A Debate on the New York City Transit Strike

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We host a debate on the New York City transit strike with Stanley Aronowitz, Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and Nicole Gelnias, contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re now joined in the studio by two people to debate this issue. Stanley Aronowitz is with us. He is Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, author of many books including How Class Works and the recently published Just Around the Corner: The Paradox of the Jobless Recovery. We’re also joined on the phone by Nicole Gelnias, she is a contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and has written extensively about municipal finance issues. Let’s begin with you, Nicole. Your take on the strike.

NICOLE GELNIAS: Thank you, Amy, for having me on. First of all, this is an illegal labor action, and I heard Mr. Gonzalez say that the MTA disciplines its workers too often, but I think right now what the public is thinking to themselves when they hear something like that is: If you have 34,000 people who are willing to break the law and to put their fellow citizens of the city into deep economic peril over what’s really a run-of-the-mill labor dispute —- the MTA does not want to take away these workers’ generous middle class salaries and benefits, they simply want to tinker with benefits for future workers who aren’t even employed there yet. I don’t think the TWU is getting very much sympathy at all on this issue with the public. And I think that if the governor and the mayor do not ensure that the TWU does not benefit economically from this strike, that we’re just going to see more strikes by more emboldened municipal labor unions, and the city is going to fall right back into the type of labor chaos that plagued it throughout the 1960s and 1970s and that drives private business owners, workers and investors away. If you own -—

AMY GOODMAN: Let me put that to Professor Aronowitz.

STANLEY ARONOWITZ: Well, let’s hope that the rest of municipal labor gets emboldened and takes the example of the TWU Local 100, because there’s been, as your workers have said, 30 years of concessions, because this union has given one after another concession, and at some point somebody’s got to say enough. And I think what happened in this situation was that Peter Kalikow, whose last original thought was when he was in the fourth grade, was taking orders from Governor Pataki to put in a last-minute demand for 6% for new workers on the pension plan, instead of taking the position, which would have settled the strike, that the status quo would be maintained. They threw this in from left field, and as a result, the union’s back against the wall, having said it would not take concessions, was forced out on strike as Roger Toussaint said, “to hold the line.”

This was not a strike with enormous amount of wage demands, this was a strike which said, “We are not going to take concessions, we want to at least get the inflation rate,” which in New York city is 4%, and they were offered below the inflation rate. That wouldn’t have been the basic issue. The basic issue was subordination. This union has had 15,200 grievances in the year 2004 and 2005. People get fired; people get furloughed because of infractions of a very, very draconian set of work rules. That’s the deep resentment of the membership, that they are treated, in many ways, like outsiders in their own system.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicole Gelnias, let me ask you this, the New York Times is reporting that the last-minute demand that was introduced, the MTA put forward that the new transit workers contribute 6% to their pensions, up from 2%, would have saved the city less than $20 million over the next three years, a sum less than what the New York Police Department will spend on extra overtime during the first two days of this strike.

NICOLE GELNIAS: Well, first of all, let me say to Stanley quickly that the last offer the TWU rejected before it went out on strike would have kept wages well in line with inflation. This was — no middle class wages were imperiled here in these negotiations.

And, Amy, to address your question, the 6% pension requirements the MTA asked for, that was really a fine compromise the MTA offered the workers. The workers would have been able to keep their retirement age at 62, which is far more than young workers in the private sector can expect. Most young workers have 401(k)s. They don’t have company-provided pensions now, and a 6% contribution from new workers to fund that pension age would have amounted to about $24,000 in extra contributions from that worker for that worker’s life. That would not even pay for one of those extra retirement years the MTA was offering in exchange for the payment. So even with the 6%, the workers were making out very, very well. I think many of these workers are not quite realizing the financial hit their own families are going to take from this strike. I really do hope that the TWU comes to its senses very shortly, if not to save the city’s economy that it’s now thrown into peril, just to look out for the financial interests of the union’s own members, because —

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Aronowitz.

STANLEY ARONOWITZ: Well, the mayor and the governor threw away the city’s economy. They introduced an arbitrary demand of 6%, knowing full well that the union had made a very clear position. We are not going to take the slippery slope of concessions. Now I think the problem at this point is that we don’t quite understand what’s going on, if we don’t understand that Bloomberg and Pataki did not make the same demand for state and city workers in the April and May negotiations last spring. They have not introduced new demands at the 11th hour with any other union. In this case, they decided they are going to break the last best hope of New York City labor to actually begin to resist what amounts to a pattern of concession bargaining and arbitrariness of the MTA.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does race and class fit into this, Professor Aronowitz?

STANLEY ARONOWITZ: It is absolutely central to this whole thing. When workers say, ’It’s the people that are being discriminated against,’ they mean it is blacks and Latinos and Chinese and Asian workers. This has now been a pattern that the MTA’s grievance and discipline policy has introduced since the majority of those workers have been black and Latino. And I think that’s the underlying issue — one of the underlying issues in this strike.

One thing that is also an issue in this strike is: Can you believe the MTA when they say anything? They said that we were going to have deficits, as Juan Gonzalez said, in 1999, and now they’ve said again that we’re going have deficits in 2005. And lo and behold, they had a $1 billion surplus. And they chose to spend the surplus by giving riders a discount during the Christmas vacation, and they also are supporting the tourist industry, but they’re not supporting the workers. Why not share that surplus with the workers? Well, the answer is: You don’t share that surplus when your objective is to break the spirit of the union and to break the spirit of the workers. That’s really what this strike is about.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicole Gelnias.

NICOLE GELNIAS: Sure. First of all, Stanley, the MTA is sharing the surplus with the workers. Half of the surplus is going to fund worker pension benefits that the MTA has already committed to paying. So that’s really a direct $450 million payment to the workers. Most of the rest of the money will go toward security upgrades. Only one-half of one percent (0.5%) of the $1 billion surplus is going toward the holiday fares that the union is so against.

As for this being a class issue, the TWU workers make an average salary of $55,000. This puts them squarely in New York’s middle class. So this is not a class issue at all. The only way it will be a class issue is if the governor and the mayor do the right thing under the law and make sure they get workers into these jobs right away, because New Yorkers need their public transportation system running.

STANLEY ARONOWITZ: You mean $55,000 is a middle class wage for a family of four? The United Way doesn’t agree with you. It says $55,000 is the minimum comfort level. It’s next to poverty in New York City.

NICOLE GELNIAS: $55,000 is a middle class wage. Many people would be happy to make $55,000.

STANLEY ARONOWITZ: Well, that doesn’t mean that it’s really a middle class wage. You know what a middle class wage in New York City would be? $75,000, $80,000 for a family of four. Do you know what rents are like now in New York City? You can’t find a decent two-bedroom apartment anywhere for less than $1,200 to $1,300 —

NICOLE GELNIAS: Stanley, the average salary in New York is $49,000.

STANLEY ARONOWITZ: I mean, look, let’s face it, Nicole.

AMY GOODMAN: One at a time.

STANLEY ARONOWITZ: People are living —

AMY GOODMAN: Nicole, just wait one minute.

STANLEY ARONOWITZ: People are living at the edge, and the transit workers are not only at the edge in terms of their income, but they’re at the edge in terms of their treatment. And if you don’t take into account people’s treatment on the job, then you are in a position to not understand what this strikes is about. They have been degraded. They have been insulted. They have been treated essentially like servants, and Mayor Bloomberg has been very arrogant in his response to their demands, and Peter Kalikow has been absolutely irresponsible in making new demands at the 11th hour.

AMY GOODMAN: I was most struck by, when our producers, Elizabeth Press and Ana Nogueira, went out on the streets, people walking for miles, people coming over the bridges, that they found the majority of people supported the union. These were the inconvenienced New Yorkers. Nicole?

NICOLE GELNIAS: Actually, one of the newspapers reported today that 72% of people who were polled in an informal question-and-answer did not support the union, and if you look at people who are really living on the edge, it’s laughable to say that workers with ironclad job security, with salaries of $55,000-plus, depending on how much overtime they want to work, and with a guaranteed pension at age 55, are living on the edge. Many people would have loved to have this opportunity, particularly the immigrants to New York City, people who are first moving up from the very working class to the middle class.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Nicole, we gave you the first word. Professor Aronowitz, the last.

STANLEY ARONOWITZ: I think we are in a very serious crossroads, not only in labor relations in New York City, but in our attitudes towards democracy now. These workers represent the last best hope of New Yorkers, New Yorkers who are living at the edge, despite what Nicole says, New Yorkers who are facing the arbitrary authority of management without a voice and sometimes they take the wrong position. They say, 'Well, we don't have those benefits. Why should they?’ Their attitude should be, 'They have the benefits. How should we get our benefits, as well?' The other thing that we forget about this strike and about this issue is that 55 years old, 25 years of that job, you are in danger all the time. This is not a secure job. You can get hurt. You can get fired. You can get 20, 30 days off for looking cross-eyed at your supervisor. This is not a secure job. And they’re fighting for that security, and that fight, hopefully, they will win.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Stanley Aronowitz teaches sociology at the City University of New York. His book, Just Around the Corner: The Paradox of the Jobless Recovery. That’s his latest book. Nicole Gelnias, contributing editor at Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. We welcome you both, and thank you for joining us on this program.

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