Judging by the level of hostilities between Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Patrick Foye and top transit-union officials, one might think a strike had begun, or was imminent.

But while Transport Workers Union Local 100 is gearing up for an Oct. 30 rally outside the MTA’s lower Manhattan headquarters to stir public support for its bid for a new contract, a walkout hardly seems likely, even though the old pact expired more than five months ago.

The latest verbal shot was fired during an Oct. 23 MTA board meeting, when Local 100 Vice President J.P. Patafio invited Mr. Foye to come downstairs on the day of the protest “because we’ll have some tar and feathers for him,” according to a Daily News account. “That’s what you do to a fool—you put some tar and feathers on him.”

Mr. Foye told a News reporter following the meeting, “If I wanted a job where I was universally loved, I would’ve done something else.”

But as intemperate as Mr. Patafio’s remarks were, the conflagration appears to have had its origins in an eyebrow-raising e-mail Mr. Foye sent to Local 100 President Tony Utano Oct. 10 that branded his proposal to lower the cost of specialty prescription medications the “Utano Specialty Drug Scam.”

If that characterization wasn’t incendiary enough, the MTA Chairman threw some more gasoline on the fire by asserting that the presentation made at the union’s urging by Payer Matrix, a company that specializes in reducing drug costs, would not cover union members who weren’t yet U.S. citizens, or medications for “chronic diseases such as sickle-cell anemia that disproportionately impact your African-American members.”

Mr. Utano told this newspaper’s Bob Hennelly that those claims were irresponsible because coverage for members that was not provided through Payer Matrix would be taken care of by the existing Local 100 drug plan.

The union leader didn’t exactly look to calm the waters when he suggested that Mr. Foye’s repeated uses of words like “corruption” and “fraud” while denouncing the plan as “a shakedown” amounted to “ugly anti-Italian stereotypes.”

But the MTA Chairman, a veteran of top government jobs at both that agency and the Port Authority who is hardly a newcomer to tense contract negotiations, should have known better than to touch off the fireworks with his e-mail. While it’s true the union had previously launched a radio ad campaign in which it called Mr. Foye a millionaire, that should not have fazed him, given the far-harsher union language that is common in bargaining disputes.

It’s possible mediation will be needed to get the talks on track, if the hot-button words from both sides are a true indication of mistrust on both sides of the table. And notwithstanding Local 100’s historical reluctance to have its contracts decided in arbitration, that shouldn’t be ruled out either if the parties are unable to begin dealing with the issues that separate them in a civil manner.

Union leaders sometimes indulge in escalated rhetoric to show their members that they’re fighting for them. Management officials usually don’t feel that imperative, even if they report to Governor Cuomo, since they have an easier time of conveying their resoluteness privately.

But when the shouting outside MTA headquarters stops after the Oct. 30 rally, reaching a new contract will hinge on the two sides dealing with each other respectfully, minus the dubious accusations and hot tar.

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