That I am a liberal has, I hope, been clearly established. I am, for the record, pro-union (at least I support the concept that workers have a right to organize to protest unfair treatment), and in the interest of full disclosure, I am a former union member.
But the present dispute between the Transit Workers' Union and the MTA in New York City is utter nonsense.
In New York State, it is against the law for public employees to strike, and for good reason. New York is unique among American cities, in that its residents rely on public transportation to an extent that approaches exclusivity. For millions of New Yorkers, there is no alternate mode of getting around.
New Yorkers have no love for the MTA. Increased fares resulting in decreased service, the decrepit condition of many subway stations (especially in less-affluent neighborhoods) and the ease with which even a minor fire can throw the entire system into chaos for hours, not to mention the budgets shrouded in secrecy, are all issues that keep us grumbling. We especially loved how the MTA decided to "deal" with its billion dollar surplus this year, after pleading "Pending deficit crisis!" for as long as we can remember, by introducing special half-price "holiday fares" on weekends between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Most New Yorkers pay for their rides in advance using monthly MetroCards, so cut fares on weekends benefit only tourists and the B&T crowd who come in to shop, not the system's regular riders.
But just because the MTA is monstrous doesn't mean we have sympathy for the employees, either. NYC Transit employees are often surly, unintelligible and altogether unhelpful. Customer service is absolutely appalling. Sure, they have a right to press for higher pay and better benefits. This is America, after all. Yay, capitalism! I mean that. But the transit workers really don't have it that bad. The average worker's salary is almost twice mine, and the MTA is now asking them to contribute a paltry 1% (down from the initial 2%) toward the cost of health insurance, which is still a far better deal than most Americans get. The main sticking point seems to be whether employees can retire with full pension at 55, as the union demands, or whether new workers can be asked to work until the age of 62.
It's a fair question, and worthy of debate. But is it worth grabbing the innocent citizens of New York by the balls and holding them hostage?
When a private company's employees strike, it results in a financial impact for the employer, because it stops productivity. It creates a negative image in the public eye, which drives consumers both out of necessity and concern to competitors.
But the MTA has no competitors. "Thank you for riding with the MTA," train conductors often say at the conclusion of a service announcement. As if we have a choice! Furthermore, the MTA already has my money. Through my job, I participate in the TransitChek program, which means the money for my subway fares is automatically deducted from my paycheck. I can halt the deduction, sure, but it takes weeks to process and weeks to re-instate. So if the trains and buses aren't running, I'm paying for a system I can't use. A transit worker strike has a negative financial impact on the innocent customers, and not on the Authority.
I work in the human resources department of my organization. Let me tell you, planning for this potential strike has eaten up hours of our time, trying to determine which employees could reasonably be expected to make it to work on foot or by other means, and how we would function in a limited capacity. My job has nothing to do with public transit or these union negotations, but the mere threat of a strike has mandated that we drop all the other things we're doing and prepare.
The strike in 1980 lasted eleven days. No one is anticipating that this time around, but, as watching the Bush administration has taught us repeatedly, one should hope for the best while planning for the worst. Without divulging confidential conversations, I can say that the question has been raised whether our company has to pay employees who can't come to work. After all, the strike would not be the company's fault. So yes, my paycheck deductions for transit would continue, while I get docked for being unable to get here. (I live 13.5 miles from my office.)
MTA employees have every right to try to get the best deal for themselves, but they have no right to punish me while they do it.