NYC Transit Workers

Published in Dawn on August 11 2016

I HAD come to believe that the gloom that surrounds trade unionism in my part of the world was a global phenomenon, and that collective bargaining negotiations were dying practices. Not so in New York.

The public transit union, called Local 100, which represents 42,000 workers and retirees of the city’s public transportation system (subway, buses and surface trains), is currently gearing up its campaign for a new charter of demands with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), due in January 2017. The union holds elections every three years and negotiates a collective bargaining contract every five. In the first week of August, the union held a two-day workshop to discuss campaign strategy in order to win a fair deal.

“The union is strategising to achieve an on-time agreement,” James Gannon, director of communications for Local 100, tells me when I call for queries. “Last time, the contract was delayed for two and a half years due to the financial crisis. We want to make sure the 2017 agreement is secured on time as the MTA is now financially strong.”

The union is demanding protection of healthcare and retention of job titles of conductors and cleaners — workers whose numbers the MTA are reducing with the induction of new technologies, said Gannon. Wages for subway workers are much higher than the national minimum wage. The lowest subway worker wage is $27 per hour, compared to $15 national per hour minimum wage effective from April 2016.

Local 100 is the parent union of Transport Workers Union of America, founded in 1934 by New York subway workers. Today, TWU has 140,000 members nationwide working in four divisions of transportation: air, railroad, transit, and universities and schools. Overall, union density in the public sector in the US is 35.2pc.

Workers in NYC fought for their rights from the start.

TWU has succeeded this year in a national campaign to bring blue-collar jobs back to American cities. The US government has agreed to offer railcar producers additional incentives to increase manufacturing within the country instead of outsourcing the work overseas. This campaign was launched by a coalition called Jobs to Move America, formed by transport and other unions, along with over 40 community, civil rights, philanthropic, academic and environmental groups.

The New York City underground subway system impressed me the first time I used it during a visit in 1982 and then in 1985. Now, 31 years later, I happen to be in NYC and I find the subway system upgraded and improved: carriages are gleaming, platforms are spick and span, elevators and escalators are installed in many stations. I encounter workers — mostly African-Americans and some South Asian immigrants — working around the clock operating the trains, maintaining the tracks, cleaning platforms, repairing elevators and escalators.

Another change for the better relates to advertisements. In the 1980s, all the ads displayed in subway carriages were for consumer items — food, cosmetics, etc. Now the ads are about services — vocational education, social security, tips to save electricity, etc. “Employers expect a lot from you. Expect a lot from them” runs an ad from Justworks Inc., a company that provides services related to benefits, payroll and payments, and compliance for start-up businesses.

The city has preserved the history of its transit system in a museum located in an actual subway station in Brooklyn that opened for service in 1936. Established in 1976, the NYC Transit Museum was previously used for trainings, I was told when I asked a museum officer. Sprawled over one full city block, it houses carriages dating back from 1907 on both sides of the platform. Photographic installations tell the story of how this remarkable engineering feat was accomplished, and by whom.

The subway system was built during 1900 to 1925 by 50,000 workers who dug underground and underwater tunnels, toiling under harsh conditions. Many suffered from silicosis. The workers fought for their rights since the very beginning — when the subway lines were owned by the private companies. Also noted was the fact that the craft unions, during those years, had barred black Americans from membership. In May 1901, the workers went on strike over their wages. The trade unions won when labour rules were also deemed applicable to subcontracted labour. When you read all these installations in the museum, you realise how much sweat and blood, sacrifice and struggle had gone into the making of NYC into a commuter-friendly city, and how significant the role of trade unions in this was.

I spotted two groups of lively children — toddlers and primary school kids — under the wings of their teachers, sitting inside carriages, listening and asking questions. This country does inculcate a sense of pride in its history and achievements of its workers from an early age through field trips such as these. I felt envious.

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