Transit Strike Ends, Issues Linger for Labor

By December 23, 2005Labor Unions

TWU Local 100 President Roger Toussaint yesterday announced the end of the transit strike and a return to the bargaining table. Workers are expected to return to the job tomorrow, though apparently not via public transit. Toussaint relented after being hit in the head by the anvil of public opinion and after having his demands subjected to a similarly unforgiving public glare. As one commenter said, “the union fired its biggest gun and it was a dud.” Well said.

So now what? They return to the table. Toussaint tries mightily to save face, for the moment claiming the pension issue as his life raft. If he can claim victory there — or anywhere — he may have his way out. Of course, it’s up to the MTA to help him find that way out, (WARNING: Shameless Plug Ahead) as readers of “The Negotiation Handbook” know. As with all labor disputes, the union claims victory and management remains silent. There’s a good reason for that, (It’s also in the book), and that’s this little thing called ratification. See, after the deal gets signed by the negotiators, it must go out to the rank and file for approval or ratification. If at the conclusion of negotiations, management comes out crowing about all the ways they won, you can kiss ratification goodbye, and it’s back to the bargaining table, with a steeper — and more expensive — hill to climb. It’s also not great from an employee relations standpoint for management to gloat about any gains made in the bargaining process. And so management will be silent, the union will declare victory. Hooray. Now can we get it ratified…?

However, there is a more fundamental problem for the union and for unions writ large: this strike once again raised all the issues visible in the comments posted on the related pieces below, most notably the level of their pay and debates over what the market will and should bear. The United Food and Commercial Workers strike at Giant Food in the Washington DC area a few years back called attention to checkers making in excess of $20/hour and not paying a cent for their health care — compensation (if not pay) far in excess of most if not all of their customers. The rest of the economy mostly functions in a world where pay is commensurate with skill. In manufacturing, high-paid unskilled jobs are in decline while high-skilled, high-pay jobs are in the ascension. There’s a direct correlation between education, skills and pay, but not so with the TWU. Up ’til this week, they were issues that remained largely, well, underground. But no more.

The damage to organized labor is that this strike will once again thrust that issue to the fore, will begin debates around Holiday dinner tables about fair rates of pay and the relative worth of various workers to society. By and large this is a good discussion to have, except if your Roger Toussaint and the TWU.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • paco mccarthy says:

    This market analysis–that transit workers don’t deserve a decent pension or health care benefits-is weak.

    Let’s look at the facts. Seven million New Yorkers ride the subway every day, according to recent media reports. The price for one ride is now $2.00. So, MTA takes in $14 million/day. That’s $5 billion/year. But for the sake of argument, let’s cut that figure in half–$2.5 billion. No matter how we evaluate the figures, New Yorkers pay a lot of money for their transportation. Even the MTA admits to a $1 billion surplus. And, no matter how you slice it the transit workers generate the bulwark of the transit dollars.

    Transit workers aren’t asking for much. They are simply refusing to give back benefits they’ve won in the past amidst an extraordinary budget surplus. (A fact apparently lost on today’s media.)

    Once we start thinking that decent pension benefits and adequate healthcare should only go to the educated few, we’ve lost a sense of reality. Henry Ford recognized a long time ago that squeezing the little guy is not always the best business practice. We could use some of his advice today.

    Paco McCarthy