Editor's note: An edited version of this letter to Transport Workers Union of America President John Samuelsen is published here at its author's request.
This past week the MTA laid out draconian plans to cut service dramatically on the subways and buses if it does not receive $12 billion in funding from the federal government. While President-Elect Biden is pro-mass transit, we still have a high hurdle with the U.S. Senate. Even if the Democrats held both chambers of Congress and the White House, it doesn't guarantee we would get the full $12 billion to get us out of the hole.
While I applaud your vehement opposition to reopening the contract for concessions on terms such as a wage freeze, service cuts are not a mandatory subject of bargaining, because they are seen as "normal" management prerogatives. The MTA has quickly attempted to distance themselves from the notion that they must run enough service to ensure social distancing of passengers. We must not allow them to pull the same stunt with regard to social distancing passengers from train and bus crews!
Now I would like to get to the heart of this open letter. Hopefully we get the federal funding and doomsday can be averted. However, we must be prepared for the worst. While the Taylor Law prohibits "strikes" of any kind, our contract (a legal document that carries the same weight as the Taylor Law) allows us to refuse unsafe work until it can be settled through the chain of command, all the way to arbitration. The safety-rule dispute-resolution form is probably the most powerful tool in our contract that is underutilized. On March 2, the day after we found out that someone had contracted the coronavirus in NYC, I demanded an SDRF from a supervisor who told me I wasn't allowed to wear my N95 mask. He was so shocked at my demand that he told me to write a written report and send it to the superintendent because he didn't have the form! I wasn't having it, and demanded an SDRF in the middle of the evening rush hour on the number 7 line, where we run 3-minute headways.
I am asking that you begin a campaign to teach the members about the form. Make flyers, maybe a video, definitely shopgate, to show them that it's not scary to demand one when we don't have 6 feet of social distancing (virus particles can travel through the cracks of a cab door and plastic partitions) or a passenger isn't wearing a mask. I also believe there should be heavy union presence at high-ridership stations such as Times Square, Penn Station, Grand Central, etc. to show our members the support they need for what is already a very stressful situation. After 130+ deaths, no arbitrator in their right mind would allow us to work under such conditions. I really hope TWU is ready to act when it counts.
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