As the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Transport Workers Union Local 100 held contract talks that went past the deal’s expiration May 15, a top union official warned that allegations made by MTA Board Finance Committee Chair Larry Schwartz about union overtime abuse being criminal in nature “created the type of atmosphere where a strike could happen organically.”
TWU International President John Samuelsen’s comments that day to this newspaper were in response to remarks made by Mr. Schwartz prior to a May 10 emergency MTA meeting. That session was convened in response to an Empire Policy Center report that there was a $418-million spike in MTA overtime costs for 2018, a 16-percent rise over 2017.
He said he was also concerned that Mr. Schwartz’s “fact-starved public indictment of New York City Transit workers” could also exacerbate the growing problem of violent assaults on transit workers by irate members of the public.
The Empire Center, a conservative think-tank, reported that one Long Island Rail Road official made $344,147 in overtime last year in addition to his salary of $117,499. Four of the MTA’s top earners were with the LIRR, with their pay ranging from $380,407 to $461,646.
“People need to either go to jail, they need to be prosecuted and we need to collect the money that they stole from the taxpaying public,” Mr. Schwartz, a former Secretary to Governor Cuomo told WCBS-TV after the report was released.
Uses the ‘F’ Word
Mr. Cuomo, with whom Mr. Samuelsen has had a close alliance in recent years, expressed similar sentiments.
“This is about stealing. This is about fraud. This is about people saying they work and charging the taxpayers when they didn’t work. It’s stealing. It’s criminal,” he said during a May 10 news conference at his midtown Manhattan office. “So, this has nothing to do with overtime. It has to do with theft and fraud, and that’s criminal.”
At the MTA emergency session Mr. Samuelsen, who is also an MTA Board Member, took Mr. Schwartz to task for making “extremely irresponsible allegations about fraud and criminality without actually no evidence to back that up whatsoever.”
He said the spike in overtime was a direct result of years of MTA management putting off badly needed repairs and maintenance, and once they committed to a subway action plan, shortchanging staffing. He also noted that MTA management and Mr. Schwartz received monthly reports about overtime utilization.
‘Hire More or Pay OT’
“You hired about 700 to 800 transit workers but you were supposed to hire 2,000,” he said. “When you want to increase service delivery and you want to increase the state of repair of the track and you need 2,000 bodies and you don’t hire them, you know what you do? You pay overtime.”
The TWU International President blasted the agency’s decision to detail MTA cops to scrutinize the comings and goings of rank-and-file workers to determine whether they worked all the hours for which they were paid overtime.
“You turned our workplaces into a modern-day chain gang, into Rikers Island, and eventually you are going to pay the price for it in terms of worker morale,” Mr. Samuelsen warned.
The night before the May 10 meeting, MTA Chairman Pat Foye called TWU Local 100 President Tony Utano to inform him that the MTA police would no longer be used to monitor employee overtime.
‘Treated Like Suspects’
Mr. Utano welcomed the effort to dial back the acrimony. “It’s a good development, but I’m still furious that this happened at all,” he said. “The Chairman had police officers standing watch over workers like prison guards over inmates.”
Mr. Foye announced that the presidents of the LIRR, Metro-North and New York City were being asked to evaluate their overtime practices and procedures and examine a year of payroll for the overtime payments.
Professor Joshua Freeman, of the City University of New York Graduate Center, the author of “In Transit: The Transport Workers Union in New York City 1933-1966,” downplayed the prospect that the heated tempers could provoke a job action.
“It doesn’t seem to be the build-up to a strike,” he said, in a phone interview. “But somehow the insinuation that this massive overtime issue is the workers’ fault when they don’t control the budgets and management of the system is very provocative.”
Labor Council Rebuke
On May 16 the AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council unanimously passed a resolution denouncing the MTA for “declaring war” on workers for deploying the agency’s police force, “intentionally creating the image of the MTA workforce as a criminal population.”
The resolution accused Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Foye of executing a “raw and calculated stunt” by convening the emergency meeting which they charged was “an insidious attempt by the MTA to pit the taxpaying general public against the workers of the MTA.”
It faulted MTA management for setting the stage for the spike in overtime by opting to limit employee headcount to limit pension and health-care costs and “specifically bargaining the elimination of overtime caps which had the direct effect of creating the overtime need for which they are blaming workers.”
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