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The import of the New York transit strike is still open to analysis. My personal experience of the strike was limited to being gouged by a cab driver on the first day when I had to quickly get uptown to do an interview, and having a very different experience on the following morning, sharing a cab and a sense of camaraderie with other passengers. The city seemed more turbulent than usual during the length of the strike, but in no sense did it feel out of control. The slight trace of chaos actually added to the pleasure of having to walk along on crowded and oddly festive sidewalks to places one usually got to by subway.
The strike took place at a time when only 12.5 percent of wage and salary workers are union members nationwide, declining from 20.1 percent in 1983. In 2004, 36 percent of government workers were unionized, while only 8 percent of workers in private sector industries were.
My initial feelings were that the strike was a dubious, even self-destructive, strategy, and that the TWU’s head, Roger Toussaint, under pressure from a militant faction, was calling the strike to shore up his leadership. But at the same time, I had empathy for the transit workers (I have been a committed union member for over 40 years), who had good reasons for striking. These men and women work at arduous, high-pressure jobs, and they resent the humiliation they felt at the hands of MTA management. The union had to deal with an MTA whose negotiators were a team of wealthy white men, almost all of them products of large corporations and law firms, while first and second-generation West Indians (the union’s membership is about 70% minority) with some Irish-Americans dominated the union side—all which helped fuel the fury leading up to the strike
The latter fact gave the strike a racial subtext that added to the workers’ anger. In addition, there was the MTA’s expensively dressed head Peter Kalikow, whose wealth came from a third generation Manhattan real estate dynasty, but had bankrupted the last two institutions he headed —the New York Post and his family real estate business. This crony of Al D’Amato and other Republican big time operators was a perfect representative of an MTA that had long thrown away their credibility in the TWU’s eyes. Furthermore, the agency shiftily was known to keep two sets of books— one for the public, and one with the real numbers— and it owed over $20 billion in debt service costs. It had also lost $300 million to fraud and cost overruns at its own headquarters, leading Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to say: "Of all the authorities, the MTA is the most mismanaged, least competent one out there, and everybody knows it." Probably the last straw was the MTA’s last minute proposal to make new workers pay more into their pensions than current employees—creating a two-tier pension system.
When I spoke with a labor economist friend, about the strike, he provided an incisive analysis of what had transpired:
“In any bargaining process there are questions of principle and issues that are negotiable. Faced with financial pressures the MTA looked for ways to reduce its labor costs, and it chose pensions. Toussaint saw this tactic as divisive, and an issue of principle on which to strike. While many of the city unions came to his support, they simultaneously worked hard, behind the scenes, to mediate a settlement. The Unions understood that in this period of relatively modest wage increases, and givebacks on health and pension benefits, the public would not be sympathetic to a long transit strike.”
But the contract has been just voted down by a seven vote margin catching city officials off guard. It has to be seen as a defeat for Roger Toussaint, and opens up the possibility of unforeseen complications in the negotiations that will follow. However, if the strike remains unresolved, it’s clear as urban critic Robert Fitch (Solidarity for Sale) states, “the strike did not miraculously bring a fractured labor movement together, or suggest how unions without the TWU's powerful leverage could fight management demands for pension and health cutbacks that have become the norm in labor negotiations.” It’s truly a hard time for unionism in this country.L. Quart