Home Transit LaborTWU Labor relations and what the R hath wrought

Labor relations and what the R hath wrought

by Benjamin Kabak

In addition to longer commutes for riders trying to bridge the gap left by the closure of the R train’s Montague Tube, the Sandy-related shutdown has led to some operating pain for the MTA. As the R now operates in two sections during the week, the transit agency has had to roll out more rolling stock and find more people to work the line. As such, we’ve become privy to the inner workings of the MTA’s relationship with its union.

Since the R is running at regular headways but in two sections, the MTA has needed to juggle operations for the train. Eagle-eyed riders may have noticed R160s along the R. The new rolling stock is on loan from the F line during the tunnel repairs, and while the R46s will return in late 2014, for now, R riders get newer cars with dynamic route maps and automated announcements.

But while we like to marvel over rolling stock, these extra train sets require someone to operate them, and to that end, the MTA has found themselves facing a bit of a personnel crunch. As such, the MTA has, according to the Daily News, asked some retirees to voluntarily return to work. It has created some problems and offers a glimpse into the tortured world of labor relations. As Pete Donohue reports:

The MTA has a post-Sandy manpower shortage — and is asking retired motormen to come back to work, the Daily News has learned. NYC Transit sent letters last week to 120 former motormen in which the agency describes a “critical and urgent need” for their expertise. The division needs extra personnel to operate equipment trains for its $3.4 billion in repair projects, NYC Transit President Carmen Bianco told The News. It also needs more motormen for the R line because it is running less efficiently as two shuttles, he said.

A lack of manpower hasn’t yet delayed repair projects, or impacted regularly scheduled subway service, but the work load is ramping up, Bianco said. “We’re on the edge,” Bianco said. “It’s not a situation we want to be in.”

The job pitch, however, could be a hard sell. “I thought it was a joke at first,” Thomas Risi, a 31-year transit veteran, said Monday. “I just retired a few months ago.” Risi, 55, of the Bronx, said he’s enjoying his free time and his $47,000-a-year pension. That’s more than his take-home while working. As a retiree, Risi no longer pays city or state income taxes or the federal Social Security tax.

Kevin Harrington, a vice president with Transport Workers Union Local 100, said it has become harder for motormen to take time off. The union, however, opposes re-hiring retirees “during this time of high unemployment,” Harrington said.

So what’s going on here? First, note that retiree, who is 55, now takes home more after working than he did before. Keep that in mind when fares go up again in 2015. Second, the union would prefer to increase employees rolls and salary and benefits obligations than show flexibility in allowing retirees to return to service. It’s a snapshot of the need to reform the relationship between the MTA and the TWU and a prime example of how the public and its needs get entirely shut out.

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Epson45 August 21, 2013 - 2:11 am

The union did respond to MTA, some TWU 100 members posted on facebook post for the suggestions on this shortage:

Roxie August 21, 2013 - 8:16 am

They should give me a ring. I drove a car once, that’s more than enough experience right?

alen August 21, 2013 - 8:58 am

retired at 55. that’s why the subways are so expensive

Bolwerk August 21, 2013 - 9:05 am

How many years should people be forced to work in subterranean tunnels before they can retire? There are real problems with compensation policies at the MTA, but I’m not sure this is one of them.

VLM August 21, 2013 - 9:08 am

The guy drove a train. It’s not like he’s a sandhog or anything.

Bolwerk August 21, 2013 - 9:29 am

Not saying the job is particularly hard, but the conditions aren’t exactly ideal for the human body either. Commercial driving certainly takes a chunk out of life expectancy, and I don’t see why driving a train would be much different.

alen August 21, 2013 - 9:43 am

lots of people who work hard every day who don’t get to retire at 55. driving a train is nothing special

Bolwerk August 21, 2013 - 1:59 pm

In a sense it is. Professional drivers have severely stunted lifespans. Most research I saw about this concerned bus drivers and truck drivers, but I don’t see why driving a train around underground would be much different (except, re Larry’s comment, maybe they aren’t sitting?).

In any case, forget retirement. Perhaps it’s reasonable that there be a limit on how long people do that job?

Bgriff August 21, 2013 - 2:55 pm

Is the lifespan reduction from “natural causes” or is that some of them get into accidents and thus bring down the average age of death for the group? If the latter, that wouldn’t generally apply to train drivers, who operate in a much safer environment than those on the open road.

Bolwerk August 21, 2013 - 4:11 pm

It’s probably a number of factors. They sit all day, are subject to high levels of stress, exercise less, are constantly exposed to environmental particulates, and, sure, maybe accidents are a factor.

Subway operators also spend a lot of time in the dark, though maybe some of those other factors are less problematic.

alen August 21, 2013 - 4:44 pm

are the shorter lifespans from the job being dangerous or the fact that they probably eat more junk food than the rest of us

Chris C August 21, 2013 - 6:04 pm

enough of the stereotypes !

Do you have any actual figures that confirm that subway drivers eat more junk food than the general population ???

But seriously working underground exposes the drivers (and to a lesser extent station staff) to additional risks from the generally poorer quality of the atmosphere including ingesting microscopic metal and other particles that are not generally found above ground.

Also they are exposed to higher levels of noise over extended periods.

Larry Littlefield August 21, 2013 - 12:23 pm

There is some research going around that says that sitting all the time is really bad for you.

Which would mean the sandhogs and infrastructure maintainers will outlive the bus and train operators (and me).

flatbush depot August 21, 2013 - 8:48 pm

train and trolley operators can at least get up while the train or trolley is stopped at a station. some even operate while standing. although it seems like operating while standing is harder to do on the R143s and R160s with the controller handle under the RHS window.

Bolwerk August 22, 2013 - 8:57 am

I always wonder why the TWU doesn’t seem so supportive of surface rail because of that. It seems like it would be significantly less stressful to operate.

flatbush depot August 23, 2013 - 12:01 pm

could be that they have been hoodwinked by the auto industry (like many other people) to the point where it is not easy for them to see the benefits of trolleys over buses.

I also support surface rail b/c of this other problem with the buses: The operators need to know how to drive cars before they can touch buses. Yet cars cause so many problems for buses in dense urban areas. This is annoyingly contradictory.

you do not need a license to be a NYCT train op or conductor, and I suspect that if MTA ran trolleys, they would not require people to have DLs before becoming trolley operators. at least I hope not. I do not see why they should since trolleys are on rails and can just get the master controller setup that the subways have.

I have been trying to figure out for a while whether you need a DL to operate a trolley in other cities. again I seriously hope not.

also the R143/160 controller may make it harder to stand while operating but if you are sitting while operating I think it is easier to keep your back straight with the master controller under the window. makes it easier to spread the shoulders/back it seems.

Eric Brasure August 21, 2013 - 9:31 am

I support defined contribution retirement plans but retiring at 55 with a full pension is ridiculous. The minimum retirement age should be higher.

That said, it’s disingenuous to point out that this gentleman is bringing home more money as a retiree. It’s not costing the MTA more–he’s bringing more home because he no longer has to pay income or Social Security tax on his income.

Larry Littlefield August 21, 2013 - 12:25 pm

“I support defined contribution retirement plans but retiring at 55 with a full pension is ridiculous. The minimum retirement age should be higher.”

New Directions half agrees with you — with the first sentence but not the second. They went on strike for 20/50.

nycpat August 21, 2013 - 4:12 pm

You keep repeating that lie about the strike. As a spinmeister you’re a regular Goebels.

Bolwerk August 21, 2013 - 2:02 pm

I generally agree, but perhaps in the case of train drivers there is a reasonable need to have them move on into another TA role or the private sector. If that’s not possible, maybe a retirement and getting a more modest defined benefit is reasonable.

Karm August 21, 2013 - 2:29 pm

guaranteed pensions are a problem. pension funds have to invest the money… markets are volatile – which is why pensions have been disappearing. the public sector workers have none of the risk the rest of the population has. I don’t consider that fair.

Nick August 26, 2013 - 11:48 pm

Thing is, that’s a lie that city pension is not taxed.
Taken from NYCERS website:

“Pension payments received from NYCERS are subject to Federal income taxes, but part of it may be excludable. …
Contributions may be tax-free because they were taxed when deducted from your paycheck, so they are not subject to a second taxing. … Because the IRS considers your pension payments to be a source of income, you are required to pay Federal taxes.”

Josh August 21, 2013 - 3:41 pm

How many years should people be forced to work in subterranean tunnels before they can retire?

Nobody is forced to work in subterranean tunnels. If they don’t want to work in subterranean tunnels there are many other jobs out there, the vast majority of which don’t let you retire at 55.

Bolwerk August 22, 2013 - 9:00 am

Don’t be thick. They are forced to stay on for a certain amount of time to retire and get a pension.

nycpat August 21, 2013 - 4:22 pm

No, 30 odd years is enough to work in the subway. I’ve got about 15 to go . I don’t think I’ll make it.

Phantom August 21, 2013 - 9:28 am

The astonishingly early retirement ages of ” civil servants ” in NY is an absolute sin.

Some of us were joking the other day that we made a mistake by not going into government work.

Retiring in your forties or fifties? That’s one sweet deal. I don’t think that train drivers, cops, teachers in that many other places get that.

Larry Littlefield August 21, 2013 - 9:30 am

They can’t return to work and collect their pension, and this is probably a good thing. But the exemption from city and state income taxes is unjust. And the unions are working to make it so retired public employees would be exempt from property taxes too.

“Enhanced STAR” cuts the property taxes of “poor” seniors earning less than $75,000 per year. The unions have been pushing a deal that would not include pension income when determining qualification for enhanced STAR. This bill comes up every year. (Here is the assembly version). Just waiting for the right 3 am to pass.

A03501 Summary:

BILL NO A03501

SAME AS No same as

SPONSOR Gabryszak (MS)

COSPNSR Colton, Cymbrowitz, Hooper, Schimminger

MLTSPNSR Abbate, Aubry, McDonough, McEneny, Ortiz, Weinstein, Weisenberg,Wright

Amd S425, RPT L

Includes pension and retirement plans as plans eligible for income reduction when determining income eligibility for senior citizens under the enhanced STAR exemption.

Meanwhile, can’t the MTA recruit and train train operators? I don’t call it an unskilled job, but unemployment is high. Surely some non-MTA folks could work as conductors, and some conductors are ready to become train operators.

John Doe August 21, 2013 - 12:03 pm

Have you seen some of these train operators? A boorish and uneducated lot!!

John August 21, 2013 - 12:30 pm


Chris C August 21, 2013 - 1:24 pm

you could say the same for

shop assistants
politicians (at all levels and all parties)
internet posters

nycpat August 21, 2013 - 4:19 pm

Have you seen finance people. Corporate people? Some of them are outright sociopaths. Look at the commodities traders on the ferry, talk about boors.
Anyhow operating a train for NYCT involves being consistantly conscientious for a long time. Not everyone can do it or is willing to.

Jason B August 21, 2013 - 5:10 pm

So this explains the old cars (R46s?) I’ve been seeing on the F for the past week or two. The AC on these isn’t quite as good as on the R160s — hopefully we won’t have any more heat waves this year, anyway.

Rob August 22, 2013 - 8:53 am

“…Keep that in mind when fares go up again” — Time to play hardball: No service upgrades w/o OPTO [where appropriate].


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