Saturday, December 24, 2005

A Few Thoughts on the Transit Strike
So here we are, back to normal in the city, and people are trying to determine what it was all about. Was anything accomplished, other than great inconvenience to the city's seven million commuters?

There were cultural, legal, economic and citizenship aspects to this labor action and its consequences; the more I think about it, the more interesting it really is. Probably a book is in here for someone. I don't really want to spend much time dwelling on the cultural/racial aspects to this: yes, you've got a bunch of white MTA members in suits on one side, opposed by darker-skinned union leaders speaking in accented English. Did that influence perceptions and press coverage? I'm sure it did, but I'm much more skeptical that it really meant anything extra in either the breakdown of talks or the eventual resolution. Similarly, I think we can dismiss the legal angle: the Taylor Law is little more than a club with which to beat public employee unions, and I would be very surprised if the fines imposed on the TWU as a result of their "illegal" strike are actually assessed. They're leverage, window dressing. And as I'll note below, they're arguably counterproductive in terms of resolving the actual issues.

It's the economic and "citizenship" (for lack of a clearly better word) aspects that really interest me here. A week ago I didn't have much sympathy for the strikers: the work I do has made me very aware--perhaps overly aware--of how closely related are educational attainment and earning power in this economy. The transit workers, most of whom I believe aren't college-educated, earn an average wage considerably higher than the city mean, with much more generous benefits including the pension that ultimately proved the sticking point in negotiations. Who were they, I figured, to stand athwart a macroeconomic trend that shifts the burden of retirement security to the worker?

As I thought about it more, though, I became disgusted by my own position. What I'd half-articulated was that the union should, in effect, lie back and enjoy it as a corrupt agency that logically shouldn't even exist moved to take away compensation they'd fought for. To put it another way (a way that's been put pretty widely, for the little that's worth), why should they have it better than the rest of us who are doing without pensions?

The answer, of course, is "because they can." And the reason why they can is because they're organized. Public sector unions comprise much of what's left of the American labor movement; those of us who believe we need to re-unionize the workforce, particularly among the less-skilled who have next to no individual bargaining power, damn well shouldn't be encouraging the current remnants to roll over. Particularly when the Authority they're battling has a terrible track record of dishonest bookkeeping and no accountability.

I'm not inclined to get into the specifics of the proposals kicked around between the two sides, others than to note that MTA's last pre-strike offer on wages was barely enough to keep up with projected inflation. If you were negotiating with an employer who admitted to a $1 billion surplus, you'd probably want more too.

So that leaves us with the citizenship question: was it simply a dick move to strike in the last week before Christmas? Critics of the union, from Mayor Bloomberg to many of the posters here, point to the pain and inconvenience inflicted on the city and/or its low-income workers. This is an unarguable point, and one the union leaders claim not to have taken lightly. Many of these same critics, at the link above and elsewhere, have said that their issue isn't with the union's demands, but rather with the action they took.

The problem is, I'm not sure what else they could have done. A commentator on NY1 yesterday made a great point about the above-mentioned Taylor Law: if you obey it as a public employee union, you've got no leverage to push for a settlement. I couldn't believe this hadn't occurred to me before: the NYC teachers and cops have both gone years recently working on expired contracts. Individuals in very difficult and very important jobs went without raises, changes to work conditions, anything even that might have indicated the city took them seriously. How many cops took retirement, how many teachers left for suburban districts or the private sector during those periods? The union got its nose bloodied and might face some fines, but they've also moved the ball dramatically on getting their deal. Perhaps the problem is with the Taylor Law, not the strike.

A final thought. New Yorkers are tough, and they surely hated the inconvenience of the strike for what it cost them personally. But despite the rantings of the tabloid papers, a large majority ultimately didn't blame the union:

According to an exclusive NY1 poll, 41 percent of New Yorkers think both the MTA and the Transport Workers Union are to blame for the strike. About 27 percent solely fault the MTA while 25 blame the union for the walkout.
The poll does find, though, that 54 percent of New Yorkers think what the union wants is fair compared to 36 percent who do not.

Emphasis mine. It's a heartening notion that New Yorkers might value the idea of a fair shake for workers as much as a more-convenient commute.

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