December 24, 2011
By Neal Tepel
No one among the fifty-odd labor leaders assembled in DC 37’s 5th Floor conference room could remember a comparable event: Virtually every union representing MTA workers in an unscripted and frank 90-minute discussion on Thursday December 22th with the MTA Chairman. Asked to meet with the members of the MTA Labor Coalition by John Samuelsen, head of the Coalition’s biggest union, TWU Local 100, Joe Lhota agreed without preconditions. He was accompanied by his Labor Relations Director, Anita Miller. The morning meeting was hosted by DC 37’s Lillian Roberts as a courtesy to DC 37 Local 375 President Behrouz Fathi, who represents MTA workers in engineering and technical titles.
Mr. Lhota came across as a big-time booster of the MTA and made a pitch for a partnership with labor in seeking new funding streams for the Authority. He decried what he saw as the MTA’s bad rap, making the agency a perennial whipping boy for politicians. The undeserved attacks, he said, have translated into funding problems, and he is seeking creative ways of coming up with new money.
The big item on all the Union officers’ minds was the next round of contract negotiations, now underway with TWU Local 100 and sure to affect everyone in the room.In fact, as John Samuelsen noted, none of the over two dozen MTA unions are working under contracts with the exception of Local 100. While he did not depart from the Authority’s declared “net zero” budgeting plan (in which every union gain is to be paid for via a concession), Lhota gave the impression that he didn’t want to go toe to toe with each union over every issue, as much as he was seeking to find common ground. Whether this can translate into contracts that both sides can live with is anyone’s guess.
Areas of agreement were pronounced: both the members of the Coalition and the MTA Chairman-designate (he is set to go through a NYS Assembly confirmation process in the next few weeks) want to see the Federal Government relax rules for transit aid to large metropolitan systems. Both consider state of good repair maintenance something that is essential. And both are claiming some credit for the Governor’s signing of the “Lock Box” bill.
Contentious issues were also touched on, including unions’ unhappiness with the MTA’s Business Service Center, which handles employee health plans and payroll issues, which many Unions believe is dysfunctional. Also raised was the MTA’s continuing reliance on outside contractors to do work which could be handled more cheaply and efficiently in-house.
Lhota’s reception has warmed the chill that settled on labor/management relations even before former CEO Jay Walder laid off over a thousand workers. If the thaw lasts and both sides can come up with creative ideas, the riding public may ultimately benefit.