Despite Illegal Strike, New York Transit Workers Win

Published February 1, 2006

Barely a week after New York’s 34,000 transit workers illegally walked off the job for three days near the Christmas and Hanukkah holidays, the union received a contract offer many people saw as a victory for the union.

Perhaps the most telling indication of the union’s apparent victory could be seen in how the Web sites of Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the Metropolitan Transit Authority treated news of the tentative agreement announced December 28.

The TWU’s Contract Bulletin #7 proclaimed in a headline, “Was the strike worth it? Yes–It’s about respect and it’s about results.”

The MTA Web site, by contrast, ignored the news. A click on the MTA newsroom link on December 29 listed these as the top stories: “MTA Participated in Katrina Relief Efforts,” “‘Good Call’ Builds on Successful Security Campaign,” and “Ms. Subway Leads Safety and Security Campaign.”

Officials Keep Quiet

Officials at the union and transit authority both declined to comment. In a December 28 news conference, TWU President Roger Touissant announced the union’s executive board had voted 37 to 4, with one abstention, to recommend passage of the contract. But Touissant said little beyond outlining the basics of the contract terms, and he declined to answer reporters’ questions.

The rank and file were to vote on the proposal by mail during January.

Contract provisions include:

  • Payments of up to $14,000 each to about 22,000 transit workers in a give-back of money they had paid toward pensions. Transit workers had been offered the chance to pay an extra 2.3 percent of their salary into the pension fund for six years to retire at age 55 instead of 62. The state legislature lowered the retirement age for workers to 55 in 2000, and the union argued the early retirement payments workers made should be returned.
  • Lifetime medical coverage–but for the first time, transit workers will pay a portion of their health insurance premiums: 1.5 percent of wages.
  • No changes in pensions, which allow workers to retire with full benefits at age 55.
  • Wage increases of 3, 4, and 3.5 percent over the next three years.
  • An additional paid holiday, for Martin Luther King’s birthday.
  • A new program for paid maternity leave.
  • Enhanced state disability insurance benefits.

“We went out strong. We came back stronger,” the union proclaimed in bold type in its bulletin to members.

Union Is ‘Clear Winner’

“The TWU is the clear winner here. There really is no other way to spin it,” said Nicole Gelinas, a contributing editor at City Journal magazine in New York and a financial writer who has closely followed the transit negotiations.

The major issue was pensions. The transit authority wanted new workers to retire at 62 instead of 55, but the union refused to budge, and the MTA caved.

“They’ve taken that issue off the table because the union has shown its power to strike,” despite a state law barring government workers from striking, Gelinas said. A state court fined the union $3 million, $1 million for each day of the strike. Workers were also hit with fines that will average a little more than $1,000 each.

Gelinas said the wage sweeteners and other benefits in the new contract more than make up for the strike fines and health insurance premiums workers will have to pay. She was especially upset about the pension contribution refunds most workers will receive.

“That’s outrageous,” Gelinas said. “That’s like getting a $10,000 to $14,000 reward for illegally going on strike. You can call it a post-strike bonus. The union has gotten a good deal. And it has shown it can defy state law and the governor and the mayor and benefit financially.”

‘Total Reversal’ on Pensions

Gelinas was not the only person to call the union the clear winner.

Union bus driver John Paul Patafio told The New York Times for a December 29 article, “It’s a very good deal. We went in with them on the offensive on pensions, and we came out of it with pension reimbursements. It’s a total reversal.”

David L. Gregory, a labor relations expert at St. John’s University in Jamaica, New York, told the Times, “The union did especially well. Touissant got everything he needed, and he also got what he needed in terms of the bigger picture. With the strike, he mollified the radical left in his union and helped placate the middle of his rank and file who were demanding to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Gelinas said while the new contract gives the union a clear victory, it may do some good for taxpayers in the long run.

“The one saving grace would be if it ushers in a new era of reform,” Gelinas said. “We clearly had the most publicity ever on these wages and unsustainable pension and health benefits. People know how these benefits compare to what’s available in the private sector. Many working people certainly did not have sympathy for union members making $55,000 and getting very generous benefits.”

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.