New York transit strikers reject offer

New York City transit workers rejected bosses' offer after their illegal three-day strike last month.

Submitted by libcom on January 22, 2006

A tiny margin of just seven votes scuppered the deal, leaving the New York Times to report that angry workers may turn to other forms of direct action, such as wildcat stoppages and slowdowns.

From on January 22, 2006:

Typically, when a union's members reject a contract, negotiators from management and labour reconvene and seek to reach a revised deal - often with a few tweaks - that is more palatable to the union's rank and file yet does not cost management an extra cent.

But New York City's continuing transit dispute, which involved the first systemwide strike in a quarter-century, has not followed tried-and-true patterns.

As a result, bus and subway riders find themselves in uncharted and uncomfortable territory: never before have the city's transit workers first gone on strike and then voted down their contract.

With the announcement on Friday of the results of the union's ratification vote, the union's stunned leaders and the equally stunned Metropolitan Transportation Authority are not sure where to go from here, not sure how to put the contract back together again. Although nobody is predicting a another strike, there is a nagging concern that things could once again fall badly apart.

"All this means that transit riders are going to have to take some Tums," said Joshua B. Freeman, a labor historian at the City University of New York Graduate Center. "There's going to be a lot of uncertainty until this thing is finally resolved."

So much anger, ill feeling, dissent and political jockeying remain within Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union that some unpredictable and undesirable things might happen if the union's members or its dissident leaders flex their muscles.

David L. Gregory, a labor law professor at St. John's University, speculated on one possibility: "The militant members of the union will continue to work, but they may be prone to a wildcat job action or slowdown, which could be almost as chaotic as a systemwide shutdown." Judges might view such actions as illegal work stoppages and impose further penalties.

If nothing else, however, the workers' rejection of the settlement shows that they are an angry group - angry enough to take part in an illegal three-day strike and face fines, and angry enough to embarrass their union's president, Roger Toussaint, by shooting down a settlement he had signed.

But they also are angry at the transportation authority, for demanding concessions when it had a $1 billion surplus, and they are angry at Gov. George E. Pataki, for warning that he might block a contract provision that many workers loved. That provision, valued at $130 million, would give about 20,000 transit workers thousands of dollars of refunds on their pension contributions.

Mr. Toussaint blamed others for the outcome, saying, "We believe this result is a byproduct of a number of negative and inappropriate interferences." But some union members and labor experts say the contract lost because he was slow to campaign for it, although his aides say he was hamstrung by an agreement with the transportation authority not to gloat over the deal, which called for raises totaling 10.5 percent over 37 months.

The last time the transit workers rejected their contract, in 1992, the negotiators made a few tweaks in the settlement, giving the workers a little more retroactive pay, but keeping the same overall raises. The workers overwhelmingly approved the revised deal.

This time, however, Mr. Toussaint is no doubt feeling pressure to ask for more than a few tweaks. Indeed, he may demand one huge change: that the authority drop the provision that most angered union members and probably caused them to repudiate the contract, if only by 7 votes of the 22,461 cast. That provision called for transit workers to pay part of their health insurance premiums, for the first time.

Under the rejected deal, workers were to pay 1.5 percent of their wages toward health premiums, with that percentage rising in future years. "They didn't go on strike so they could start paying health insurance premiums," said John F. Mooney, a union vice president and Toussaint foe, who helped lead the campaign to vote no. "They're not willing to pay a percentage of their salaries toward health care that will go up."

While Mr. Toussaint might ask to jettison the provision on health premiums, nobody expects the transportation authority to oblige him, because dropping it would cost the authority more than $30 million a year. The authority has hailed the provision, saying it would help rein in spiraling benefit costs.

"In this type of situation, the parties normally try to figure out if there is a way to reach a solution that both sides could live with within the same cost structure," said Robert W. Linn, a former New York City director of labor relations. "Assuming that the health premiums were a major reason for rejection, that would certainly be a difficult issue to deal with, since it's so important to the management and the city." After the transit settlement was reached, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg suggested that he would like future city contracts to require municipal workers, too, to begin paying part of their health premiums.

The next steps in the dispute could become more volatile. Union members could turn even angrier if Mr. Pataki insists that the authoritydrop the pension refund, which he has repeatedly condemned, saying it wrongly rewarded participants in an illegal strike. The governor controls 6 of the 14 votes on the authority's board.

"This really gives the rhetorical opportunity to the governor to resume his shots at the union, and that could be very inflammatory," Professor Gregory said.

If new face-to-face negotiations go nowhere, mediators might be called in to lend a hand, but if mediation also were to fail, the alternative is binding arbitration. The transportation authority has already requested such arbitration, but if Mr. Toussaint and dissident leaders agree on anything, it is that they oppose arbitration because it would deny transit workers a vote on the ultimate deal.

Nonetheless, many labor experts say binding arbitration might be the best course for both sides, because both are being asked to undertake perhaps impossible horse-trading to revamp the deal in ways that will make it acceptable.

"Arbitration can make more sense because arbitrators have a lot of experience putting together a deal within a given cost structure," Mr. Linn said. "An arbitrator is not likely to decide on a settlement that costs more or costs less."

Strange as it may sound, not just the authority, but perhaps Mr. Toussaint as well, may have little desire to negotiate an agreement that is far more generous to the workers. The authority certainly does not want a renegotiated settlement to cost more than the rejected one, while Mr. Toussaint might not want a more generous settlement because it might make him look weak - as if he had negotiated too stingy a deal the first time around.

"It is hard to imagine how a bigger victory can be won at the negotiating table," said Robert W. Snyder, an associate professor of journalism at Rutgers University and the author of an oral history of the transit workers. "It is even harder to imagine them winning if they go on another strike."