The Eve Of Destruction: The MTA & The TWU
We believe that it is an outrage for one union of public employees to threaten to tie up the city and cause enormous economic loss to businesses and to working people who are no part of the dispute. This is collateral damage in the extreme. Injury to others is one reason that laws have been passed to prohibit such strikes. The Transport Workers Union acts in arrogant disregard of these laws, as a result of their prior experience with pusillanimous public officials who lack the cojones to enforce the law.
The State of New York, through one of its hundreds of nonprofit corporations, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, went to State Supreme Court and won a preliminary injunction against a strike. The next day a union leader tore up a copy of the injunction in front of cameras at a rally of strike supporters. That public act indicates the TWU’s attitude toward the courts. But if elected officials and their appointees on the MTA board do not act firmly to seek implementation of court orders, the union’s contempt for the law will turn out to have been justified.
How, then, should the wages of transit workers be determined? Certainly not by an illegal strike. On the other hand, the MTA is an interested party in the dispute and should not be able unilaterally to decide what its employees should be paid. In these cases, one may resort to binding arbitration. The State Legislature in 1967 created an agency, the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), which has the authority, in case of an impasse between labor and management, to decide through arbitration the salaries of police officers and firefighters, but no other city employees.
In the case of the current dispute, the MTA has offered to submit the dispute to binding arbitration, but the union refused. Under current law, arbitration can only occur with mutual consent.
One problem with arbitration is that it tends to result in decisions, especially in money matters, where the arbitrators split the difference between the parties. If the MTA, for example, offers all it can afford, or the same increase that employees doing similar work in other agencies receive, and the union demands twice as much, the arbitrators’ decision by Solomon, split the difference in half, would result in an increase out of line with what others are receiving.
A suggestion by former Mayor Ed Koch could be helpful. He thinks that a special kind of arbitration would work.
Under this plan, the union and the agency submit to arbitrators their last and best offer. The arbitrator must choose one; he/she cannot split the difference. This system induces both sides to be realistic in their final offers, the agency will be more generous (with public funds) and the union will be more moderate, so that their offer is more likely to be selected. The plan is sometimes called “Last Offer, Best Offer,” or LOBO. This method of distribution would have to be required by law, since the TWU is highly unlikely to agree to it voluntarily. The union’s power to disrupt the city and intimidate its politicians is greater than its power to persuade an impartial arbitrator of the merits of its case. This is a case where the State of New York should use its plenary power. It is desirable for the trains to run on time (a European dictator once boasted of his ability to accomplish that). It is unacceptable for the trains not to run at all. In this case, concerted refusal to work is a violation of state law. Disruption of service should not be tolerated. The crisis is a test of the strength of our political institutions, and we hope they are strong enough to protect the public.
Nothing in this column is meant to denigrate the men and women who work for the Transit Authority. As on any job, some work harder than others, but by and large the work is defined externally (take a train or bus from A to B and back, repeat X times a day) and it is well done. They are in no way at fault in trying to get all they can in wages and benefits; that is the American way. Nor are they overpaid as much as some of the suits at the MTA, particularly those who lined their own pockets. MTA workers are decent people, but when their personal economic interests conflict with the public interest, and they resort to illegal acts to compel the city to surrender, that is unacceptable behavior which should be resisted.
If the MTA submits to the TWU’s threats, it will pass the increase along to a captive audience, the riding public.
Unfortunately, the public is not at the bargaining table, and their representatives may be cowed by union power. It is also in the interest of the many businesses who will suffer what we now call “collateral damage” as the result of a strike. Taxes in New York are high enough without residents incurring special damages because public employees believe that they are above the law.
Strikes against all of us help to create a common bond among the inconvenienced public. People remember how they got to work, who they met, how long the trip took, etc.
The vogue of wearing sneakers while walking to work and changing to more formal footwear at the office is said to have originated during in the 1980 transit strike, when many New Yorkers walked miles to their jobs. And people know that a transit strike is a minor inconvenience compared with the London blitz or a terror attack.
Henry Stern can be reached at: