As the Giants fought the Packers in the divisional playoffs Sunday evening, another battle was unfolding at the Sheraton Hotel in Midtown, where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority held an all-night session of contract negotiations with the Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents the people who operate the city’s subways and buses.
Outside the hotel, the union held a raucous rally, where hundreds of members gathered in the freezing cold to hear their president, John Samuelsen, give a defiant speech about the contract talks. A pair of big-screen TVs broadcast the football game to the crowd. In addition to the winter chill and periodic cheers for the Giants, the threat of a crippling transit strike hung heavy in the air.
At the stroke of midnight, the current TWU contract was set to expire. Transit workers in New York haven’t been without a contract since 2005, when talks collapsed and former Local 100 president Roger Toussaint led workers on a strike that lasted just under two days and left millions of New Yorkers stranded in the icy, winter weather. This time around, both the MTA and the TWU agreed to continue talks after the current contract expired, but Mr. Samuelsen’s fiery speech at the rally made the prospect of an amicable agreement seem remote.
“I came out from the hotel, I’ve been bargaining for the better part of the last 48 hours. Coming out to this crowd, coming out to this level of support in the ice cold has completely reinvigorated me,” Mr. Samuelsen said. “I’m going to go back into that hotel and I’m going to tell the chairman of the MTA, I’m going to tell the governor to take their petty demands and shove it, because TWU Local 100 is not going to agree!”
On stage, Mr. Samuelsen outlined the various sticking points preventing an agreement between the union and the MTA.
“They’re attacking our health benefits. They want us to give them five unpaid vacation days, five of our hard-earned vacation days. They want to just take them. They want to establish part-time bus operators,” Mr. Samuelsen said. “They want a new, harsher sick control policy and a series of changes to our differential pay to make it impossible to take care of our families when we get hurt making this city move. … They’re attacking our ability to earn overtime, they’re demanding widespread changes for new workers including the creation of a permanent underclass in stations and CED for cleaners. That’s not going to happen on my watch.”
In addition to this litany of complaints, the main issue the union has with the MTA’s proposed contract involves pay raises. The TWU wants their wage pegged to the rate of inflation, which was approximately 3.4 percent last year, while the MTA wants pay for transit workers to remain flat for the next three years. Union members derisively refer to this element of the MTA’s proposal as the “three zeroes.”
“I said it once before and I’ll say it again: We’re not eating the three zeroes that Governor Cuomo thinks that we should eat,” Mr. Samuelsen said as he rallied his troops. “Our operators, our conductors, we’re not selling them down the river so that Governor Cuomo and the MTA can assist in balancing the budget on the backs of Local 100 members. We’re not going for it.”
Cheers erupted from the crowd as Mr. Samuelsen left the stage and returned to the Sheraton surrounded by his entourage of burly union members. Inside, the lobby was a strange mix of tourists, uniformed flight attendants and pilots en route to the airport, union workers wearing T-shirts inscribed “We Stand as One” and local politicians who stopped by to check in on the proceedings. During the course of the evening, The Observer spotted City Council members Melissa Mark-Viverito, Ydanis Rodriguez, Tish James and Robert Jackson. Comptroller John Liu and the Assemblymen Karim Camara and Hakeem Jeffries also made cameos.
Negotiations took place in a basement conference room. A pair of MTA security guards wearing suits and gold lapel pins guarded the doors, but we were able to make it to an adjoining room where some of the lower-ranking union leadership watched the football game as they awaited periodic updates from the talks.
“The Giants are going to the Super Bowl!” Councilman Jackson proclaimed as he walked into the room.
Eventually, the security team realized they had a reporter in their midst and we were escorted back to the lobby. Evidently, we didn’t miss much. A source who came from the talks informed us that it didn’t look like the late-night negotiations would result in a deal. By the next morning, there was indeed no replacement for the expired contract.
After the all-night negotiation concluded without a new contract, talks continued Monday at MTA headquarters downtown. Under the Taylor Law, a New York statute that defines the rights and limitations of unions in the state, the negotiations will move into binding arbitration if one of the parties involved in the talks declares an impasse. Jim Gannon, a spokesman for Local 100, told The Observer he doesn’t think either side is in a rush to end the negotiations.
“I don’t think there is a deadline as long as it’s in good faith and they’re agreeing on things. We don’t have a deadline,” Mr. Gannon said. “I don’t think they have a deadline either.”
The union would rather see both sides reach an agreement than enter arbitration.
“One reason we’d rather not go to binding arbitration is, in binding arbitration the members don’t get to vote on the agreement they’re going to be living under,” Mr. Gannon said. “So we would much prefer to have a negotiated settlement.”
A spokeswoman for the MTA declined to comment on the TWU talks.
Though sources told us a strike or other work slowdown could be possible as a last resort, if the MTA isn’t willing to make any concessions, there are several differences between the current talks and the 2005 negotiations that make a work stoppage much less likely. In 2005, the MTA entered negotiations with Local 100 shortly after announcing a $1.04 billion budget surplus. This year, the agency is operating with a deficit of $68 million.
Mr. Gannon said that, while the TWU understands the economic realities facing the MTA, they aren’t going to tolerate being taken advantage of.
“It’s almost like they said, ‘This is a good time to throw the kitchen sink at them, because the economy sucks. Here’s our chance to get everything we ever wanted in the history of transit bargaining,’” Mr. Gannon said.
This year’s cast of characters around the bargaining table is also different than in 2005. Mr. Samuelsen was elected union president in 2009. He was a longtime rival of Mr. Toussaint, the outgoing president who led the strike seven years ago. There is also new leadership at the MTA. Current MTA CEO and chairman Joe Lhota was appointed by Governor Cuomo in late October after his predecessor, Jay Walder, decamped to Hong Kong to take a job as CEO of MTR Corporation Limited, which owns and operates the Hong Kong MTR metro system.
According to Mr. Gannon, Mr. Samuelsen and Mr. Lhota enjoy a much better relationship than the union had with the previous administration.
“Just on a personal level, between him and John, if it was Walder and John, I think it would have been very, very difficult for them to get an agreement,” Mr. Gannon said. “With Lhota so far, I mean, you know, when I say John likes him, maybe that might be strong. But I think he respects him and he thinks that Lhota’s honest and not a phony. He thinks he’s genuine, he’s not a bullshitter.”
The 2005 strike was also a gamechanger. Though the TWU managed to wrangle an 11 percent wage hike over three years from the MTA, it paid dearly for the raise. Under the Taylor Law, public employees are barred from going on strike. Penalties for the 2005 work stoppage included several days in jail for Mr. Toussaint and suspension of a program that automatically deducted union dues from members’ paychecks. This cost Local 100 millions.
“We got the dues checkbook back, but we’re still under an injunction and it could be lifted again at any moment,” Mr. Gannon said. “We’re still owed $8 million in back dues. A significant portion of the membership is in bad standing because of nonpayment of dues. It’s a totally different atmosphere.”
After a day off Tuesday, the TWU and the MTA are set to return to the bargaining table to plan a regular schedule for further talks. An imminent contract deal seems highly unlikely, but thankfully for city commuters, so does another transit strike.