Transit Talk with John Samuelsen
July 5, 2012
By Marc Bussanich, LaborPress City Reporter
LaborPress had the opportunity recently to sit down with the President of TWU Local 100 and an executive board member of the New York City Central Labor Council, John Samuelsen, to discuss a variety of issues stemming from the MTA Chairman’s, Joseph Lhota, New York Post Op-Ed piece about how labor must make sacrifices in order to achieve a new contract.
Q. What was your reaction to Joseph Lhota’s New York Post Op-Ed, “Time for labor to sacrifice?”
A. My first reaction was that Lhota seems to be falling back into the typical MTA bureaucratic style of chairmanship, negotiating a contract in the press, blaming labor for everything that ails the transit system in New York City and really not holding the MTA accountable for decisions that have gone awry over the last couple of decades.
Q. Mr. Lhota claimed in the piece that Local 100 members received an 11 percent wage increase over the last three years, at a time when the city’s cost-of-living index rose 4.6 percent. What’s your response?
A. It’s easy for Lhota to cherry-pick three year periods over the last 40 years of contractual relations between the MTA and Local 100. There were years when we had contract wage settlements that didn’t even come close to inflation, as in the 1980s. Also, regardless of what is the cost-of-living index, it has no impact on the union’s position that transit workers deserve a fair wage increase. It’s easy for a guy making $340,000 per year to tell the working families of Local 100 that are barely scrapping by to raise their families in New York City to accept a pay freeze.
Q. Lhota didn’t mention in his piece the hard work and working conditions Local 100 members have to endure. How do you respond to that glaring omission?
A. We literally put our lives and bodies on the line every day we come to work. Dozens and dozens of transit workers have died on the tracks in the last 50 years. Three transit workers per week are assaulted on the streets of New York City and in the subways. When was the last time you saw a bureaucrat in a suit at MTA headquarters get assaulted in the line of duty?
Q. What do you see as the biggest failings of the MTA’s management of the largest transit network in the country?
A. Admittedly, it’s a very difficult system to run. You need money to run a system as big as New York City’s transit system. It’s not Lhota’s failure, or even Walder’s failure before him, although his tenure was filled with failures. But the biggest failure has been the absence of a fight in Washington, D.C. and Albany for dedicated revenue streams to make this system the best transit system in the world. The union has many times put out an olive branch to the MTA to join us to create innovative funding stream ideas to present to the State Legislature and Congress, and I think it’s an absolute failure on their part.
Q. The Citizens Budget Commission, in a January policy brief, wrote that when compared to other transit systems’ workforces in the country, Local 100 members are some of the highest paid. How do you respond?
A. First of all, the most direct comparison for New York City Transit workers would be the MetroNorth and LIRR systems where train operators are far better paid. There’s been a historic glaring disparity of what a New York City train operator makes compared to their counterparts on the railroads. So if folks are going to compare, they should compare apples to apples. Of course, there are bus operators in rural America or smaller cities that earn less money, but they don’t have to pay $600,000 for a house in Brooklyn where that same house may cost only $125,000 somewhere else.
Q. What was your reaction when it was reported that nearly 40 percent of union households in Wisconsin voted for Scott Walker during the governor recall last month?
A. I think there have been successful efforts in Wisconsin and certainly in New York State to divide the public and private sectors. The politicians in many states have convinced private sector transit workers that their families would be better off if public sector workers were less better off. Instead of using the defined benefit pension plan that is in place for the public sector as a model for private sector unions to achieve, the politicians have convinced many private sector members that a defined benefit pension plan is a luxury that’s not necessary for workers.
Q. One of the main issues of contention in the lockout of Con Edison’s union workers is replacing a defined benefit with the equivalent of a 401k plan. What would you say to a private sector union member whose not concerned about the public or remaining private sector members losing their pensions?
A. Con Edison, just like Verizon, made billions of dollars in revenue in 2011. These are not companies that need to extract concessions from workers to keep their businesses afloat. These are corporate vultures that are moving in in what they view as desperate economic times to further pad their pockets off the back of working people. TWU Local 100 would stand to the end with Local 1-2 members at Con Edison. In fact, we’re going to infuse as much energy and money into that fight against Con Edison as we possibly can.
Q. Because of the backlash against public sector pensions, do you feel that Local 100 has to walk a fine line in its current negotiations with the MTA to avoid a backlash from the riding public?
A. No. I think over the last 2 ½ years, Local 100 has done a very good job in building ties with communities. We are currently involved in several fights where we are standing shoulder to shoulder with communities in New York City to restore bus lines and train service. What adversely affects communities, adversely affects our families. An important point is that if this union, Local 100, isn’t able to protect New York City transit jobs, there’s only so many good jobs for our children to take when they get out of high school. Let’s face it, not all our kids will go to college. I have two little boys. I hope they go to college, but if they don’t, they’re going to need jobs. If the labor movement, and in particular TWU, isn’t successful in protecting transit jobs, the long-term effects on New York City’s working communities that rely on these jobs is going to be devastating.
Q. If the MTA doesn’t back down from its no-wage increase pledge, and the union insists on a fair wage increase, does that leave the door open for Local 100 to strike?
A. Certainly a strike against the MTA by Local 100 is not imminent. No such strike will happen in the near future. But I will say one thing: Absolutely, there’s only so far that the MTA or New York State government is going to be able to push transit workers before transit workers take action against the company.
This is an edited transcript.