Left Behinds

The anti-andrewsullivan.com. Or, the Robin Hood (Maid Marian?) of bright pink Blogger blogs.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

A Defense of the Transit Strike

Andy Stettner wrote a good defense of the transit strike, which I included after the jump.

As a friend just emailed,

It's amazing to me -- between the NYU grad. strike and
the MTA strike -- how much supposedly liberal New Yorkers have accepted
the myth of capitalist scarcity, the race to the bottom. So Bloomberg
compares the $55k transit workers make to $20-30k that the working poor
make as if $20-30k without benefits should be the norm for working
people! Likewise at NYU people kept saying, $19k plus healthcare to
teach two classes is more than adjuncts make -- as if the exploited,
flexible labor of adjuncts who make $5k per class should be the bar.
Ladies, you are all being fucked over.

Andy's excellent article after the jump. By the way, Andy's currently a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.

by Andy Stettner

Today, 34,000 members of Transit Workers Union Local 100 that work for New York City Transit running the city's trains and buses went on strike. Most of the media coverage has focused on the minutia of the final contract deal and the inconveniences of stranded straphangers. As I sit in my office after biking over the Brooklyn Bridge on a clear December morning, I know they have missed the true meaning of this contract debate: the future of the middle class in New York City, and more broadly in the United States.

Our mayor, Michael Bloomberg, perfectly framed this meaning in today's New YorkTimes (December 20th)

Mr. Bloomberg said that a walkout would hurt many workers in the hotel, restaurant and garment industries who earn less than the transit workers. The transit workers average $55,000 a year with overtime.

"You've got people making $50,000 and $60,000 a year - are keeping the people who are making $20,000 and $30,000 a year from being able to earn a living," Mr. Bloomberg said. "That's just not acceptable."

Here you have the 'unacceptable' vision of our Mayor for working class New Yorkers -- jobs that pay less than $35,000. New York City's economy is growing strongly -- but it is growing like a donut, with high paying jobs and lower paying jobs increasing at the same time. From 2000 to 2004, New York City's middle class (families earning between $35,000 and $150,000 per year) declined at a rate that was four times the national average, according to New York's Fiscal Policy Institute.

The problem is that a family cannot really live on $35,000 in New York City. Among other things, housing costs for both rentals and especially for home buyers have increased astronomically. Take a look at the meticulously prepared self-sufficiency standard for New York City prepared by the Women's Center for Education and Career Advancement. In none of the five boroughs of New York City could a family with one adult and one child meet the basic minimum daily expenses (housing, child care, food, transportation) on such a salary. Between $55,000 and $60,000 per year should meet the minimum needs of a family of four, but after living here for 10 years I don't know exactly how.

Middle Class Life at Stake in New York City

That's what makes jobs like those at New York City Transit so vital to the city's health. According to most media reports, the average New York City Transit worker earns between $47,000 and $55,000, while many start at as little as $33,000. While the earnings are modest, the job comes with strong health care benefits and a traditional defined benefit pension.

What do middle class jobs provide our city? At these wages, working families don't have to depend on publicly funded work supports like Medicaid or Child Health plus that are being stretched by a shrinking tax base. Middle class families bring stability to communities and schools, and have an opportunity to send their kids to college and even out the wealth distribution over the long term. Most deeply, the existence of good middle class jobs ensures that the promise of opportunity that New York once provided to immigrants and domestic migrants is not lost in the 21st century. New York City Transit Authority jobs have provided such opportunity, first for Irish-Americans and other Europeans, and now increasingly for Caribbean-American and Latino communities. Contrary to the Mayor's assertions, low-wage workers generally support the existence of middle-class, better-paying jobs because it does provide a ladder up, rather than begrudging their better position.

What Wages Do Transit Workers "Deserve"?

Bloomberg and Governor Pataki (who actually controls the MTA) have decided to make an all out assault on these jobs. They have basically stated that New York City Transit workers don't deserve the salaries that they are making. Do transit workers deserve these wages? Transit workers do thankless and dangerous work. Bus drivers face hostile customers and murderous traffic all day.

Subway workers toil in dark, vermin-infested, century-old subway tunnels. A mistake by a New York City transit worker can be a life-or-death mistake for riders or for themselves. Since World War II, 132 track workers have been electrocuted or killed by trains in the New York subways, 21 in the last two decades.[i][i] Basic necessities, like the ability to go to the bathroom, are a luxury for transit workers. So, too, are days off. The New York Daily News'
Errol Louis reports that NYCT workers engage in an annual ritual of sleeping on cots to request Thanksgiving Day off in person 30 days in advance as required by their contract.

On this basis, it seems clear that these NYCT workers deserve some kind of wage premium for this kind of "dirty job." But wages are set in the market and in a power dynamic between labor and capital -- and the question is whether TWU members have a realistic shot at maintaining their middle class lifestyle. Obviously, middle class life for working people is under attack in
the U.S. because of the pressures of globalization, with the most visible symbol of this assault being the 30,000 plus workers of Delphi auto parts who are facing massive wage cuts or layoffs (initially posed as a cut from $27/hour plus to $12/hour or less).

But, New York City Transit workers should be exactly the kind of workers who should be able to hold on to a middle class way of life in the 21st century. Knowledge-driven, high-wage, service-sector economies like that of New York City depend on a web of effective mass transit. Indeed, the recovery of the subway from its graffiti-ridden and violent past has part of New York City's rise from the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. Because of a surge in population and public transit usage, the MTA now has a nearly $1 billion surplus this year. (This is even before they have finalized deals to sell extremely valuable land development rights above train yards in downtown Brooklyn and the West Side of Manhattan). The MTA can afford to sustain a fair living wage for the workers they need to operate the system, and competitive pressures should be tilting in the favor of the workers.

The Contract on the Table and Its Repercussions

The union reports that the MTA's final offer is 3 percent, 4 percent and 3.5 percent. Because this represents an improvement over an initial deal of 2 percent, the media has been reporting this as a better deal than what was initially presented. This "raise" proposal is really no raise at
all. Inflation is running at 3.5 percent in Northeastern cities, so this salary increase would leave workers treading water. In exchange for a zero percent real raise, TWU has been asked to accept cuts in retirement security (an increase in the retirement age from 55 to 62) for future workers, a year after the State Assembly passed a bill to lower the transit worker retirement age to 50. (Indeed the union has argued that pension issues should be off the table because they are generally the jurisdiction of the Legislature, which is an argument backed by the Republican head of the New York State Senate).

Increased health care contributions were on the table early in the negotiation, and it is unclear what the final deal included on this side. This contract offer comes after the MTA accepted a three year contract that featured no raise in year one (only a one-time $1,000 bonus) and a two percent (less than cost of living) in 2003 and 2004. That contract represented a sacrifice that many municipal workers made during the 9-11 recession. So, the MTA has asked the TWU to stand still on wages and accept cuts elsewhere. It is really no offer at all for an agency with a billion dollar surplus.

If TWU accepted this contract, it would set the scale downward for all upcoming New York municipal contracts. Other municipal workers have less leverage with the city because their salaries are tied directly to tax revenue as opposed to user fees. TWU should be lauded for defending conditions not just for themselves but for future generations of transit workers, and the rest of unionized labor in New York.

The biggest target for the MTA and their allies in city and state government are pensions. These defined benefit pensions do represent a large liability - - but also are a crucial bulwark against the slide towards retirement insecurity for lower wage workers. The 401(k) model of defined benefit pensions can work for higher wage workers who can manage to save towards a million dollars by the time of retirement and then live off of annuities and interest. This model is not working well for working class people and African-Americans and Hispanics. Only 40 percent of African-Americans and Hispanics age 47-64 can expect to have retirement income equal to fifty percent of their prior salary.[ii][ii] So the kind of pension security achieved by TWU is worth defending.

So, where do we draw the line in defense of middle class living and retirement security? If the MTA gets their way, we can expect a slide in living standards for a whole range of municipal workers. And, we can expect the race to the bottom to continue in service sector jobs like health care and building services that have a chance to pay decent wages to working people in a globalized age. For this analyst and activist, at least, in New York City, the Transit Workers Union is a place where this line is being drawn.

It remains to be seen whether the TWU will be able to organize enough external and internal solidarity and favorable public opinion to win this battle. This is especially true since they face stiff fines under the state's Taylor Law for engaging in an illegal strike. But, all of us who profess a concern for living standards and values of economic opportunity and fairness seem to owe them our solidarity. Please do all you can -- visit www.twulocal100.org to find out about opportunities to express solidarity. Most importantly, when your friends and colleagues whine about the commute try to tell them what is at stake.

Andrew Stettner
Brooklyn, New York

>> If people are interested, the Transit Workers Union is urging the
>> public to join the picket line, to support the strike demands including
>> unreduced pension and health benefits. Strike picket lines are at all
>> MTA depots. There is a very long list available at TWU Local 100's
>> home page
>> (www.twulocal100.org).
>> The picket lines are going on from 5am - 12noon everyday.
>> you can call TWU at 212-873-6000 to check on these locations.
>> _______
>> TWU Local 100 Strike Assignments for Manhattan and Brooklyn
>> 34th St. - Penn Station *
>> Chambers St. Flagging Quarters (RTO)
>> Grand Central Station (RTO)
>> Kingsbridge Depot: 4065 10th Avenue
>> 207th St. Yard: 3961 10 Avenue
>> Manhattanville Depot: 666 West 133rd St.
>> 100th Street Depot: 1552 Lexington Avenue at 100th Street
>> Michael J. Quill Depot: 525 11th Avenue
>> West 53rd St Power/RCC: 53rd St. btw 8/9
>> 126th Street Depot: 2460 Second Avenue
>> 148th St. Lenox Ave.
>> 168th St. C Line
>> 370 Jay St./130 Livingston
>> Bedford
>> Bergen St. Shop
>> Conway
>> Crosstown-Box St.
>> East New York Depot/Shop: 1700 Bushwick Avenue
>> Flatbush Ave / Nostrand (RTO)
>> Flatbush Depot: Flatbush & Utica Ave.
>> Coney Island Yard: Avenue X & McDonald
>> Ulmer Park Depot: Cropsey Ave. & Bay
>> Jackie Gleason Depot: 871 Fifth Avenue
>> Pitkin Yard: 1434 Sutter Avenue
>> Livonia Shop: 824 Linwood Shop
>> Atlantic Ave/Bergen Street Shop: 1415 Bergen Street
>> Linden Shop: 1500 Linden Blvd.
>> Cozine: 50 Cozine Avenue
>> Rockaway Parkway Carnarsie L-line
>> Stillwell Ave.

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  • At 8:45 AM, Blogger Jack said…

    I keep reading variations of "making $55,000 a year with no educational requirements" or "there are high school graduates earning up to $60,000 in the TWU!"

    These posts are often written by otherwise progressive people, who, in an act of fiscal insanity, don't realize that they have entered themselves into a race . . . nay, a marathon to the bottom.

    I still remember when Mike Quill, back in 1980, was asked "There are folks with better educations making less than some of your members. What do you say to that!" And Mike answered with something like: "I say it's time for those folks to get a raise, and I'd honor their picket line should they strike to do so."

    See folks, if you believe your education, experience or work product does not receive the same appreciation as a union worker receives, FORM/JOIN A UNION! Don't just snipe at others, when the ricochet will surely be hitting you someday.

    I also can't get over how quickly middle class America will sell itself out based on propaganda and sloganeering. Billionaires are taking multi-million$ tax cuts from Bush, that you and your kids will be paying for, and, while some of you moan and complain, it continues and the majority of the middle class either avoids the polls on election day or, in a show of mental illness bordering on masochism, votes Republican. But when a union balks at being forced to take less from the corp./authority that runs it, many Americans begin screaming to hang the union. And if that union is striking NOT out of the personal greed of its members, but over the rights of the next generation, many scream "Off With Their Heads" all the louder. It seems that personal greed is understandable; interest in the welfare of the yet unborn should end with the discussion of abortion, and certainly never be the subject of a strike to assist them in their lives AFTER their birth?

    If you are middle-class, or ever want to be: THIS IS YOUR FIGHT!

    So start educating yourself. Be aware that, while you NEVER hear it from the New Yorkers Adjust As Transit Strike Stymies CommutesMSM, the TWU is on strike NOT for personal greed. They had everything they wanted PRIOR to the MTA/Pataki/Kalikow's decision to FORCE a strike. This is a political lock out, caused by Pataki's desire to look strong to wary Conservatives that aren't enamored of Pataki's run for the Presidency. And it's helped by bad blood between the TWU and the known-to-be-crooked International Union. (see Tom Robbins and Wayne Barrett links below.)

    In yesterday's NY Times they publish, FOR THE FIRST TIME, the truth behind the strike. And, it turns out that, at the very last minute, Kalikow tried to begin the process pf screwing future workers. (Same-same Bush with Social Security, Education and Medicaid.) As the Conservatives strategy gels, you should see that by bypassing today's voters they hope to put feudalism back into play. (We'll only change SS for your kids, you'll still get checks when you retire. THEY WON'T, as we'll gamble on stocks and/or lend money to favorite corporate donors, with their retirement funds.) I'd recommend reading both Tom Robbins and Wayne Barret in this week's Village Voice, but that might seem to be a bit too left leaning in the discussion. I'd also recommend Jimmy Breslin's column on this in yesterday's Newsday. But please, I BEG YOU, read the NY Times article "In Final Hours, M.T.A. Took a Big Risk on Pensions" and you'll find that, just like WMD and domestic spying, there's more you DON'T find out in today's mainstream media than you do.

    Especially note this in the article:

    "Yet for all the rage and bluster that followed, this war was declared over a pension proposal that would have saved the transit authority less than $20 million over the next three years."

    So, the MTA, AT THE LAST MINUTE, forced a strike, a strike that Mayor Bloomberg cries is "costing the city over $400 million a day", over an item that would cost "$20 million over 3 years"??? Why would they pull such a dumb stunt? Because they depend on the average Joe/Joan to miss the big picture and, instead, scream about "greedy union members" and they're own travails in getting to work. (It absolutely amazes me when someone who claims great respect for Martin Luther King or Thomas Jefferson HAS THE NERVE to then bitch and moan about walking in the cold, when that is due to a fight that both Jefferson and King would have gladly joined!) WAKE UP SHEEPLE!!!

    (Okay, take a deep breath, Ballinger! Now exhale.)

    Please forgive me if I come off strident here. It's just that days of reading posts on the 'Net, from people who usually impress me with their displays of intelligence AND compassion when it comes to other Liberal causes suddenly turn ugly because they had to walk to work, or stay home, because of a battle over principle, I get upset. And when I see these folks placing the blame on the wrong side of the battle, and siding with those who, in the end, will harm most of us, I get strident. I've written on this at Blue Collar Politics, and will again. But I'm starting to see that the middle-class is not only ignoring the flesh eating corporate bacteria that is intent on doing away with it, but, like in today's transit strike, the middle-class is rooting for the bacteria!


  • At 1:44 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Hey Jack, so many good points.

    First, yeah, we've been saying all week that MTA management provoked a strike for political, not economic reasons:

    (where we discuss that NY Times article you mentioned)
    among other posts

    If you didn't think they were corrupt when they gave away the Brooklyn Yards for nothing, if you didn't think they were corrupt when they squandered a surplus on holiday giveaways to tourists, if you didn't think they were corrupt when they were shown to have two sets of accounting books, then surely you can see that they're corrupt now.

    Anyhow, it looks like the strike will end today.

    Progressive New Yorkers really showed their myopia and ignorance this week.

    I absolutely love that Mike Quill quote.

  • At 2:05 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    I've been particularly depressed by professionals who assume that just because they have a college degree, they deserve better working conditions than those blue-collar minorities. As if it were harder to find a graphic designer in this city than a bus mechanic.

  • At 2:46 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    There's a real racism, as well, in the way people have been emailing each other pictures of sleeping black women with captions like "and these people deserve more money?"

    Very similar to the myth of the Reagan Welfare Queen.

    What an ugly week for New York. I blame the legacy of Giuliani, Bloomberg, and the national neocons. I blame them for everything.

  • At 3:08 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    I've said this before, but no matter how stupid my reasons in the end, I'm relieved as hell I didn't end up voting for Bloomberg. I would be hating myself right now.

  • At 3:11 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Oh, and to underscore your perception that racism is behind a lot of this, check out the incredible racial polarization in this poll, especially when it comes to whom to blame:


  • At 4:31 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    WHOAH! The numbers are exactly reversed for whites and blacks for who to blame and whether you support the strike.

    It's actually heartening that 60% of African-Americans get it: MTA management started this strike, not the TWU.

  • At 10:21 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Similar racially split results in this poll:



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