As Budget D-Day Nears, NY Transit Workers Hose Down MTA's Dirty Tricks with a Pool Party

With huge service cuts and layoffs looming, New York’s transit crisis is the thin edge of a wedge threatening to up-end reliable bus and subway service in communities nationwide.

Like auto workers and state employees before them, transit workers are coming to understand how politicos and number-crunchers want to get out of the budget mess: by pitting the public against one more unionized workforce, forcing them to retreat.

New York has seen a particularly nasty brand of this political maneuvering in the last week, as transit chief Jay Walder worked the press circuit to produce stories accusing bus drivers of taking excessive time off after getting spat on and idling afternoons away getting paid to play pool in between split shifts.

The agency quickly backtracked, admitting that only one-third of drivers took significant time off after an assault—and those that did had leave approved every month by agency doctors. The split-shift concept, meanwhile, was actually a management proposal to combine two jobs into one in a previous contract, and the agency insisted on keeping drivers on the clock (at half pay) to have control over them, said Kevin Harrington, a Transport Workers Local 100 vice president. But no matter, the headline-grabbing storylines about scamming, overfed workers had been established.

TWU Local 100 wasn’t about to take its lumps, though, mounting two boisterous rallies Wednesday. Members and staff brought along pool cues—purchased with their own cash, thank you very much—to an afternoon protest outside Walder’s lux downtown Manhattan condo building, paid for by a $5,000 monthly housing stipend courtesy of the taxpayer.

“He needs a scapegoat and we’re his scapegoat,” said Willie Rivera, Local 100 division officer for 4,000 bus drivers in Brooklyn. “The comments are irresponsible—he’s enticing people out there to assault us. Drivers don’t like the swing shifts. They want to work and go home.”

The MTA faces a nearly $400 million budget shortfall this year after tax revenues plummeted in the recession. The agency’s debt load has more than doubled in the last decade, as its spending grew by 7 percent annually and the agency turned to Wall Street firms to devise clever ways to shroud its obligations—for a while, at least. (They’ve now hired a former Bear Stearns banker who advised them on these deals to manage the debt.)

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Such problems are widespread: 84 percent of transit systems around the country last year cut service, raised fares, or planned to. The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) counted 3,100 layoffs nationwide last year and predicts another 3,600 this year. In New York, 250 station agents were laid off last week and the MTA wants to fire another 3,000 workers around the system, while it plans to cut two train lines and dozens of bus routes in June.

There’s little ambiguity among politicians and elites about who’s supposed to pay for the cumulative $2 billion budget hole across the nation’s transit systems. San Francisco’s mayor has pushed a ballot referendum to cut transit workers’ wages. Chicago’s brought transit union officials in front of the cameras and told them it was cut wages or service.

“If they’re not talking to each other, they’re definitely taking cues from each other,” said Larry Hanley, an ATU International vice president. “It’s more than a pattern. Across the country government officials are trying to use the recession to drive workers into the ground.”

An emerging coalition between ATU and TWU, Keep America Moving, is linking up local unions with transit advocates and community and faith groups to build an understanding about the roots of the budget crises, resist the worker-bashing, and advocate for boosted support from the federal government.

And now they have something to root for: eight senators put forward an emergency bill Tuesday that would supply $2 billion for transit operational funding. It could be attached to a war-spending bill later this week, but would have to survive an appropriations process slowed down by Republicans who have repeatedly blocked spending bills.

No matter how the machinations play out on Capitol Hill, transit unionists know that deep and persistent funding problems mean the bull’s-eye will be on their back unless they can reach beyond the membership to make their case.

“We’re paying for some sins in the past because we have not built these coalitions historically and it’s something we should have done,” said Hanley, who’s bidding for the top spot in the 200,000-member ATU at its September convention. “Now we have to play catch up in a wartime environment.”

Mischa Gaus was the editor of Labor Notes from 2008 to