November 16, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – Sixty days before their contract expires, the Transport Workers Union kicked off negotiating season with a raucous rally demanding pay raises that won’t be eaten up by inflation.
“We want a substantial wage increase that exceeds inflation in each year of the contract. We want our members to be able to afford to live in the city,” Local 100 President John Samuelsen told the more than 3,000 workers outside the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s lower Manhattan headquarters. “This is ultra-important. We don’t want to play catch-up with inflation. We want to be ahead of price increases.”
“There is no economic calamity this time. The MTA is actually working with a slight surplus,” Samuelsen added. With inflation at 1.6%, he said, that means “we’re never ever going to accept a contract with 2% raises every year.”
He told LaborPress before the rally that the union’s other main priorities were “defending our health benefits and fighting for reform of Tier VI.”
Tier VI, signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2012, cuts pensions for workers hired after then and requires them to contribute more of their pay. Changing this would need to be approved by the state government. Local 100 Secretary-Treasurer Earl Phillips said the union wanted “a strong commitment from the MTA to join our most important legislative campaign” in order to win “pension parity for our younger brothers and sisters.”
Safety is also a major issue, especially following the death of Louis Gray, a construction flagger killed when he was hit by a train in Brooklyn just after midnight on Nov. 3, and the narrow escape of signal helper Monique Brathwaite, who lost part of her right arm when she fell on the third rail last month. Four transit workers are assaulted every week, while “scores more are cursed at and spat on,” Samuelsen said. “Another five transit workers a day are hurt bad enough that it causes them to miss work.”
The union also wants the MTA to stop buying equipment “that spews diesel pollution,” Phillips said. “Diesel is a murderous component and it has no place in the depots and subway environment.”
Other demands, developed after canvassing rank-and-file members, include “greater respect on the job” and less aggressive discipline; no cuts to medical benefits; better work boots; and better, cleaner crew facilities, “especially for our female workers.” The MTA, Samuelsen said, “better come to grips that there’s a lot more women on the job.”
The crowd jammed Whitehall Street and spilled over onto Bowling Green. The mood mixed party and militant, people bopping to hip-hop and R&B oldies while waving signs like “Without Us, the City Stops” and wearing lime-green and red “Hey MTA, Fastrack Our Contract” badges and patches. An inflatable red-armed Gumby about 20 feet tall with Local 100’s logo undulated spasmodically. Recording secretary LaTonya Crisp-Sauray MCed, calling out the names of MTA divisions and workplaces. “Corona, I see you… Surface Transit, I see you… Where’s East New York?”
“If the MTA fails to adequately recognize our hard work,” Phillips told the crowd—echoing a speech by Winston Churchill during the Battle of Britain in 1940—then “we will fight them in the bus depots, the maintenance facilities, and the warehouses. We will fight them in the stations, in the tunnels, and on the tracks.”
A few weeks ago, TWU International President Harry Lombardo said, a seven-day walkout by TWU Local 234 stopped the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority from seeking a wage freeze and health-care concessions.
Samuelsen is serious about “beating the war drums,” a TWU spokesperson said, and the prevailing attitude among the rank and file is “we get burned by the third rail, we’re not going to settle for 2% like a bunch of office workers.”
R train conductor Shawna Robinson said her biggest concerns were getting a good raise, safety, and health care.
“The TA doesn’t like us to call out sick, but there are things that we inhale when we are working every day,” she said. “Feces, for one. The smell of urine… oh, my God.” The number of homeless people sleeping on trains and living in stations “has grown tremendously” over the last two or three years, she said, and some are physically ill.
Robinson, wearing a jacket adorned with her “Lady Panda” nickname, has three grandchildren and three children, with one daughter a senior in college. She recently moved from Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to Staten Island after the building she lived in was sold.
“We work hard. I love my job. I love serving the people of New York,” she said. “I just want them to understand that we have families. We have kids in college. Some of us live in neighborhoods we’re being priced out of.”