On the Transport Workers Union Strike
You know, I've been disappointed with unions in this country lately. For the most part, they are organizations that work in collusion with the management of the companies where their members work and try to screw their members out of dues without providing any kind of meaningful representation.
That's why it's refreshing to see a union like the Transport Workers Union (TWU) in New York City finally take a stand for what's right, even under the intense threat of severe penalties imposed by the "company," which in this case is the government, that its members work for.
Mass media news gets on my nerves, because it tends to focus so much on the results of the strike—commuters having to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and such—and neglect the issues that underlie the strike.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is trying to change the contract with the TWU in two important ways that are the basis of contention: First, workers' pensions will only be fully vested when they turn 62 instead of 55, and second, the MTA wants to have all new workers pay for their insurance benefits.
Now, if the MTU were about to go belly-up, I would say that they're justified in cutting costs to ensure the long-term financial health of the system. But that's not the case. The MTU actually has a surplus to the tune of a billion dollars. So why is an organization with a billion dollars in the bank trying to screw its workers out of health insurance and pension benefits?
Something else really bothers me about this case, too. If these people worked for a private company, they would be fully within their rights to strike as a tactic to get what they need. However, these people happen to work for the government, not a private company. So unlike a private company, the government can use its police powers to try to force these people to work, and it's already done so. Unlike unhappy auto workers, when the TWU members strike, it's against the law.
The MTU decided that it would flex its government muscles to try to keep its workers from striking. It got a court injunction against the strike, and its workers are now being fined for being off the job. That's right, not going to work is now a criminal offense, and I think this sets a very dangerous precedence for the future when our government—the country's largest employer—mistreats its employees.
Another thing that really bothers me is how badly government officials are maligning the union in the press. George Pataki, the governor of New York, said, "They have broken the trust of the people of New York. They have not only endangered our city and state's economy, but they are also recklessly endangering the health and safety of each and every New Yorker."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, "You can't break the law and use that as a negotiating tactic. This is unconscionable."
Why does this bother me? Because these guys are playing two roles in this little dispute. First of all, they are the leaders of the city and state of New York. As such, their job entails looking out for the health and wellfare of the citizens of New York City. With words like these, these two men have the power to scare the bejesus out of people, and that power shouldn't be taken lightly.
But these men also have another role in this dispute as well. They are leaders in the government, which is the employer of these workers. As such, that makes them the very same management that is fighting the union. In other words, in this case, they are clearly not merely observers making disinterested comments on the strike. The are trying their best to shift the blame for this fiasco off their own backs and onto their opponents by abusing their positions as government leaders. That is something that the mass media press clearly isn't stating enough in its reports.
Michael Bloomberg says that the works are "thuggishly" turning their backs on New York City. Let's see who is acting thuggish.
An organization with a billion dollar surplus is cutting retirement and insurance benefits of its employees. When the employees resort to the only method available to them to fight back, the organization fines their union an unheard-of five million dollars, plus one million dollars a day. Further, the individual members of the union are fined $25,000 a day. These are workers that make between $47,000 and $55,000 a year. So much for the Eighth Amendment, which requires that excessive fines not be imposed. Now, who is resorting to thuggish tactics here?
I'm annoyed at the people out there who think that the TWU should just go back to work, or that think that the union is using strong-arm tactics to get unreasonable demands. I always thought that the American Way was to cheer for the little guy, and the TWU in this case is definitely the little guy. They are being hammered incredibly hard, I think, to serve as an example to others: Don't mess with the government. If they lose this battle, it will be just another win in a long string of victories by large organizations and companies to screw average joes out of what they work hard for. Worse, it will be a strong incentive for other government organizations around the country to use screwing its employees as a means of saving more money, even if—as in this case—there's really no need to. We should all be standing behind the TWU and cheering them on!
MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow said the strike is "a slap in the face" to all New Yorkers. I couldn't agree more. But he left out the part about how he is the one slapping.