Candidates challenging Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Tony Utano in December officer elections have gone to the mattresses early, asserting that a Metropolitan Transportation Authority threat not to honor two scheduled pay raises is proof the union needs a change in leadership to gain respect.
Under their current contract, Local 100 members are entitled to a 2.5-percent raise in May and an additional 2.75-percent hike the following spring.
MTA: Need 3-Year Freeze
But at a Feb. 18 MTA board meeting, Chief Financial Officer Bob Foran said the agency's financial plan relied on a "permanent wage freeze" that would be in effect through 2024 to narrow the multi-billion-dollar budget deficit due to a steep drop in ridership caused by the coronavirus.
MTA consultants have projected that even by then, ridership may be no better than 80 percent of what it was before the pandemic, which "will need to be addressed by right-sizing service."
At the board meeting, TWU International President John Samuelsen, who is also an MTA Commissioner, blasted the agency and pointed to the union's success in court in a similar battle in 2009.
"We've been down this road before," he said. "We have a scheduled wage increase coming. We have prevailed in court. We have beat you. [But] it's caused great animosity within the workforce."
He then attacked a provision in Governor Cuomo's budget proposal which would "swipe" $145 million in tax revenue from the MTA, "which is sufficient to pay for these raises two or three time over."
'Want War? You'll Get It'
"If the MTA wants to go to war with its workforce, then they will get a war," he pledged.
They must be out of their minds," Local 100 President Tony Utano said. "There is no way that transit workers—who put everything on the line for this state and city—are going to sit back and meekly accept a wage freeze. We will fight any such move in arbitration and in the courts, and in the bus depots, rail yards, shops, stations and the streets if necessary. We have a contract. We expect that contract to be honored."
He pointed out that more than "130 NYC Transit and commuter railroad workers who kept NY moving through this pandemic perished" and thousands more that became sick with the coronavirus. "If the MTA doesn't fulfill its contractual obligation, then the MTA will be showing workers that all of its praise and slick videos honoring them are nothing more than meaningless public relations b.s," he said.
In response, a spokesperson for the agency cited the success of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the New York delegation securing "$8 billion in federal aid to save the MTA's basic services," adding that "we're optimistic about the future given the support we've received in Washington thus far. Beyond that, we don't negotiate with our labor partners in the press."
'Props Up Utano'
Train Operator and union executive-board member Evangeline Byars, who is challenging Mr. Utano on a platform "that's an alternative to the Cuomo/Utano old school of male-dominated politics" said the MTA's threatened wage freeze "shows they don't have any respect for our union." She also speculated that the MTA's tough line "might be their way of helping Utano, because they are legally going to have to pay that raise but it will look like Utano put out that fire."
Another challenger, Track Worker Paul Navarro, expressed a similar view, adding, "It's just a distraction."
He contended the Local 100 election would turn primarily on worker safety and what he called a lack of follow-through by the union on winning hazard pay for workers who exposed themselves and their families to the virus.
"I was just talking to some track workers and they are fed up," he said. "They are not getting representation from the union...They are only treated as essential workers when there is a storm or a derailment, but the MTA is not reciprocating. Where's the hazard pay?"
Conductor Edward Lee Ireland, a 37-year employee who also is preparing to take on Mr. Utano, called the MTA freeze threat "fake news," adding, "this is what they do and it is completely insensitive to their rank-and-file workforce."
'All About Safety'
He, too, said the contest would pivot on "basic worker safety...due to our elected officers being missing in action."
Several union officials who were doing field work during the pandemic died from the virus: Ben Schaeffer, vice chair of Conductors; Hesrooni St. Anthony Cayenne, Structure Vice President for Maintenance of Way, and Tower Operator Darryl K. Sweeney, a member of the executive board.
Eric Loegel, Local 100's vice president for Rapid Transit Operations, who survived a bout with COVID, Defended Mr. Utano's work in protecting members. "This union fought the MTA's position on masks from Day One," he said during a phone interview. "I was in the room in the first week in March and the MTA was telling us masks were forbidden and we said we don't recognize that...and we told them that we were advising our members if they want to wear masks, regardless of what the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] says, they have the right to do it."
He added, "Every step of the process we have been pressuring the employer, fighting the employer and trying to get as many safety measures in place as possible."
Local 100 15 months ago under its contract doubled the death benefit to $500,000, which has since been received by the families of union members who died from the virus.
Other Demands Met
In May, the union pressed the MTA 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; a no-mask, no-entry mandate for riders; and regular cleaning of the system and its fleet.
Only its demand for hazard pay has not been addressed.
The union also had the NYU School of Global Public Health conduct a health survey of its rank and file that found that one in four of those who responded had contracted the virus.
The MTA has rolled out a robust vaccination program that had reached over 13,000 employees as of March 4.
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