Wednesday, December 21, 2005 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: A Debate on the New York City Transit Strike
2005-12-21

Mayor Bloomberg Condemns New York City Transit Strike, MTA Workers Hold Firm

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New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg condemns a strike by 33,000 transit workers that has shut down the country’s largest public transportation system for the first time in 25 years. We play an excerpt of Bloomberg’s press conference, hear New York City commuters and transit workers explaining their reasons for the strike and we speak with Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez who has been closely covering the strike. [includes rush transcript]

On Tuesday, 33,000 New York City transit workers went on strike shutting down the country’s largest public transportation system for the first time in 25 years. More than 7 million commuters were left to find alternative ways to get around the city. The Transport Worker’s Union board voted to strike after a 12-hour round of intense negotiations between Peter S. Kalikow, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s chairman, and Roger Toussaint, president of Local 100 of the TWU. The two sides could not reach an agreement on a number of issues including wages, pensions and disciplinary procedures.

The strike was announced yesterday morning at around 3 AM by Toussaint. He said that the strike was "a fight over dignity and respect on the job–a concept that is very alien to the MTA." Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been urging the Union to give in to the MTA’s demands, called the strike selfish and illegal.

  • Michael Bloomberg, New York City, press conference, December 20, 2005.

Late Tuesday, State Supreme Court Judge Theodore Jones leveled a fine of $1 million a day on the union, charging that it was in violation of the Taylor law. The Taylor Law is a state statute that prohibits strikes by public employees.

Democracy Now Producer, Elizabeth Press spoke to some transit workers yesterday to find out how they felt about the strike.

  • Irving Lee, MTA Train Operator
  • Victor John, MTA Train Conductor
  • Jay Callahan, MTA Train Conductor

Democracy Now Producers, Elizabeth Press and Ana Nogueira also asked some commuters how they felt about the strike.

  • New York City commuters,

We go now to longtime labor reporter and Democracy Now co-host Juan Gonzalez. He’s been closely covering the strike for the past few days.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been urging the union to give in to the MTA’s demands, called the strike selfish and illegal. This is the mayor speaking at a news conference yesterday.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: The leadership of the TWU has thuggishly turned their backs on New York City and disgraced the noble concept of public service. This strike is costing us. It is costing people their jobs. It will cost billions in lost economic activity. It is robbing people of their opportunities to earn a living and provide for their families.

AMY GOODMAN: Late Tuesday, State Supreme Court Judge Theodore Jones leveled a fine of $1 million a day on the union, charging it was in violation of the Taylor Law, a state statute that prohibits strikes by public employees. Democracy Now! producer Elizabeth Press spoke to some transit workers yesterday to find out how they felt about the strike. This is Irving Lee, an MTA train operator.

IRVING LEE: I am a train operator, and, of course, I support what Roger is doing in this strike action, and I think it’s a long time coming, because we have been suffering for givebacks for many, many years right now, 30 years worth of givebacks. Of course, I haven’t been here for 30 years, but it’s been that long since the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, making many concessions, and the TA wants more concessions from us, with the hitting of the new employees. Now that we’re on strike, there are a lot of other issues that we want to address, too, that could be enforced with this strike. Hopefully it will give us more bargaining leverage, and the TA has been asking for too much for too long.

We are doing this, not only for ourselves, but we are doing this for the riding public as a whole. We want better mass transit. We want to have more public financing to the transit system, as opposed to taking loans and going into debt. And we want a safe transit system. And we don’t need to have a fare increase to pay for our benefits. That’s not necessary. The money is out there. Money’s being paid for war. Naturally, that money that’s being spent for war could be spent for us. So, we’re doing this for us, as well as the public.

VICTOR JOHN: My name is Victor John. I’m a conductor on the N train line. And we’re here striking for better conditions for both workers and the public. We would appreciate a better pay raise, as well, protection for our pensions, because in administration, all their pensions are protected. We’re hoping that with these negotiations, the public will see a different side of the MTA, a side that keeps two sets of books for accounting, one for themselves and one for the public. But I was proud of the union. I’m proud, and I have a very strong feeling that it’s about time to get respect from management. This is what we have to do, then so be it. We’ll go out full force and push as far as we can.

JAY CALLAHAN: My name is Jay Callahan. I’m a conductor, New York City Transit Authority. We’re out here today to protest our contract. The MTA seems to be demonstrating that they don’t want to give us a just contract, we feel. So that’s why we’re out here today, to let them know that we feel that the contract they offered us is not a just one, and we would hope that we could get back to the negotiating table and work out a contract that’s just for us, and also for management. And we are sorry to inconvenience the public. We have family and friends who are inconvenienced also. But we feel as though we’re entitled to a just contract.

Our fight is not with anyone specific. We just want a fair contract. We’re not angry with Mr. Bloomberg. We would hope that Governor Pataki would have stepped in and maybe made his people who he appointed, Kalikow and the rest of that group of people, to go into a room and not come out that room without a contract. It seems as though management has no respect for us as a union, as a people. And I think for the last 20 years, if you look at the contracts, we have been giving back, giving back, giving back, giving back, and they have been asking for more and more and more. They want to cut the conductor job altogether, the token booth clerk job. So, they’re taking, taking, taking, and I guess at some point, anyone if you get them into a corner, at some point they’re going to fight back. So that’s why we’re out here today. We’re fighting back. Enough is enough. But again, we didn’t want this fight. We were forced into this fight. So now that we’re in this fight, we’re in it to win it.

AMY GOODMAN: Transit workers on strike here in New York. Democracy Now! producers Elizabeth Press and Ana Nogueira also asked some commuters how they felt about the strike.

COMMUTER 1: I support the union.

ANA NOGUEIRA: Why?

COMMUTER 1: Well, because I think that they deserve the money they want. It’s ridiculous with a billion-dollar corporation for them to starve these people over just a few things. You know, like their raises they’re asking for are minimum; it’s not something crazy over the next three years. And I support them.

COMMUTER 2: I think I support the MTA. I mean, with so many New Yorkers depending on the transit system, it’s unconscionable to do this to people. And the people who are really going to get hurt are the small mom-and-pop stores who need this time of the year to make their business.

COMMUTER 3: I support the union wholeheartedly.

ELIZABETH PRESS: Why?

COMMUTER 3: Because everybody wants to make a living. I mean, everybody making big bucks in New York. The poor guy has to make some money to live here. It’s very expensive to live in this city. So I support the union. Union is good for everybody.

COMMUTER 4: I hate it. I feel that they’re supposed to get something, because we all want something. But we all can’t do what they’re doing. So I don’t feel that it’s right to take advantage of it. Take what you can for now and then fight later on without putting everybody else’s life in chaos like they doing.

COMMUTER 5: I kind of empathize on both sides a little bit. I know the MTA is pretty crappy, and how do you tell a group of workers that they don’t have the right to strike. So, I guess it comes down to: Whose rights are more important? The eight million travelers or the rights of those workers to not work if they don’t want to? So, I don’t know. It’s a tough, tough choice. I don’t know what my answer is.

COMMUTER 6: I think TWU Local 100 needs to win, because I think they have a big responsibility to set the standard for a lot of other workers in New York.

AMY GOODMAN: Voices of New Yorkers, here on Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll speak to Democracy Now!’s Juan Gonzalez, and then a debate on the strike.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We go to long-time labor reporter and Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez, closely covering the strike for the last few days. Welcome, Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Good day, Amy, and to all of the listeners and viewers.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think are the key points to understand here?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I think the key thing to understand, and I have been — I think some of the voices on the street or some of the strikers that Elizabeth got expressed completely what I learned over the last few weeks in talking to dozens and dozens of TWU members. I have never seen a union, a membership so determined and furious at their management for years of mistreatment and so willing to go out on strike. In fact, those — the mayor is criticizing Roger Toussaint. I think that Roger is only representing this enormous frustration that exists in the rank-and-file of his union. I spoke to a worker on the picket line yesterday at the 207th Street depot who is suffering from inoperable cancer, who just learned that it had spread to his lung the day before the strike, but who is absolutely outraged that for weeks now the MTA has been accusing him of abusing — of being a chronic sick leave abuser because he had to take time off from work for chemotherapy over the last few months. And all kinds of examples of this.

Roger Toussaint has pointed to the fact that there are 33,000 workers, but there were 15,000 disciplinary procedures by the MTA last year against the workers. No agency that produces this kind of labor discord and this kind of animosity in its workers would be tolerated, that kind of a management situation, any situation in corporate America. So I think that the problem is this enormous animosity that exists and the lack of trust in the management negotiating, because a few years ago, in 1999, after negotiating a 10% increase in wages over several years, the agency suddenly asked the union to reopen negotiations, because there was a huge deficit, and the union did — made some givebacks under a previous leadership, but then it turned out that the deficit disappeared. State Comptroller Alan Hevesi found that the agency was keeping two sets of books at one point, hiding its actual financial health. So there’s no trust between the workers and the management. There’s enormous animosity, so it’s no surprise that at the final hour, instead of accepting a few-million-dollar cost for maintaining the current pension system, the agency chose instead to challenge the union to go out, and they were mistaken when they found out that under Roger Toussaint this union is much more united, and it went out.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, thanks very much for joining us. Hey to Gabriela, your daughter. Kids are going to school two hours late today?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, yes, and I’ve got to take her in a little bit to school. You may have heard her in the background here, because the schools are all opening two hours late.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, next time we’ll interview her. We’ll let Gabriela weigh in.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Okay.

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