORE we struck. Why was MTA not penalized $1,000,000/day for that? Why didn’t the people that brought that to the table get penalized one day’s pay per day plus fines for proposing it, the way TWU did for striking as a direct result of it? See if you can come up with a legitimate answer to that.

Finally, I actually complain very little about my job. It is highly stressful, and I normally just choose not to talk about it at all, but I felt a strong need to here. I do make decent money, but I earn it, so I feel I have the right to. As should any employee that works hard at their job. The difference is the MTA can hold the public hostage, and they take advantage of that. That’s why it’s so widely publicized. Why not attack those high office bankers/financial institutions making millions of dollars for robbing people? Or attack Citigroup for the thousands of people they made lose money while they themselves grew richer by knowingly buying bad investments and flipping them to unknowing investors? Or Exxon Mobil for merging and making record profits, while gas prices grew to $2, $3, $4, and nearly $5/gallon during a national financial crisis when people were being laid off by the tens of thousands? Because they are protected by special interests, lobbyists, and even our own government, but the news would rather attack TWU because we don’t have the money to contribute like those companies do. But we do have a union that protects us, and if it weren’t for that, the transit system would be even worse off than it is now, as difficult as you may find that to believe. There would be countless more accidents, injuries and deaths because the company pushes workers to drive faster so they can shorten runs and pay less in wages. (Which, by the way, is already happening. Doesn’t your commute seem a little longer in the past few years? TWU didn’t make that decision. MTA did. “Budget cuts.”)

I do apologize for the lengthy post, but I had to get everything off my chest. I opted to speak up here because you are clearly only seeing one side of the picture. I sincerely hope in the future you can appreciate the hard work we do, and get all sides of a story before voicing your opinion.

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kantor March 22, 2012 - 7:32 pm

Well, I totally agree; but it’s no use for you since I am European…:) It is funny how people in NY are so engrossed by the (minimal in comparison) grafting of the TWU and rarely think that the average Wall Street grifter pays less in taxes (in relative terms of course) than a bus driver..

And of course they lash out at the “occupy whatever” people for consorting with the TWU people.. it’s all really funny when you see it from afar..

(Of course the TWU proposal of raiding his own pension funda is absolutely fracking nonsense….)

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petey January 30, 2012 - 10:48 am

again and again in 2005 the public didn’t follow the script: roving reporters would interview the discomfited (including yrs truly) to find many of them in sympathy with the strikers. they understood that it was in the interest of everyone that someone stand up against the corporate/media/rightwing rhetoric demanding working class givebacks. (“The Times called it an “unnecessary strike.” “. well, yes, they would.) the membership, as often, was ahead of the leadership, realizing what was really afoot and rejecting the offer. it had to be forced a second time to be swallowed.

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Hank January 30, 2012 - 11:04 am

At a time when most people don’t even know what a pension is, our gov’ts are going broke, and when the rest of us have to work until 70, I don’t think the people will be as sympathetic to the TWU’s rent-seeking behavior as you might imagine.

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DF January 30, 2012 - 8:48 pm

The gov is broke because tax cuts

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Hank January 31, 2012 - 10:05 am

In part, but also because of the unparalleled growth in entitlement spending. The two go hand-in-hand. Retiring at 55 with full pension and medical in a time of avg. life spans into your 80s does not engender much sympathy from us slobs who will have to work at least into our late 60s/early 70s before our pittance from social security and medicaire kicks in.

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nycpat January 31, 2012 - 11:24 am

What pecentage of TWU members retire at 55? Many people start working there in early middleage or later.

Bolwerk January 31, 2012 - 11:41 am

And still get a half-pension after 20 years, no? It’s offensive no matter what age the people start working there.

Al D January 31, 2012 - 3:58 pm

Isn’t that the nature of defined benefits plans, though? Many plans offer a reduced pension benefit depending on years of service.

Bolwerk January 31, 2012 - 4:28 pm

It’s the nature of this defined benefits plan.

I really regard anything the TWU gets that the wider public can’t have too as tomfoolery. If they get universal healthcare, we should. If they get a defined pension beyond social security, so should we. Of course, the TWU, while asking us to stick up for it, has no interest in sticking up for us – or, in many cases, in even prioritizing the one important social function they could perform that would warrant their getting some special treatment.

nycpat January 31, 2012 - 10:06 pm

The pension is after 25 years. A lot of people used to get pensions, like sales clerks at Macy’s/Gimbels etc. My employer before the TA offered a pension that combined with SS would equal %100 percent of base salary after 30 years service. I anticipate getting about $5,000-$8,000 a year from my previous emploter when I turn 65 plus my TA pension.
Replacing pensions with 401ks was a political decision, not some immutable law of the “free market”. Pensions should be the norm for a lot more workers.
I fear younger generations don’t realize what has been lost by working people in this country.

Bolwerk January 30, 2012 - 1:19 pm

This notion that the TWU is made up of lumpen proles struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies is either ignorant or dishonest. On the low end, cleaners are making more than people in most crappy service jobs (e.g., McDonald’s) and on the higher end bus drivers and train operators are pulling in a sum in the high five figures or better.

They may be working class in socioeconomic background, but they have middle or even upper middle class incomes.

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Jake S January 30, 2012 - 7:43 pm

GOOD. They work hard. They perform a vital service. They should be well compensated. I don’t understand the mentality of “welp, my life sucks, everyone else’s should too” (not that you’re saying this). Every time someone not in the 1% attacks the TWU or other public union, they’re doing the Kochs’ work for them.

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Bolwerk January 30, 2012 - 9:12 pm

I don’t really have a problem with their individual compensation, but (a) many of them don’t appear to work hard, (b) they object to and stonewall against changing absolutely absurd work rules, and (c) the MTA is overstaffed. For what they’re paid, they can do a lot better. And they’re not lumpen proles.

And, no, not everyone who points out problems with public sector unions is helping the Koch brothers. If anything, keeping stupidity around is empowering to them. And I don’t want the generalize about public sector unions as a whole, but I have yet to see the TWU come out and support any policy that is favorable to the wider working class. The closest they’ve come was to the defense of OWS, and that’s hardly a predominantly working class movement. Just today it came out that they’re apparently pushing for a slowdown – yet again, a slap in the face to the working class.

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Hank January 31, 2012 - 10:17 am

Agreed. I love organized labor because it brought us the American blue-collar middle class. But extreme behavior that shocks the public’s sense of fairness and decency from municipal unions (I’m looking at you Mike Mulgrew) tarnishes the whole labor movement and only provides ammo to cretins like the Koch bros who want to take this country back to the 1890s

nycpat January 31, 2012 - 11:28 am

That article is BS .No one at work knew anything about it. I suspect Donohue wrote it because someone in the union gave the Post the disciplinary quota story.

Al D January 31, 2012 - 4:01 pm

(a) many of them don’t appear to work hard – Blame management for for improper supervision, not getting written up. Blame union and management for a ridiculously lengthy disciplinary process.
(b) they object to and stonewall against changing absolutely absurd work rules – Ah, the power of a union.
(c) the MTA is overstaffed – Blame the politicians for using the MTA as a nepotism dumping ground for half-capable people.

petey January 31, 2012 - 10:37 am

excellent post Jake S.
my father was in the TWU so i know what the TWU is made up of. if they make livabee salaries then good for them, but my mother worked too for us to have what we had. if others here have to be jealous or grudging, let them organize, unless they’re too cowardly to do so, as well they might be, since people have been harassed, fired, even killed for organizing.

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Al D January 31, 2012 - 4:03 pm

Maybe, but that’s not a reason to or not to speak 1’s mind.

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Ian February 1, 2012 - 12:08 pm

Just a thought… imagine if NYC’s bike ridership and infrastructure in late 2005 was what it is now. We might have seen a rapid uptick in cyclists all throughout the city, proving its reliability as an alternative and complement to transit service. Something to consider should this situation rear its ugly head again.

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UESider February 1, 2012 - 11:23 pm

I agree with Al D. – it’s always my boss’ fault that I don’t work hard or do good work because he doesn’t watch me closely enough! And when I make a mistake, the disciplinary process is so slow, I don’t learn my lesson!

Plus, he hires so many people, none of us have to do anything anyway… so no one does anything at all. Totally his fault!

Any TWU worker that strikes should be fired with full loss of all benefits. The NYTimes claims that bus drivers make over $60k before OT! I know people with degrees from NYU working a professional job at half that and feel lucky to have an income.

These guys need to improve their attitudes, start working harder and being flexible enough to run the system – leave the booth, sweep up, change a light bulb – do whatever the system needs – show a sense of pride and ownership of your job and system or stop collecting a public paycheck.

No wonder no one wants to pay a fare increase! I yearn for the day when NYers pay a fare increase with a smile

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