N.Y. transit leader calls for new vote

NEW YORK — The battle between bus and subway workers represented by Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority continues. Last week, over the objections of the MTA, the Public Employee Relations Board ordered both sides back to the bargaining table.

Meanwhile, the contract negotiated between the TWU leadership and the MTA, which was rejected Jan. 20 by seven votes, seems to be gaining new life. As of press time, Local 100 President Roger Toussaint had reportedly announced that he would ask the union’s executive board to send the contract back to the membership for a re-vote, saying that he thought that now there is a much greater chance it would be accepted.

Prior to Toussaint’s announcement, a petition drive for a revote had been underway among TWU members, with the NY Times reporting that the petitions had received “thousands” of signatures.

The MTA is still pushing for binding arbitration. In arbitration, their demands would, among other things, raise pension costs to employees from the current two percent to six percent.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1056, which represents workers at three bus depots in Queens, approved the contract with a 79 percent vote. Earlier, ATU Local 726, representing Staten Island bus drivers, voted overwhelmingly to approve. This means that the contract would go into effect for at least some MTA-NYCT workers.

The contract was negotiated after a pre-Christmas strike. The “final offer” of the MTA sparked the strike, in large part due to a demand for a two-tier pension system, which the union argued would divide workers into “two hostile camps.”

The strike — marked by racist criticism from the city’s mayor and New York Gov. George Pataki, but also widespread support from the city’s labor movement and the population as a whole — was called off after the MTA agreed to certain demands, including dropping the two-tier pension proposal.

The contract that the TWU’s leadership and the MTA agreed on left the pension system intact and introduced such new benefits as maternity leave, strengthened health insurance for retirees, and a new holiday. However, it also included a new 1.5 percent charge on income for health insurance.

The contract was rejected by a slim majority of the membership, who voted 11,234 against and 11,227 in favor. For most of the workers, the new payment for health care was hard to swallow, given that the MTA had a huge budget surplus.

The interference of Pataki in the process also affected the contract vote. The agreed-on contract called for a big refund for many transit workers from the pension fund. The refund would have somewhat offset the new health care cost. Pataki sowed confusion by repeatedly threatening to veto the refund provision.

In a related development, a March 3 trial based on New York’s Taylor Law — which would have included the possibility of fines on members and the union, loss of the union’s right to automatic dues check-off and the jailing of the TWU leadership — has been postponed to allow the TWU and MTA to continue negotiations. The Taylor Law outlaws strikes by public employees. The NYC labor movement had been planning a major display of solidarity to defend the TWU and oppose the Taylor Law.