Home Transit LaborTWU WSJ: Union politics interfering with TWU deal

WSJ: Union politics interfering with TWU deal

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Bolwerk October 22, 2012 - 1:47 am

Seems to me arbitration is his only shot at a better (for him) than net-zero increase. As I understand NYS labor law, the union could pretty much just declare an impasses and have it go to arbitration at any point now.

However, they might also be calculating that it’s a bad time to let arbiters, who historically have been biased toward the union, give away the farm. The flip side to Cuomo’s indifference about transit service has, so far, been an indifference toward the TWU’s status quo. And, already, PBAs (another group used to getting most of what it wants) are facing the possibility of arbitration reform.

Larry Littlefield October 22, 2012 - 9:24 am

Here is the point about arbitration: no “reform” is actually needed.

Arbitrators have traditionally based their findings on the assumptions that the unions can only get more, never less, without comparing with the situation of other workers. And they have tradionally sought compromise between higher taxes, which the rich and business are against, and more wages and benefits for public workers, with no consideration given to the quality of public services. In fact the usual decision has been to sacrifice public services.

But that isn’t what the law says. That’s just what the sort of people who have been appointed have done.

The internal politics is what got us the strike, based on a promise by one faction to get a 20/50 pension. So what can Samuelson say? “Look how much worse off we’ve made everyone else?” That might cover his New Directions flank, but it wouldn’t exactly endear the union with the broader public.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines October 22, 2012 - 9:00 am

[…] Why Are TWU Contract Talks Proceeding So Slowly? (WSJ, SAS) […]

jimbob October 22, 2012 - 9:11 am

There are more than enough useless positions and work rules within MTA to allow for net-zero labor costs by modernizing the workforce and giving the truly useful people a healthy raise.

TP October 22, 2012 - 9:24 am

Agreed! The solution is for the MTA to push to reform archaic work rules and cut down on the number of employees needed to do tasks, in exchange for a raise for those employees who are actually needed to do those tasks.

mike d. October 22, 2012 - 6:54 pm

Guess what, look at the current state of subway; it will get dirtier when you have less employees. Great idea.

Bolwerk October 23, 2012 - 2:03 am

Not if you keep the cleaners. The ones that actually clean.

Nathanael October 23, 2012 - 2:38 am

Right. Cleaners == good investment. Uniformed people actually walking the platforms in stations == good investment.

Conductors? Multiple conductors on the LIRR?

Matthias October 23, 2012 - 3:03 pm

Why not follow the example of the trash collectors’ union, which tied pay to productivity and gave employees a choice? They could choose a route with one, two or three people per truck and be paid accordingly. Could something similar be done in transit?

Hank October 22, 2012 - 10:32 am

This is far too logical!

oscar October 22, 2012 - 3:25 pm

you must hate the working class and eat children for breakfast!

LLQBTT October 22, 2012 - 9:37 am

Now here’s an idea. Wait for the coldest, most brutal days smack dab in the middle of shopping season and stage a walk out! Results are guaranteed.

Anthony October 22, 2012 - 2:42 pm

I wish they could just flat out fire all the booth agents in non tourist-heavy stations. They’re the most useless people considered “employees” I’m aware of. The few times I’ve interacted with them, they were obscenely rude. Their reaction is generally along the lines of “How DARE you interrupt my paid nap?”

oscar October 22, 2012 - 3:36 pm

The MTA is a jobs program first and foremost

oscar October 22, 2012 - 3:22 pm




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