Editor’s Note: Bus and subway workers in New York City agreed to return to work and to the bargaining table Thursday as negotiators for the Transport Workers Union and the Metropolitan Transit Authority worked on a final settlement after a two-day strike that immobilized the city. Joshua B. Freeman examines the history and issues at stake: the fight against the lie that abstract, neutral economic necessity, not the ideas and interests of the rich and powerful, are driving the demolition of our social solidarity.
In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, 33,000 New York City transit workers did the unthinkable: They went on strike. For a quarter-century, transit negotiations in Gotham have been cliff-hangers, but each time, just as the last contract was expiring, a deal for a new one emerged, and threatened strikes did not materialize. Over those years, strikes of any kind became increasingly rare in the United States, as the use of replacement workers and threats to shut down or move operations made unions loath to use what was once a common weapon.
The current transit walkout was especially surprising, since it came in spite of a New York State law that makes public employee strikes illegal and imposes harsh penalties on striking unions and individual strikers.
Transport Workers Union Local 100 took the big risk of striking because it had little choice in the face of seemingly deliberate provocation by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs the New York City bus and subway system. The biggest sticking point in bargaining was not wages but the demand by the transit agency for radical changes in health benefits and pensions for future workers.
Currently, most transit workers can retire with full benefits once they have both worked at least twenty-five years and reached the age of 55. The MTA insisted on raising the retirement age to 62 and making new hires pay 2 percent of their salary toward health insurance. It did so in spite of repeated statements by the union and its president, Roger Toussaint, that they would not accept any contract that gave new workers worse conditions than those current union members enjoyed. At the very last minute, the MTA came up with a revised offer that no longer called for upping the retirement age but instead for new workers to contribute 4 percent more of their salary toward pension benefits than current workers, in effect a 4 percent reduction in pay. Finding this unacceptable, the men and women who at rallies chant “Who Moves New York? We Move New York” decided to stop doing just that.
The MTA position seems to have been driven more by ideology and politics than economics. This year the transit agency reported a $1 billion surplus. It claims that it will have massive deficits into the foreseeable future, and it may indeed face fiscal challenges, but the agency has such a poor record of financial projections that no one outside of its own ranks takes it numbers seriously. Furthermore, as Steven Greenhouse reported in the New York Times, over the course of the MTA’s proposed three-year contract, the increased pension contributions the agency wants from new workers would save it only $20 million, less than the cost of police overtime during the first two days of the strike.