Allow me to dip for just a minute into a quote from 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. As Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle shares a dance with Bruce Wayne at a masquerade ball, she warns him of impending troubles. “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne,” she warns Wayne. “You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”
It’s a bit of an overly dramatic line, but when Bane takes over, Kyle’s words aren’t wrong. Today, when I read WNYC’s coverage of the MTA’s latest budget machinations and the current state of management’s relationship with labor, I had a flashback to the film. “Underground where I work,” Christine Williams, a station agent based in Brooklyn, said. “There’s a storm brewing — and it’s not good. It’s not a merry Christmas when you can’t afford to get to work and when you get to work you’re working at a $7 an hour job. It’s like you can’t win in New York.”
This too a bit overly dramatic. A search through the SeeThroughNY database revealed that Ms. Williams earned $25 an hour back in 2008 — which is hardly a challenging amount — and it’s a far cry from minimum wage. Still, the point remains: As the MTA passed a $13.5 billion budget that rests largely on the shaky assumption of a net-zero labor spending increase, the workers are not happy. “We’re certainly not looking for the stars,” TWU president John Samuelson said during a protest outside this week’s MTA Board meeting. “We’re looking for raises that keep up with the cost of living.”
The debate and the battle aren’t necessarily either/or propositions. The MTA’s stated goal — and one that will help avert massive fare hikes or service increases — is a net-zero scenario. That doesn’t mean wages can’t go up. Rather, it means if wages go up, something else moves along with it. Wages go up; worker count and staffing levels go down. Wages go up; pension contributions go down or retirement age goes up or benefits contributions go down. The options are out there, but the TWU isn’t readily embracing anything at a time of good economic feelings for the MTA.
The real question right now as the TWU Local 100 heads to work each day nearly two years removed from the expiration of their last contract concerns a strike. We all still remember those few days in 2005 when the TWU walked out of the job. For New Yorkers, it was disruptive; for the TWU, it was destructive. Would they do it again? The Taylor Law makes a strike seem doubtful, but union officials are threatening “job actions” which could be slowdowns of any shape or form. They grow tiresome after a while.
Meanwhile, within the MTA’s leadership, the net-zero concept is a controversial one. Perennial Board gadfly Charles Moerdler challenged the assumption this week. Moerdler called such an approach “indefensible and fictional.” As Prendergast pointed out that each percentage point increase in wage increases would add $50 million to the MTA budget, the idea of net-zero seems both perfectly defensible and nearly entirely necessary. A five-percent raise, for instance, would be devastating to the MTA’s budget.
So this gap between the rock and the hard place seems to be narrowing. Rank-and-file are growing dismayed over the fact that it’s been years since their last raise (though non-unionized labor have felt that sting for even longer). At MTA HQ, the lack of labor spending could lead to an even faster brain drain while disgruntled union workers could make service worse. Of course, there’s plenty of room for reform across the board. Will we get there or will this awkward detente be steady enough to support slow movement on a new contract for the TWU? It’s a key issue for the MTA heading into 2014.