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December 20, 2005


Union 101

Let me start by saying, I have been inconvenienced by this transit strike - and I'm one of the lucky people. Many other New Yorkers lost wages and jobs because they couldn't get to work. Others couldn't get to vital doctor's appointments or missed flights or couldn't get a babysitter, and most everyone had their lives interrupted and made much more difficult by the transport workers decision to walk off the job. Which is...the point of a strike, right?

TWU has shown New York City that unions still have power. Union membership in this country has been steadily decreasing for fifty years and is now at an all-time low. And TWU had to make a very unpopular decision this week. The decision came at a considerable cost to the Union (which was just slapped with a $1 million fine per day even though they only have a total of $3 million in assets), to their workers (who can be fined 2 days pay for every day they are out) and to their public image (holy crap, have you heard what people are saying?). Our city's cops, firefighters, and teachers have all just negotiated contracts with major givebacks. But the decision to strike came down to TWU because - well, frankly, someone had to do it.

I've been amazed by the bloodthirsty reaction of New Yorkers. People are bitching about how transit workers make plenty of money (because the figures quoted are generally those of higher-paid positions, like conductors.) People are screaming about how transit workers can retire at 55, and about how they don't have to pay for health care. People are so, so, angry at TWU. Our own mayor called them "selfish thugs," and said that they "disgrace the noble concept of public service."

If our other public employees - those same cops, firefighters and teachers - settled, why should the transit workers get more?

The answer is that they shouldn't. People across the country are losing their retirement and health benefits. 46 million Americans don't have health insurance. The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation - which protects the few that do still have pensions - is going bankrupt. People have depended for too long on employers to provide for them. That's why people are so angry at TWU. When people argue, "why should they have what I don't have," they're absolutely right. You, too, should have health and pension benefits.

The sticking point on TWU's contract negotiation is not over wage increases. Union leaders never thought they'd get away with their proposed 24% increase over the life of the contract. The issue that caused negotiations to break down was whether new hires - employees who haven't even started working yet - should have fewer benefits and higher costs than existing workers.

Over the weekend, I watched a lot of reporters look incredulous over TWU's demands - especially when it got down to the pension benefits. "The question is," they said, "Will the transit workers accept increases for themselves, or unreasonably and stubbornly insist on the same benefits for future workers?" People. Come ON. That's Union 101! The whole point of unions is solidarity - you're not just fighting for your own sake, but to ensure that generations of future workers have the same protections.

Like I said, I have been inconvenienced by this strike. I also think that TWU's pre-Toussaint leadership mismanaged their assets into the ground, and I think Roger Toussaint is a hothead, and I certainly take issue with some of TWU's tactics. But I also applaud them for standing up when no other union in the city would and demanding rights for the next workers who come along. Transit workers keep this city running 24 hours a day. They crawl through tunnels with rats. They clean up your puke from the subway platform. They say good morning to you on the bus even if you didn't say it first. And I respect that they are demonstrating how important they are to this city. Shame on you, Michael Bloomberg. You should be shaking your finger at the MTA instead.

categories: NYC
posted by Emily at 5:12 PM | #

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Right on.

Posted by: ari moore at December 21, 2005 9:39 AM

Every time I talk with someone about the strike, they say that the TWU is asking for too much b/c all workers don't get what the TWU wants. And then I say wouldn't it be great if they did get it because then maybe we could say to our employers, "I don't want my health benefits cut further. I want an increase. In fact, I'm going to apply to the public sector so that I can ensure the health and prosperity of my family." It astounds me that people don't realize that business profits are up while workers' wages are stagnant and their overall compensation is going down because of these successful anti-union, anti-benefits efforts.

Posted by: Agent 0019 at December 21, 2005 1:23 PM

I don't think New Yorkers are mad just because they don't want other workers to have benefits that they themselves don't have. I think most people recognize that today it is not realistic to expect to be able to retire at 55.

It's also, unfortunately, not realistic to expect to receive a pension that you hardly contributed to at all--the unrealistic promise of an employer-funded pension is what is making companies like GM face near bankruptcy. Companies don't contribute enough for pension programs that were unrealistic to begin with (because our government let them get away with this, which is another story...) and Americans have become notoriously bad at saving money themselves. Yet the TWU feels entitled to employer-funded pensions. It's the sense of entitlement that gets New Yorkers mad, I think.

Yeah, it sucks that we can't depend on our employers to take care of us, but I think it's reasonable for unions to change with the times a little bit on this one, or at least allow that 100 years from now they won't think they're entitled to get employer-funded pensions when the rest of the world has moved on.

Also, Bloomberg has to think about what's best for the majority of New Yorkers. That's his job. Most New Yorkers are inconvenienced by the strike, and some New Yorkers have been placed in serious financial crisis and jeopardized safety because of it. He has to think of the entire city, not just 33,000 union members.

Posted by: Amy at December 21, 2005 2:57 PM

I understand the problem with employer funded pensions. However, I imagine most NYers and especially most Americans do not think about the merits and/or drawbacks of pensions and benefits in a post-industrial service economy. I simply take issue with people who are not concerned that wages are stagnant and we live in a significantly less economically secure working environment. I admit the TWU is in a tough position and maybe should not have struck given its centrality to the lives of so many people. I just wish the media would talk about the real economic issues that I think are at the heart of this conflict and affect all Americans. If the TWU could put more money towards PR, maybe they could win more people over.

Posted by: Agent 0019 at December 21, 2005 6:14 PM

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