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Monday, December 12, 2005


Roger Toussaint and TWU officials at strike rally

The Emotional Factor in Transit Strike Talks

Published: December 12, 2005

It almost seems scripted.



Even though there has not been a transit strike since 1980, even though state law bars such walkouts and even though union and management say a strike is unlikely, a strike is always possible, and this year the chances appear higher than usual.

"A settlement is the rational thing, but people don't always behave in a rational manner," said John H. Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University Graduate Center.

The potential for irrationality - others use the words intransigence or hotheadedness - seems slightly higher in this December's negotiations than in the transit talks three years ago, when the two sides stopped the clock and then announced a settlement 19 hours after the strike deadline.

This time around, the bargaining stew seems somewhat more volatile because the transportation authority is demanding sizable concessions on pensions and health coverage, saying that it needs to worry about future deficits even though it has a budget surplus of nearly $1 billion. Many transit workers believe the authority is sitting on a pile of money, and they are looking for generosity from the authority, not demands for givebacks.

Also, some labor experts say, the authority's chief negotiator, Gary J. Dellaverson, has seemed to draw some lines in the sand, for instance, on getting newly hired workers to pay 2 percent of their wages toward health coverage (members currently make no contributions to their coverage).

By pushing those demands so publicly, some veteran labor negotiators say, Mr. Dellaverson may have put the transportation authority in a position where it might have a hard time backing away from them as the deadline approaches.

Adding to the explosiveness of the mix, Roger Toussaint, president of the union representing 33,700 transit workers, is feeling a lot of pressure from dissidents to be more militant and to reject any concessions.

Perhaps it was the anger of the moment, but when Mr. Toussaint spoke to thousands of workers at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on Saturday night after they authorized a strike, there was an unusual twist. Holding a megaphone, he began a well-known labor chant by yelling, "What do we want?"

But many of the workers responded not with the word he expected, "Contract," but rather with the defiant word "Strike."

"You understand that there are going to be compromises because I don't think anyone wants a strike," said Richard Ravitch, who served as the authority's chairman in 1980, when it took an 11-day transit strike.

The union might also have to worry that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Gov. George E. Pataki might push to crack down on the union if it strikes because neither is looking to curry favor with the union now that neither plans to run for re-election.

"The union will put itself at real risk if it strikes because of the Taylor Law sanctions, particularly in the current environment," said Bruce McIver, a former chief negotiator for the transportation authority. "So I think from the union's perspective, there's a lot of pressure not to strike."

Not quite. The TWU put a whole series of demands which were disrespectful to the union's largely minority membership, and probably will disappear.

Bloomberg was reelected on black votes, so his ability to "crack down" is rather limited. Even with fines, the TWU might lose millions, but the City loses billions coming into Christmas week. No crowds on Broadway, no office Christmas parties, no Longuylanders shopping in Soho. Forget the fines, the City's economy is mugged from behind if a strike happens.

What is going to happen is that the city will press the MTA to settle, knowing the unions are just looking for the status quo with more money. The MTA wanted to start imposing a two-tired benefits system. The problem is that the TWU is the city's most radical union and was going to reject most of this out of hand.

But a strike a week before Christmas, when the city's economy is in full swing, you couldn't walk in Soho today, is just not going to happen unless people get really stupid.

posted by Steve @ 12:05:00 AM

12:05:00 AM

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