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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Subway Stalemate

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) raised fares, cut service and imposed a new payroll tax on downstate New Yorkers between 2009 and 2011.

During those same three years, however, the tens of thousands of MTA New York City Transit workers represented by Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 each received a cumulative salary increase of 11 percent. The same arbitrator-approved contract which gave TWU-represented workers these pay hikes also reduced their health care premium contributions, thereby requiring the MTA to pay higher transit worker benefits, too.

That information has rarely found its way into this month’s media coverage of the MTA’s current negotiations with the TWU on a new multiyear contract. The TWU’s previous three-year deal with the MTA expired on Sunday, January 15, and the TWU likes to leave the impression its members could walk off the job at a moment’s notice, even though it is illegal for public employee union workers to do so in New York State. The TWU’s three-day strike in December 2005 brought New York City to a standstill just before Christmas that year, a memory that remains fresh in this commuter’s mind in light of all the ‘givebacks’ (e.g., higher prices, less service) the MTA asked of city subway and bus riders in the intervening years.

Joseph Lhota, the MTA’s newly appointed chairman, began the negotiating process by telling the TWU Local 100’s leadership the MTA wants the next contract to include a three-year salary freeze (2012-2014), higher worker contributions to their health insurance premiums (to 11 percent of the total cost from the current 5.5 percent), and less generous vacation packages for new hires. Under the current labor contract, a TWU Local 100 worker gets four weeks of paid vacation after three years of service. The MTA wants future TWU Local 100 workers to have at least 10 years of service before receiving four weeks of paid vacation.

The Daily News reported exclusively last Thursday that the MTA is willing to give TWU-represented New York City Transit workers a 1 percent salary increase each year over the next three years, followed by 2 percent wage hikes per annum in 2015 and 2016. The catch: the TWU would in exchange for these salary increases allow the MTA to institute work rule changes the MTA estimates could save the agency millions of dollars between 2012 and 2016. John Samuelsen, TWU Local 100’s president, broke off contract negotiations with the MTA after the Daily News story appeared. Samuelsen implied in subsequent media interviews that he thought the MTA was the Daily News’ source, although there was little upside for the MTA to leak such sensitive information.

Public-sector collective bargaining agreements are usually hammered out behind closed doors and then presented to whatever governmental entities need to sign off on them for final approval. The MTA, with its payroll tax having been partially repealed this year, is rightfully keeping an eye on its revenue stream while the TWU’s union leadership knows they’ll be the organization’s former leaders if they’re insufficiently hostile to everything the MTA wants. None of this bodes well for the millions of New Yorkers who rely on the city’s subways and buses.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: