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.
STRIKING FOR THE MIDDLE CLASS
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.
Brooklyn, New York
Andy Stettner works for NELP, the National Employment Law Project.