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The Big Lie of Austerity--and How Transit Workers are Fighting Back

As politicians demand cuts, New York's transit workers union pushes back on the austerity narrative and calls for better treatment for all working people.

Like public sector workers everywhere, New York City’s transit workers face a withering attack on our compensation and our collective organization.

As contract talks continue between Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the Metropolitan Transit Authority, small pay raises in the fourth and fifth years of a proposed deal are tossed about in the press.

But between giant health care cost increases, full-time job cuts, and workplace destabilization, transit workers would go backwards.

The contract, covering 35,000 subway and bus workers, expired January 15. Union negotiators, led by Local 100 President John Samuelsen, have vowed not to accept takeaways.

The union has rallied for months, and a January 15 event outside the talks brought a broad array of community and environmental groups, and local politicians, along with members of Occupy Wall Street.

The MTA is proposing work rule changes that would explosively expand the part-time workforce: 20 percent of workers would no longer be guaranteed an eight-hour day. TWU opposes the bid because more part-time workers would reduce the union’s cohesion and ability to fight back.

Management also wants to chop compensation by eliminating pay for the time workers must travel between work locations, which can stretch over two hours in the giant metropolis.

But the biggest cutback would come from a drastic increase in what workers pay for health insurance. Current proposals would cut net pay by a double-digit percentage.

In preparing to demand these cuts, management’s first action was to shut the safety valve that in past recessions had absorbed workers displaced from other MTA departments and city agencies: the station booths. In recent years the MTA has laid off almost 500 station agents and closed booths.

Management’s Foot in the Door

The state’s public employment relations board called the workforce that runs public transportation in New York City the most efficient and productive urban mass transit workforce in the U.S.

Labor costs are low as a percentage of operating costs, yet management demands more sacrifice from transit workers because tight budgets are a permanent and advancing dynamic for the public sector everywhere. Experience shows that when public employees sacrifice to meet budget requirements, they get only demands for more sacrifice.

New York state workers are witnessing an example of this dynamic. The Civil Service Employees Association and the Public Employees Federation accepted contracts last summer with cuts to health care and pensions and zero raises (though PEF dissidents led an initial rejection of the concessions).

Governor Andrew Cuomo is now demanding a sixth pension tier for future state employees, which would raise the retirement age and substitute a 401(k) for defined benefits. He claims a “life-long legacy” can no longer accompany public employment, despite a history among public workers of trading lower wages for better benefits.

Governments worldwide spend an ever-diminishing amount on all public services, as they cut taxes to business and wealthy individuals. This has been especially true for New York’s transit system.

State funding for MTA has suffered from decades of thievery and neglect by hostile politicians who have repeatedly raided dedicated transit dollars, forcing the MTA to borrow huge sums to finance its construction projects. One-fifth of every transit dollar now goes to Wall Street financiers, thanks to the bipartisan attack.

Most recently, Democratic Governor Cuomo and Republican leaders agreed to cut a tax worth $320 million a year to the MTA, thus setting up the agency to swell its debt load to almost $42 billion this year. The eye-popping debt again causes management to demand workers pay the price for politicians’ neglect.

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