Below the Platform Labor Mismanagement in the New York City Subway

Governor Andrew Cuomo has had quite a bad track record with the subway this past year: ordering the MTA to broaden the definition of power outages in their annual report to shift blame for delays to Con Edison, as well as demanding the city pay large amounts of money to compensate for the state’s lack of funding. Even with renovation and maintenance programs like Fastrack, this disrepair continues for many reasons. New York City spends more on construction and service per mile than any other city in the world: a fact which makes many attribute the problems to the workers themselves.

However, a report on the reality of the situation came from The New York Times last year. There are only about three major construction firms making bids to establish a contract with the state, which drives up costs. These firms also usually make big contributions to Cuomo’s campaign. Still, much of the press surrounding the problems within the subway points a finger at transit workers and their unions. In 2005, these tensions came to a high when Bloomberg enacted policy to take 15,000 disciplinary actions against 33,000 workers, enlist MTA inspectors to check on workers who call in sick, and make workers do menial labor not in their job description. These conditions are amplified by the danger workers’ face every day on the job, several have been killed on the tracks and in the tunnels, and several others face health issues from their workers. Such statutes made TWU Local 100 President Roger Toussaint call an illegal strike, and effectively terminate service for thousands of New Yorkers.

While the strike was lost and ultimately detrimental to both workers and the public, it was representative of a larger struggle. Unions had been steadily gaining the ire of the American public since the Reagan era, and Bloomberg had taken advantage of that to disenfranchise transit workers. Subsequently, membership and funding decreased and Toussaint stepped down, leading to the election of John Samuelsen, who took a more diplomatic approach. He’s won modest successes: defending New York’s two conductor system, creating a customer service ambassador program, and keeping salaries stable, all of which has come with criticism. One conductor systems are used in almost every other major system and said to be more efficient, Customer Service Ambassadors are said to be diverting workers from more pressing jobs and unneeded with new information technology, and salaries can fall anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000, which is considered too high for transit workers. All but the one conductor argument, which can easily be fixed with MTA commitment to extending existing lines and expanding service, are reflective of the view that lazy workers are not worthy of the defense that the blood-sucking unions give them. Newly elected President Tony Utano hopes to continue Samuelsen’s diplomacy in spite of this, but faces difficulty ahead from the projected ruling decision in the Janus case.

The Supreme Court case Janus vs. the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees is concerned with Illinois social worker Mark Janus who refused to pay union dues under the argument that unions are inherently political and override his right to free speech. Unions do in fact use non-member’s dues, but are not allowed to for strictly political causes. Corporations and conservatives’ underlying goals have been laid out: this is a chance to undercut unions’ bargaining powers and cut wages. In New York City, Mayor DeBlasio has recently sent an amicus curiae letter to the Court in defense of unions, and studies suggest that New York unions will not be affected due to the small number of workers who opt to receive refunds for their dues that went to “ideological work.” New York Locals have sought new policies to protect their status and workers, leading Governor Cuomo to sign a bill to expand unions’ power to recruit members and deny services to non-members. Regardless of the large support-base within the state though, Locals will face obvious economic issues with the decline of their National counterparts, especially those with a large number of laborers with hourly wages like DC37 and TWU Local 100.

The subway faces greater disrepair than ever, and perhaps no one group senses this disrepair greater than the transit workers. As I touched on in my previous article, the New York City subway’s dysfunction has been the subject of an almost 50-year-old blame game between the city and state government. Indeed, the MTA was seemingly established for the express purpose of diverting responsibility for the city’s crumbling transit system, and this diffusion of responsibility continues today as Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill DeBlasio are fixed in a bureaucratic cold war. Unions provide a clear benefit to New York City: they’re the only barrier between a meandering bureaucratic mess and a diligent workforce.