I know that for those of you who don't live or work in New York City, this won't have an impact on you, but of course for we who do, it's what has been dominating our local news and media.
Today, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) began what's being called a "Limited Strike". Two private bus lines that have been city-subsidized for decades and and who have recently signed a contract with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to be transferred under their direct control have gone on strike. These two lines, Jamaica and Triboro, have yet made the full transfer under the MTA - which will take place early next year. About 50,000 riders in Queens are served by these lines daily.
This morning, Roger Toussaint, TWU's president made a statement that struck me, and why I was spurred to write this diary. He said that the MTA's proposal would leave the next generation of transit worker's far behind and deny them access towards the middle class.
The NY Times reports
"The M.T.A.'s long-term financial outlook, like every business and government in this country, is seriously clouded by the extraordinary growth in pensions and health-care costs," Mr. Kalikow said. "It might be easy to ignore this fact, but that would be a disservice to both our riders and the city, now and still unborn."
Mr. Toussaint portrayed the authority's proposals as repugnant because they would make life worse for future generations of workers.
"They have to get away from the notion that in this round of bargaining the T.W.U. will give up its young, will give up its unborn," he said.
What seems to be a key TWU concern is the MTAs proposal for a two-tier contract, dividing agreements of the newly hires from the current members. The MTA proposal will place the economic burden to support future pensions for current members on the newly hired. It also will decrease the newly hiree's wage as 2% of their wages are to go towards basic health benefits. Currently, union members have no wages contributions to basic benefits.
Labor Research Associates, a non-profit New York based organization, has this to say about the increased number of two-tier contracts across the nation:
Recessions and the soft labor markets that follow always provide employers with the leverage they need to reset wages and working conditions. Ongoing high rates of unemployment in most sectors since the 2001 recession have set the stage for a return to two-tier wages systems, lump-sum pay, wage freezes and other employer tactics for creating a permanent downward shift in wages.
....The new two-tier systems closely resemble the plans installed twenty years ago when employers gained the upper hand after two back-to-back recessions. With significant pools of surplus labor across a number of manufacturing industries, employers negotiated severe two-tier systems in the early and mid-1980s.
Today's two-tier systems are marked by two new developments, however. First, they are appearing in sectors well beyond the hard-hit manufacturing arena. Secondly, they now include not only lower wages for new hires, but also significantly lower benefit provisions.
Both trends appeared in the new agreement ratified on February 29, 2004 between the United Food and Commercial Workers and major supermarkets in Southern California. After the largest work stoppage of 2003-2004 and the largest in the history of the industry, the supermarkets were able to impose a two-tier plan that cut pay and benefits for new hires.
For 139 days, 60,000 UFCW members fought the supermarkets -- Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons -- to block the two-tier system and deep cuts in benefits. The supermarkets claimed they had to cut labor costs to compete with Wal-Mart and other nonunion stores in the region.
Although the union defeated the worst benefit cuts, new hires will top out at $2.80 an hour below their veteran co-workers and pay a higher share of their health benefit costs under the new agreement. Safeway, the parent company for Vons, plans to offer buyouts to push out its higher-paid veteran workers and hasten the shift to a low-wage workforce.
On January 8 of this year, grocery workers in Northern California ratified a contract with the supermarkets that avoids some of the most damaging provisions of the Southern California agreement but stretches out the time it will take for new hires to reach top pay levels and full benefits.
Grocery workers across the Western states are now under pressure to accept various forms of two-tier pay and higher benefit co-payments. The push for two-tier plans also spread to resort hotels in Nevada. On December 24, 2004, the Operating Engineers at the Mandalay Resort Group ratified a new contract that pays new hires $3 an hour less than current workers.
Unions fight two-tier agreements because they trap new hires in what are often permanently lower income levels and undermine member unity. When two-tier agreements are installed, unions are then forced to fight to narrow the wage gap between new hires and older workers in subsequent agreements.
And according to the last census data, New York City has approximately 1.8 million people below the poverty line. Where the nation reflects that 1 in every 8 people is at this economic level, NYC has 1 in every 5 persons who falls into this category. In a New York Food Bank report, "NYC Hunger Experience November 2005", it states:
While New Yorkers in impoverished minority communities experience the greatest difficulty affording food, NYC Hunger Experience November 2005 also depicts a city with an eroding middle class. The findings reveal that during the past two years, residents not typically associated with poverty have found it more difficult to afford food. For example, since 2003, the number of residents with college and graduate/professional degrees experiencing difficulty has increased dramatically - more than doubling for residents with a college degree (from 11 percent to 28 percent) and almost doubling for residents with a graduate/professional degree (from 10 percent to 18 percent). Surprisingly, the number of residents who experienced difficulty affording food increased for all income categories except among households with incomes less than $25,000. The most startlingly increases were found among households with incomes over $75,000 where the number experiencing difficulty affording food tripled from four percent in 2003 to 12 percent in 2005.
..... Between 2003 and 2005 residents between ages 50 and 64 have experienced the greatest increases in difficulty affording food, from one-quarter (25 percent) in 2003 to more than one-third (34 percent) in 2005. This demonstrates that many baby boomers are already having difficulty affording food and indicates that as this population retires and comes to rely on reduced incomes and social security, a crisis in elderly hunger will ensue.
While I don't know if Mr. Toussaint keeps up with local publications such as these or has actually read these quoted, but everyone who's trying to eke out a living these days understands how difficult it's been to afford the basics - food, housing, heating, transportation. To me, TWU clearly is looking at the future and what it will hold economically for them all - whether as pensioners or as newly hired workers who will have years to go before retirement. Pensioners might find themselves similarly situated as those reported by the NYC Food Bank report. The newly hired may find themselves never attaining that middle class status.
There are still many other issues that are involved in these contract negotiations like safety. While not the current focus of any news media reports, transit workers complaints about the lack of security, lack of training, and poor communication during a crisis has been reported increasingly since September 11, 2001. Statements such as this hasn't made anyone, whether as transit workers or passengers, feel any better:
July 15, 2005
WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff came under fire from lawmakers yesterday for not doing enough on rail security and insisting that localities have a major role in protecting transit systems.
Chertoff explained the agency's focus on aircraft safety over rail and transit in an Associated Press interview, saying, "The truth of the matter is, a fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill 3,000 people. A bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people.
"When you start to think about your priorities, you're going to think about making sure you don't have a catastrophic thing first."
Democrats criticized Chertoff for the remarks and one of them, New York Sen. Charles Schumer, called for an apology. He challenged Chertoff to go to Grand Central Terminal and tell commuters that "Washington doesn't have the responsibility to protect them."
In testimony before the House and Senate Homeland Securities Committee, Chertoff noted that local governments play a greater role than the federal government in running those systems. "The boots on the ground are largely owned by local authorities," he said.
.... Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester) said Chertoff had missed the April deadline for creating a national transit security plan. She called it "incredible" that a week after the London bombings, Chertoff said a transit security plan still won't be ready for months.
"It is not even fair to say that the London attacks were a wake-up call," Lowey said. "The Madrid bombings [in March 2004] illustrated the vulnerability of transit systems, yet DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] seems to be hitting the snooze button."
hmmm... I guess Mr. Chertoff also forgot about biological hazards, the Sarin gas attack in Tokyo, multiple anthrax scares in NYC right after September 11...
So, as a regular commuter - and one who believes strongly that the NY Subway system still is the fastest way to get around NYC - I can't find it in me to be upset or stressed over the on-going possible threat of a transit strike. Will I be "inconvenienced" if there is a strike called? Well, yes - as I'll have to hoof it six miles every day. But that's a short walk compared to many. Besides, after making it safely into the city today, and during my very short walk from the subway station to get my coffee for the morning when I got totally soaked by a downpour and horizontal rain, the young woman behind the counter said - "Hey, you made it in! Let's hope you make it back home!" and gave me my coffee for free.