Entries from December 2005 ↓

Whatís Really At Stake

I have been racking my brain the past few days trying to figure out what to write about the New York City transit strike. As a card-carrying member of two labor unions, my allegiance is with the workers and working class people everywhere. But how to capture the real issues that are at stake here, which many passive observers have missed fixating on their own travel inconveniences, was troubling me until I received an email with the following commentary.


by Andy Stettner

Today, 34,000 members of Transit Workers Union Local 100 that work for New York City Transit running the city’s trains and buses went on strike. Most of the media coverage has focused on the minutia of the final contract deal and the inconveniences of stranded straphangers. As I sit in my office after biking over the Brooklyn Bridge on a clear December morning, I know they have missed the true meaning of this contract debate: the future of the middle class in New York City, and more broadly in the United States.

Our mayor, Michael Bloomberg, perfectly framed this meaning in todayís New York Times [December 20th].

Mr. Bloomberg said that a walkout would hurt many workers in the hotel, restaurant and garment industries who earn less than the transit workers. The transit workers average $55,000 a year with overtime.

“You’ve got people making $50,000 and $60,000 a year – are keeping the people who are making $20,000 and $30,000 a year from being able to earn a living,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “That’s just not acceptable.”

Here you have the ‘unacceptable’ vision of our Mayor for working class New Yorkers–jobs that pay less than $35,000. New York City’s economy is growing strongly, but it is growing like a donut, with high paying jobs and lower paying jobs increasing at the same time. From 2000 to 2004, New York City’s middle class (families earning between $35,000 and $150,000 per year) declined at a rate that was four times the national average according to New York’s Fiscal Policy Institute.

The problem is that a family cannot really live on $35,000 in New York City. Among other things, housing costs for both rentals and especially for home buyers have increased astronomically. Take a look at the meticulously prepared self-sufficiency standard for New York City prepared by the Women’s Center for Education and Career Advancement. In none of the five boroughs of New York City, could a family with one adult and one child meet the basic minimum daily expenses (housing, child care, food, transportation) on such a salary. Between $55,000 and $60,000 per year should meet the minimum needs of a family of four, but after living here for 10 years I don’t know exactly how.

Middle Class Life at Stake in New York City

That’s what makes jobs like those at New York City Transit so vital to the city’s health. According to most media reports, the average New York City Transit worker earns between $47,000 and $55,000, while many start at as little as $33,000. While the earnings are modest, the job comes with strong health care benefits and a traditional defined benefit pension.

What do middle class jobs provide our city? At these wages, working families don’t have to depend on publicly funded work supports like Medicaid or Child Health Plus that are being stretched by a shrinking tax base. Middle class families bring stability to communities and schools, and have an opportunity to send their kids to college and even out the wealth distribution over the long-term. Most deeply, the existence of good middle class jobs ensures that the promise of opportunity that New York once provided to immigrants and domestic migrants is not lost in the 21st century.

New York City Transit Authority jobs have provided such opportunity, first for Irish-Americans and other Europeans, and now increasingly for Caribbean-American and Latino communities. Contrary to the Mayor’s assertions, low-wage workers generally support the existence of middle-class better paying jobs because it does provide a ladder up, rather than begrudging their better position.

What Wages Do Transit Workers “Deserve”?

Bloomberg and Governor Pataki (who actually controls the MTA) have decided to make an all out assault on these jobs. They have basically stated that New York City Transit workers don’t deserve the salaries that they are making. Do transit workers deserve these wages?

Transit workers do thankless and dangerous work. Bus drivers face hostile customers and murderous traffic all day. Subway workers toil in dark, vermin-infested, century-old subway tunnels. A mistake by a New York City transit worker can be a life-or-death mistake for riders or for themselves. Since World War II, 132 track workers have been electrocuted or killed by trains in the New York subways, 21 in the last two decades. Basic necessities, like the ability to go to the bathroom, are a luxury for transit workers. So, too, are days off. The New York Daily News’ Errol Louis reports that NYCT workers engage in annual ritual of sleeping on cots to request Thanksgiving Day off in person 30 days in advance as required by their contract.

On this basis, it seems clear that these NYCT workers deserve some kind of wage premium for this kind of “dirty job.” But wages are set in the market and in a power dynamic between labor and capital, and the question is whether TWU members have a realistic shot at maintaining their middle class lifestyle.

Obviously, middle class life for working people is under attack in the U.S. because of the pressures of globalization?with the most visible symbol of this assault being the 30,000 plus workers of Delphi auto parts who are facing massive wage cuts or layoffs (initially posed as a cut from $27/hour plus to $12/hour or less).

But, New York City Transit workers should be exactly the kind of workers who should be able to hold on to a middle class way of life in the 21st century. Knowledge-driven, high-wage, service-sector economies like that of New York City depend on a web of effective mass transit. Indeed, the recovery of the subway from its graffiti-ridden and violent past has part of New York City’s rise from the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. Because of a surge in population and public transit usage, the MTA now has a nearly $1 billion surplus this year. (This is even before they have finalized deals to sell extremely valuable land development rights above train yards in downtown Brooklyn and the West Side of Manhattan). The MTA can afford to sustain a fair living wage for the workers they need to operate the system, and competitive pressures should be tilting in the favor of the workers.

The Contract on the Table and Its Repercussions

The union reports that the MTA’s final offer is 3 percent, 4 percent and 3.5 percent. Because this represents an improvement over an initial deal of 2 percent, the media has been reporting this as a better deal than what was initially presented. This “raise” proposal is really no raise at all. Inflation is running at 3.5 percent in Northeastern cities, so this salary increase would leave workers treading water. In exchange for a zero percent real raise, TWU has been asked to accept cuts in retirement security (an increase in the retirement age from 55 to 62) for future workers, a year after the State Assembly passed a bill to lower the transit worker retirement age to 50. (Indeed the union has argued that pension issues should be off the table because they are generally the jurisdiction of the Legislature, which is an argument backed by the Republican head of the New York State Senate). Increased health care contributions were on the table early in the negotiation, and it is unclear what the final deal included on this side.

This contract offer comes after the MTA accepted a three year contract that featured no raise in year one (only a one-time $1,000 bonus) and a two percent (less than cost of living) in 2003 and 2004. That contract represented a sacrifice that many municipal workers made during the 9-11 recession. So, the MTA has asked the TWU to stand still on wages and accept cuts elsewhere. It is really no offer at all for an agency with a billion dollar surplus.

If TWU accepted this contract, it would set the scale downward for all upcoming New York municipal contracts. Other municipal workers have less leverage with the city because their salaries are tied directly to tax revenue as opposed to user fees. TWU should be lauded for defending conditions not just for themselves but for future generations of transit workers, and the rest of unionized labor in New York.

The biggest target for the MTA and their allies in city and state government are pensions. These defined benefit pensions do represent a large liability – - but also are a crucial bulwark against the slide towards retirement insecurity for lower wage workers. The 401(k) model of defined benefit pensions can work for higher wage workers who can manage to save towards a million dollars by the time of retirement and then live off of annuities and interest. This model is not working well for working class people and African-Americans and Hispanics. Only 40 percent of African-Americans and Hispanics age 47-64 can expect to have retirement income equal to fifty percent of their prior salary. So, the kind of pension security achieved by TWU is worth defending.

So, where do we draw the line in defense of middle class living and retirement security? If the MTA gets their way, we can expect a slide in living standards for a whole range of municipal workers. And, we can expect the race to the bottom to continue in service sector jobs like health care and building services that have a chance to pay decent wages to working people in a globalized age. For this analyst and activist, at least, in New York City, the Transit Workers Union is a place where this line is being drawn. It remains to be seen whether the TWU will be able to organize enough external and internal solidarity and favorable public opinion to win this battle. This is especially true since they face stiff fines under the state’s Taylor Law for engaging in an illegal strike. But, all of us who profess a concern for living standards and values of economic opportunity and fairness seem to owe them our solidarity. Please do all you can, visit www.twulocal100.org to find out about opportunities to express solidarity. Most importantly, when your friends and colleagues whine about the commute try to tell them what is at stake.

Andrew Stettner
Brooklyn, New York

Andy Stettner works for NELP, the National Employment Law Project.

Moving Forward

I want to thank all the people who sent emails, posted comments to this blog, called and sent cards and letters of condolence over the passing of my father last week. It has been a roller coaster ride of emotions these past few days and receiving so much support from so many people–many of whom I know only via our Internet exchanges–has been a source of inspiration.

The love of my extended family, many of whom traveled great distances to support my Mother, brothers and I, has done a great deal to sustain us. Were it not for the dire circumstances under which we were all brought together, it would have been a wonderful party. We had a great deal of fun in each otherís company, telling old stories and hanging out. I have some of the funniest people in my family and we laughed for hours. I also got to play cook for the whole army and enjoyed the experience.

My Dad was a remarkable man who led a full and active life of service to the community and seeing such a diverse turnout at the viewing Sunday and the funeral Monday morning was a testament to his involvement. Relationships formed more than a half century ago brought well-wishers whoíd met him when they were young who were now seniors themselves.

Sadly, my uncle, Dadís sole remaining sibling was unable to make it from Texas. Not financially capable of traveling on such short notice and beginning to show signs of dementia himself, he never fully comprehended the seriousness of my fatherís illness, nor the fact that he had passed.

My mother is now a widow and for the first time in almost 60 years must face life without her husband by her side. She is a strong woman who always maintains a public composure, but I am her son, so I know firsthand that the stone face is a mask hiding emotions gingerly held just below the surface. The whole family is committed to making this transition as easy as possible for her.

In a strange way, not uncommon to families that have dealt with Alzheimerís Disease, there is a sense of relief. My fatherís ordeal is over and he is free from suffering a vastly diminished life. In turn, we are all free to try to resume our lives without the enormous emotional and physical demands of his daily care. It is not a perfect resolution because we no longer have him with us. Iím a heartbeat away from a good cry just writing this. But life must go on, and so we move forward, one day at a time.

A First for the Ivy League

Columbia University made history this week when they named Norries Wilson the first black head football coach in Ivy League history. Heíll take over a Columbia program that hasn’t had a winning season since 1996.

The former Connecticut offensive coordinator was introduced at a news conference Monday at Columbia’s Manhattan campus, a day after being hired by the Division I-AA program.

The Lions were 2-8 overall this season and winless in the Ivy League.

“I want to say that we’re going to be successful in football here at Columbia,” Wilson said. “A lot of people don’t believe that. A lot of my friends call me and say, ‘Coach, what are you doing?’ And I say, ‘Well, we’re going to go win some games.’ We’re going to teach them how to win and leave them with a great experience as far as playing football.”

Columbia hasn’t won a league title since sharing the crown in 1961.

Wilson replaces Bob Shoop, who was fired on Nov. 20, a day after a 52-21 loss to Brown. Shoop was 7-23 in three seasons.

Wilson had spent the last seven season as an assistant at UConn and the past four seasons as offensive coordinator for head coach Randy Edsall.

In 2004, Wilson’s offense led the Big East in scoring and rushing. The Huskies slipped to second to last in total offense this season with injuries forcing them to use three different quarterbacks.

Raising Awareness

On the heels of World AIDS Day this December 1, hereís information on another AIDS awareness effort.

February 7th is recognized annually as the National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD) – a nation-wide community mobilization initiative that leads to capacity building to increase awareness, participation, and support for HIV prevention among African Americans.

The goal of NBHAAD is to motivate Black Americans at risk for HIV to get educated and tested, and to get HIV/AIDS stakeholders involved in prevention education programs, HIV testing, press conferences, community forums and other activities to raise awareness, participation and support for HIV prevention among Black Americans.

Since 2001, federal, state, and local governmental agencies, community-based organizations, AIDS service organizations, public and private partners in prevention, treatment and care, as well as partners in the business, entertainment, and faith communities have all joined together in support of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.

In other AIDS news, two major U.S. cities have reported a recent jump in the number of false-positive results from the OraQuick oral HIV test. Although the rapid oral test is usually 99 percent accurate, public health officials from San Francisco and New York City both say that, lately, the accuracy rate has been quite a bit lower. In response to these reports, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that all positive results from a rapid oral test be immediately confirmed with a rapid blood test, which has had no reported accuracy problems. There have been no complaints of false-negative test results from the oral test.

The call in the middle of the night

I am convinced bad news never reaches you when you are wide awake.

My father passed during the night. He was 84. The fact that we knew it was coming has helped to take away some of the shock. Grieving has been ongoing since the Alzheimerís took over, so when my brotherís phone call awakened me after 4:00, I was far more accepting and far less devastated than when my mother made a similar call eleven years ago with the startling news of my brother Stanís death.

Iíll pack and make the trip home today, as will my other brothers. I had planned to go home tomorrow anyway in hopes of seeing him one last time. Now weíll make preparations to send him off.