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NYC Transit Workers Face Threat of ‘Doomsday’ Layoffs

“When everyone stayed home, we were out there working. What’s our reward? We’re going to get laid off?” — TWU Local 100 President Tony Utano.

NEW YORK, N.Y.—The city’s transit workers are gearing up against threatened “doomsday” layoffs that could cost almost a quarter of them their jobs.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority will vote on its proposed budget at an online meeting Dec. 16. If it doesn’t get $12 billion in federal aid, it announced Nov. 18, it would have to cut services by 40% and lay off more than 9,300 of its roughly 40,000 subway and bus workers by next May.

“We intend on fighting these layoffs,” Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Tony Utano told LaborPress. “We got people where they were going and saved a lot of lives. When everyone stayed home, we were out there working. What’s our reward? We’re going to get laid off?”

The MTA has not given out specific details yet, but the November announcement indicated that bus service would take the hardest blow, with about 4,600 workers axed from regular bus routes and 1,300 from express bus lines.

At the Manhattanville bus depot on Harlem’s western edge, that would mean that drivers with less than a year and a half on the job would likely be cut, says shop steward Terence Layne.

“The junior operators are concerned,” he says, but given the lack of detail, “at this point, nobody’s panicking.”

Bus ridership has dropped significantly less than subway ridership during the pandemic. The week the MTA announced the proposed cuts, it was 52-55% lower on weekdays and 42-48% lower on weekends than it was during the same period in November 2019, while subway ridership was down 69-71% weekdays and 62-66% on weekends.

The MTA did not respond to questions from LaborPress. MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick J. Foye said in a statement Nov. 20 that “the MTA needs $12 billion in federal relief to avoid the deep cuts we have been talking about that will devastate our customers and cripple our economy” and “borrowing or cutting our way out of this is not an option.”

If the MTA votes for the cuts and doesn’t get federal aid, says Utano, it would have to hold public hearings before finalizing them, which would probably in March. 

In the meantime, both Local 100 and the national TWU are lobbying Washington for more aid to mass transit, and telling members with relatives in Georgia to vote for the two Democratic candidates in the Senate runoff—hoping that their victory would end current Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s power to block any aid.

In Albany, the TWU is pushing for legislation sponsored by Assemblymember Robert Carroll (D-Brooklyn) that would levy a $3 surcharge on packages ordered online (except food or medicine) in the city, and another bill that would resume collecting the state’s stock-transfer tax, enacted in 1981 but quickly abandoned, of 5¢ on each share sold for $20 or more.

Both Utano and national TWU President John Samuelsen say the MTA needs a steady source of cash to keep from constantly struggling with deficits. The stock-transfer tax, which would earmark 25% of revenues for the MTA, could raise $15 billion, says Utano—but he objects that it would not pay out any funds until April 2023.

“We need that money now,” he says.

Train operator Evangeline Byars argues that the MTA should borrow money, in anticipation that the Biden administration will help the city, before it cuts jobs. 

“No one in the incoming administration has said they do not want to help New York,” she says. “There’s no reason for them to move so quickly to lay off all these people. After we lost 132 people during the pandemic, to lay us off in mass numbers is an attack on us workers, the ones they deem essential.”

She also believes the TWU should be challenging the MTA more directly. Another faction in the union, Local 100 Fightback, is planning to rally outside MTA headquarters before the Dec. 16 meeting to demand that the state enact a “millionaires tax,” legislation that would raise taxes on income over $1 million a year from 8.82% to as high as 11.85% for income above $100 million. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has strongly opposed the concept.

The TWU has not taken a position on the millionaires tax, Utano says. He adds that the union will “absolutely” challenge any layoffs or service cuts when the MTA holds public hearings.

“We will not be opening up our contract under any circumstances,” says Layne.

When the MTA cut services by 30% during the recession in 2010, he recalls, operators on the job for less than two or three years fell victim. Some routes, such as the M18 on Convent Avenue in Harlem, were eliminated, and the frequency of buses was reduced on all routes—“which has never been restored,” he notes.

Public transportation is “the circulatory system of the city,” Layne says, and people in neighborhoods like Harlem, Brownsville, Morrisania, and East Flatbush don’t have alternatives if service is cut. 

Less service means more crowded buses, he adds. “Now you’re talking about a crowded bus in the middle of a pandemic.”

“The MTA is going to have to become creative to find ways to manage the agency without hurting the rank and file,” Layne insists. During the pandemic’s peak last spring, he notes, subways and buses carried not just health-care workers, but food-supply workers and home health aides who wouldn’t have been able to get to their jobs otherwise.

“This is what the MTA and the powers that be need to take into consideration before they start laying us off,” he says.

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