There’s been no activity in contract negotiations between Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority since the union’s executive committee Aug. 19 unanimously rejected the agency’s initial offer as insulting, according to Local 100 President Tony Utano.
He said in a phone interview that judging by management’s initial offer, the upcoming talks were likely to be more contentious than in the recent past.
“I have never seen anything like the way they started this off,” he said. “They are telling us that if our workers don’t come in an additional three days a year they can just come in and take whatever they want [out of the contract] to equal that money. I have never seen anything like that in my 40 years—ever.”
Agency Debt Rising
The multi-billion-dollar agency is facing what public-finance experts describe as a potential “death spiral.” Ridership is on the decline and legacy debt service—what the MTA pays for past capital borrowing—is projected to increase from $2.53 billion in 2017 to $3.23 billion by 2022, a 27 percent jump.
By 2022, almost one-fifth of every dollar that comes into the agency in operating revenue will have to be spent to satisfy bondholders.
“With debt service on the rise and ridership declining, the MTA is facing a large operating deficit,” wrote Rachel Fauss and John Kaehy of Reinvent Albany. “The operating budget pays for everyday subway, bus and rail service and money borrowed to pay for capital expenses. Every dollar paying back borrowed money is a dollar that cannot be spent on subway or bus service.”
The Local 100 contract expired May 15.
In the months since, MTA Chairman Patrick Foye has used board meetings to complain about the amount of overtime paid to the union workers, which he asserts is caused by a declining availability of employees because of contract rules that evolved over decades of collective bargaining.
Someone Has to Do It
At the July 24 meeting, he said the unionized workers averaged between 198 to 208 days, or roughly 40 weeks a year of availability, “subtracting vacation days, sick days, holidays, injured on the job.”
“Availability impacts overtime because employees who are out must be backfilled, usually on overtime,” he said. “To be clear, most overtime is authorized, appropriate and performed, although there have been instances of abuse, as noted in prior internal investigations.”
Mr. Utano countered that the work rules that Mr. Foye criticized were the result of abuses by management that actually undercut productivity.
“A lot of our work rules were put in place to ensure that management does not harass us and that they properly manage the system,” he said. “They don’t have to pay out on those work rules if they plan work schedules properly.”
Mr. Utano said that MTA management had been successful at shifting the news-media narrative in a way that made short shrift of his members’ recent success at turning the subway system around from daily crisis mode to a state-of-good repair, with fewer than 800 of the additional 2,000 hires that were originally planned.
“We went from daily stories about the subway falling apart and trains always being delayed to union work rules and the impact on the budget of workers working overtime,” he said.
As for Mr. Foye’s fixation on availability, the Local 100 leader said management needed to examine its own inefficiencies and how its bureaucracy and poor planning contributed to availability issues.
“The way it works here is, if you injure your shoulder it takes weeks and weeks and sometimes longer to get approval for MRIs,” he said. “We can’t use our own medical. Once you get hurt on this job, you fall under the MTA Workers’ Compensation. It’s not just weeks for the MRIs but weeks for the approval for an operation and physical therapy. These ridiculous delays cause the injury to be worse.”
"Nearly all medical exams including MRIs are pre-approved under Workers Compensation Law, and claimants can see their own doctors to get clearance to return to work," the MTA said in a statement. "Even omitting every workers comp case, employee availability remains an issue, contributing to the need for overtime."
Union officials maintain that management’s decision not to hire up to 1,300 of the 2,000 additional workers called for in the subway emergency action repair plan drove the spike in overtime while also exacerbating the personnel shortage.
“We worked that overtime and in some cases got forced to work it,” Mr. Utano said. “But what happens when you work a lot of hours and you are working on the tracks and ballast, you are going to be fatigued and there are a lot of slips, falls and ankles get twisted.”
He continued, “We also get sick easier than a person like Pat Foye who works behind a desk, overlooking the Statue of Liberty. We are in the subway transporting people and people get sick. We are in the cold and in the tunnels, where we breathe in steel dust and asbestos. We are in the middle of dirt and grime.”
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