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.