tony utano

SAYS HE STRUCK RIGHT BALANCE: Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Tony Utano, campaigning for re-election in a bus depot, says it was his insistence that led the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to abandon a no-mask policy for transit workers during the early days of the pandemic despite an advisory from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that masks should be reserved for health-care workers. He also said his rival's claim that he should have ordered members to walk off the job when the no-mask edict was in effect would have inconvenienced thousands of other essential workers in public-safety and health-care jobs.

The race for the president of Transport Workers Union Local 100 is in full swing, with the defining issue being how incumbent Tony Utano handled the coronavirus pandemic in which more than 100 members of the local lost their lives.

Ballots were mailed out on Nov. 15 and due to be counted by the American Arbitration Association Dec. 8.

Makes Case for Walkout

The challenger, Track Worker Paulie Navarro, heads the Progressive Action slate. He believes union members should have walked off the job at the start of the pandemic, when Metropolitan Transportation Authority management prohibited members from wearing masks, something the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially said was not recommended for otherwise healthy people because of a national shortage of personal protective equipment.

paulie navarro twu

CLAIMS WALKOUT WOULD HAVE WORKED: Track Worker Paulie Navarro (center) has pegged his run for the presidency of TWU Local 100 on the assertion that if the incumbent had instructed union members to walk off the job after management told them they couldn't wear protective masks, it might have saved many of the 110 lives lost among the rank and file to the coronavirus, and the serious penalties that normally result when unions and workers violate the state Taylor Law prohibiting public-employee strikes could have been avoided. 

He insisted a walkout would not have run afoul of New York's Taylor Law, which prohibits public employees from striking, and saved members' lives.

"A Taylor Law violation is when we refuse to work because we are not happy with what's in our contract—wages, benefits and other things," Mr. Navarro said. "We did not refuse to work. We refused to die. That's totally different. There's not a judge on this planet that would have found us in violation of the Taylor Act. We would have been protecting our members and protecting the public, because all we were doing was taking the virus from one borough to another by moving the buses and the trains."

He has held several ranking union positions, including vice chairman, recording secretary and chairman of the Track Division. In 2018, he resigned the latter post to become Local 100's Director of Subway Safety, but he had a falling-out with Mr. Utano in June 2020 which he said cost him that job and meant a "return to my tools" at the MTA.

Didn't Think It Through?

Mr. Utano said Mr. Navarro's strategy would have had catastrophic consequences at a time when the city was at its most-vulnerable and the need for mass transit was critical.

"First of all, he doesn't realize when you make a statement like that, you are actually [setting in motion] closing hospitals, pharmacies, food stores," the union leader said. "How were essential workers like the police or with the Fire Department going to get to work?"

He continued, "How are the people making $15 an hour going to get to work to make sure people get fed, make sure the nurses get to the hospitals so they can take care of the people and take care of transit workers who were in the hospital. To make a statement like that is crazy."

Mr. Utano insisted that the union was proactive March last year, pressing the MTA to permit workers to wear masks, despite the CDC's guidance against doing so.

"We had a meeting on a Friday with the MTA, and I told them, 'You can put out whatever the hell you want, because when 9/11 happened, you told us the air was good, and people are dying today," he said. "If you now tell me that my people will get written up for wearing masks, I am telling my people to wear masks, and let's take that fight on."

Says MTA Gave In

Mr. Utano said that the next business day, the MTA issued a memo stating that in spite of the CDC recommendation, Local 100 members could wear masks.

That May, the union pressed management to adopt a 10-point plan which included "a no-mask, no-work" provision; COVID testing and tracing; workplace temperature checks; protective shields for Bus Operators; "humane removal" of the homeless and mentally ill from the transit system; reasonable accommodations for older workers with pre-existing conditions; the formation of an independent medical panel to review the MTA's occupational-health pandemic performance; a mask mandate for riders; regular cleaning of the system and its fleet; and hazard pay.

Hazard pay never materialized. Local 100 successfully pressed the MTA to extend its $500,000 line-of-duty death benefit, negotiated the previous December, to all members who died of the virus.

The union subsequently engaged the NYU School of Global Public Health to conduct a survey of its rank and file, with one in four of those who responded saying they had contracted the virus. That research continues. NYU was just awarded a five-year $4 million grant from the National Institute of Health to study how transit workers can be better protected from occupational exposures to infectious diseases.

Agree on Review Panel

Where Mr. Utano and Mr. Navarro found common ground was on the need for a 9/11 Commission-style review of how agencies like the MTA and the CDC responded to the pandemic.

"It's behind us, but if you don't learn from it you are going to repeat history and make the same mistakes," Mr. Navarro said. "You have to investigate the things that weren't in place, so it doesn't happen again."

Just as the Federal Government had a detailed response plan for a potential pandemic left by the Obama administration, the MTA had a blueprint for a response dating back to 2012.

In a Sept. 30 address at the unveiling of a memorial in the union's Brooklyn headquarters for the 110 members of Local 100 who died from the coronavirus, Mayor-elect Eric Adams said the city had "betrayed" TWU workers who died from exposure to the virus because "the system had almost a million masks and they were saying you couldn't get one."

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(1) comment


Tony Utano and the incumbents were no where to be found during the pandemic but come out of hiding now because they want your vote. Vote Navarro!!

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