Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Juan Gonzalez: Don't Fall Prey To Bloomberg's Line About "Greedy Workers"

This excellent and eloquent column from Juan Gonzalez of The New York Daily News does a pretty good job explaining how this transit strike could have been avoided and why working and middle class New Yorkers should be supporting the TWU. I am quoting the column in full:

Arrogance of the MTA made strike a certainty

Willie Casiano and his fellow union members tried to keep warm over a trash-can fire yesterday morning while they walked the picket line outside the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's sprawling train-overhaul shop at 207th St. in Inwood.

Down at City Hall, Mayor Bloomberg was blasting the members of Transport Workers Union Local 100 as greedy, as thugs and criminals for daring to walk off the job for a decent contract, for creating massive inconvenience to subway and bus riders.

There is, of course, never a good time for any strike.

The timing was especially tough for Casiano, who landed his mechanic's job at the MTA after the 1980 transit strike.

On Monday, his doctor broke the news that the cancer in Casiano's spine had spread to his lung. He's already endured months of grueling chemotherapy. Now he faces applying to the MTA for disability.

What happened to this sick worker and to so many other employees at the MTA is as much the reason for this strike as a wage increase, pension or health care benefit.

"Ever since I started missing work for chemo treatments, my supervisor's been accusing me of chronic sick-leave abuse," Casiano said.

Nelson Rivera, shop chairman for the 300 mechanics and car cleaners at 207th St., says Casiano is not the only worker penalized for illness. Another mechanic with 30 years on the job recently had a heart operation.

"When the guy came back to work, the MTA demoted him to security guard instead of giving him light duties," Rivera said. "Since then, he's been disciplined twice and is now facing a possible dismissal in 30 days."

Local 100 President Roger Toussaint has repeatedly complained that the MTA issued a phenomenal 15,000 disciplinary actions against his members last year.

When so many workers are being punished and harassed daily by management, something is deeply wrong with the people at the top of that agency.

"We've been fed up with the MTA and wanted a strike for years," Rivera said. "But until Roger got elected, no union leader dared to stand up to management."

All across this city, workers who have no pensions and who must pay huge premiums for health insurance hear about transit workers fighting to preserve pensions at 55 and employer-paid health insurance. They fall prey to the Bloomberg line of "greedy workers."

Have the rest of us been beaten down, exploited and abused for so long by our own employers that we will allow transit workers who dare to defend their standard of living to be painted as thugs?

To hear Bloomberg talk, the Taylor Law came down with the Ten Commandments - and wasn't a modern concoction by politicians to curb the power and influence of our city's municipal unions.

The mayor apparently wants Toussaint and the TWU to accept a two-tier pension system. Then he can get all the municipal unions to follow suit and accept a weak new pension tier in their next contracts.

Even then-Mayor Ed Koch, who presided over the 1980 strike, later admitted in his autobiography how worried he was that then-Gov. Hugh Carey and Richard Ravitch, the MTA chairman at the time, would set a pattern in their contract with the TWU that other city workers would want.

But Koch at least had the courage to act like a leader, not a bully. He went to the talks being conducted and urged round-the-clock negotiations.

Bloomberg and Gov. Pataki stay far away from the talks, but behind the scenes they order their messenger, Peter Kalikow, not to give any more ground to Toussaint and the workers.

Tragically, there was no need for this strike. Not with a $1 billion surplus at the MTA. The agency's arrogant managers figured they could keep abusing their workers forever. They figured wrong.

For Casiano and his fellow transit workers, no matter what happens, no matter how much they end up paying in fines, the MTA and the leaders of this city will never treat them the same way again.

Originally published on December 21, 2005

My question is, how do we get working class and middle class New Yorkers to stop parroting Bloomberg's meme that the TWU members are "greedy, selfish people"? How do we get people to realize that the union went on strike to try and protect the standard of living of its members and that if the standard of living for union members is decreased, the standard of living for non-union members will be decreased even more?

I have a friend who is ordinarily pretty liberal on labor issues. She is irate at the union and believes the TWU is solely at fault for this job action. When I asked her how she knows this, she told me she had learned this from thenews on the television and in the papers.

And therein lies one of the problems. The news media coverage of the TWU is becoming pretty negative. The cover of the Daily News today reads "Mad As Hell" and most of the stories inside tell readers how New Yorkers are "fuming" at the union. The rest of the papers aren't much better.

The coverage on the TV is just as negative toward the union. Many of the shivering reporters are doing their "Man on the Street" interviews with angry New Yorkers content to blame the union for the strike while the anchors are asking questions like "Why couldn't the TWU work without a contract the way the other municipal unions do?"

Never mind that the right-wing publisher of The Daily News, Mort Zuckerman, stands to lose millions in his business interests from the strike and is an infamous union-buster himself to boot (the Daily News has a history of ugly contract negotiations and strikes.) Never mind that most newspaper publishers or TV conglomerates have an interest in union-busting and tailoring a line that the workers are "selfish" and "greedy."

There seems to be very little media scrutiny of the MTA's behavior in all of this. Few in the press outside of Juan Gonzalez seem to be asking real questions about the MTA's finances or questioning their bargaining strategy during the negotiations. For the media, the responsibility for this strike lies almost solely with the union.

One media piece that does question the MTA bargaining position is this Stephen Greenhouse article in the Times this morning that says the MTA made a last minute demand on pensions that completely derailed the contract talks and forced the union into a strike. But according to the Greenhouse article, the pension demand will actually only save the MTA $20 million bucks while this strike is supposed to costing the city many millions per day. So why did the MTA demand this pension concession?

On the final day of intense negotiations, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, it turns out, greatly altered what it had called its final offer, to address many of the objections of the transit workers' union. The authority improved its earlier wage proposals, dropped its demand for concessions on health benefits and stopped calling for an increase in the retirement age, to 62 from 55.

But then, just hours before the strike deadline, the authority's chairman, Peter S. Kalikow, put forward a surprise demand that stunned the union. Seeking to rein in the authority's soaring pension costs, he asked that all new transit workers contribute 6 percent of their wages toward their pensions, up from the 2 percent that current workers pay. The union balked, and then shut down the nation's largest transit system for the first time in a quarter-century.

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.

It seemed a small figure, considering that the city says that every day of the strike will cost its businesses hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues. But the authority contends that it must act now to prevent a "tidal wave" of pension outlays if costs are not brought under control.

Roger Toussaint, the president of the union, Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, said the pension proposal, made Monday night just before the 12:01 a.m. strike deadline, would effectively cut the wages of new workers by 4 percent.

"They're trying to beat down wages for our new workers," Mr. Toussaint said yesterday.

In the days immediately before the strike deadline, the union kept hammering the point that the authority's pension demands would save little over the life of a three-year contract.

Indeed, not just Mr. Toussaint but some other New Yorkers are questioning whether it was worthwhile for the authority to go to war over the issue when the authority's pension demands would apparently save less over the next three years than what the New York City Police Department will spend on extra overtime during the first two days of the strike.

"What they'd be saving on pensions is a pittance," Mr. Toussaint said.

Robert Linn, a former New York City labor commissioner, questioned the transportation authority's decision - with the backing of the mayor and governor - to go to the mat over pensions with a union that can exact huge pain on the city in a year when the authority was enjoying a $1 billion surplus.

"They might have picked a union that was more willing to consider the subject," Mr. Linn said. "It not just the considerable economic power of this union, it's also the timing," just before Christmas. "It's tremendously problematic."

Gary J. Dellaverson, the authority's director of labor relations, said he and the authority's other negotiators had tried to be flexible in making the pension offer.

"We tried to remold our position, to be reflective of their issues and still be consistent with our finances and our bargaining goals - what we considered a good faith effort to close the deal," he said.

Labor negotiations resemble high-stakes poker, and it was not until a few hours before the strike deadline that the authority 's chairman, Mr. Kalikow, showed his hand, making an offer far different from what he had previously said was his final offer.

With the transit workers' union demanding raises above inflation, Mr. Kalikow raised his wage offer so that raises would average 3.5 percent a year for three years, up from 3 percent in his previous offer. Responding to the union's demand that he not raise the retirement age, Mr. Kalikow also dropped his proposal that future transit workers not qualify for a full pension until age 62, up from 55 for current workers.

But then he put his new demand on the table, that new workers contribute 6 percent of their wages to finance their pensions - a demand that clashed with Mr. Toussaint's oft-repeated refusal to sell out the "unborn," meaning new workers.

Mr. Dellaverson declined to spell out how much that proposal would save each year. "Pension changes always have small effects at the beginning and grow over time," he said.

John J. Murphy, a pension expert and former executive director of the New York City Employees' Retirement System, said he computed that the authority's pension proposal would have a modest saving at first: $2.25 million in the first year, $4.8 million in the second year and $7.8 million in the third year.

But he said the plan would achieve significant savings, more than $160 million in the first 10 years, with some officials estimating that it would save more than $80 million a year after 20 years.

Mr. Dellaverson said it was important for the authority to try to control its pension outlays even in a year when it had a surplus. The authority's pension outlays for the transit workers have soared to $453 million this year, triple the amount in 2002.

"If you know a tidal wave is coming and you can still play around in the surf because it's not here yet, anyone would think that's foolishness," Mr. Dellaverson said.

That wave, he suggested, is a continued rise in pension costs and the authority's forecast of a $1 billion deficit in 2009.

Mr. Dellaverson said the week of negotiations at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Midtown were unusual because the union made hardly any firm counteroffers. "The longer you wait to start to address the problem," he said, "the more dramatic the changes must be to address them."

He said the union made no new offer countering the authority's pension offers. The union, he said, asked for an 8 percent raise a year, without ever specifying how many years of 8 percent raises it wanted.

He said that just before negotiations broke off on Monday, "We made another offer, even though the union had never countered our earlier offer," he said. "From a tactical standpoint, it's unusual in my little business."

Several union officials said Mr. Toussaint was often reluctant to make a new proposal - for instance, lowering a wage demand - because the clamorous dissidents in the union might seize on such a move to accuse him of selling out.

E. J. McMahon, a budgetary expert at the Manhattan Institute who favors reducing government pension costs, said there were wise and unwise aspects to the authority's focus on pensions in the bargaining.

"On one hand, the transit workers are the hardest union to bring this up with," he said. "On the other hand, this has really put a spotlight on the pension issue."

Now it could be that the MTA really will save $160 million or more in the long run with this pension demand for new TWU workers.

Or it could be the MTA, backed by Mayor Moneybags and Governor Bagman, wanted to take a hard-line with the union on this pension issue, knowing it would force a strike, allow them to break the TWU, and lay the groundwork for much easier future pension concessions from other public employees unions.

I admit to being cynical, but I cannot imagine Bloomberg and Pataki would deliberately provoke a transit strike during the week before Christmas just to break a union and force future pension concessions from public employees unions.

Would they?

UPDATE: As a UFT member, I was particularly offended by UFT Preznit Randi Weingarten's contention that she had won a 25/55 concession from the mayor for UFT members' pensions. Weingarten and her UNITY caucus usually left out that the only concession she had won from Bloomberg was that he would support a commission that would look into trying to change the state law to a 25/55 pension tier for current public employees.

How does that 25/55 pension look now that we know both Bloomberg and Pataki are pushing 62 for the TWU, thus setting the stage for higher retirement ages for the other public employees unions as well?

When are we gonna get together and start plotting in earnest against Christmas?

I was thinking if this works out, we could follow up with campaigns against Mom and apple pie (though not necessarily in that order).
Wait a minute! I thought we already were plotting against Christmas!

Damn! I should have been coming to the anti-Christmas meetings.

Anyway, Happy Falafel Day.
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