In Pricey N.Y., Transit Workers Feeling Pinched

By Michael Powell and Michelle Garcia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 18, 2005

NEW YORK -- Burly and bearded, with a reflective orange vest, track worker Jerry Warren watched his transit union step back from the precipice of a strike early Friday -- and he's not happy about that.

"That's right: We should have gone out on strike," he says in the Columbus Circle subway station. "The rich and the powerful are playing real hardball with the union, but okay. Try to find an affordable apartment in Harlem. Go to the grocery store, everything's more expensive. Time to fight or die."

As the 34,000-member Transport Workers Union (TWU) edged closer to a strike that would close the nation's largest bus-and-subway system, many conductors and track workers, token booth clerks and bus drivers have spoken with a voice seldom heard these days in New York. This city tends to be viewed through the gold-leafed windows of Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn, where the median income is twice that of the rest of the city and jobs come with white collars, where three-bedroom apartments sell for more than $1 million and several dozen restaurants open each month.

As Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, himself a billionaire, put it a few years back, New York is a luxury item -- and residents, he suggested, happily pay for the pleasure of living here.

But the transit workers' voice is that of median-income New Yorkers, the millions who make $40,000 to $60,000 a year and who are ever more hard-pressed. Middle-class incomes in New York, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute, a labor-funded group, have declined by 11.9 percent relative to inflation in the past 13 years.

By contrast, incomes for the top-fifth of New York earners have increased by 26 percent. Inflation runs close to 5 percent in the city, and housing prices have shot up 85 percent. Few middle- and working-class families can afford to buy a home or apartment, even in the most far-flung neighborhoods.

The economic anxiety is palpable.

"The MTA needs to take it on the chin," said Pedro Sanchez, 36, a bus driver from Queens. He told his family last week that he might be fined if he strikes. He sucked in his breath quickly and said that's all right with him. "I've got some savings."

Officials with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the buses and subway trains, and some budget analysts argue that the transport workers occupy a privileged island in a middle-class sea. Transit workers receive generous, employer-paid pension and health benefits.

Such benefits are becoming more rare. In New York, once a bastion of unionized labor, only 55 percent of private-sector workers receive health benefits, a figure that is lower than the national average.

The Citizens Budget Commission, a business-funded think tank, released a recent analysis suggesting that transit workers are too well paid and that the MTA should take a strike to restore fiscal order. The commission's analysts noted that many thousands of New Yorkers probably would accept less pay in exchange for transit jobs; 30 people now apply for every train operator's job.

"They live in one of the most expensive cities in the country, but their wages are not substandard," said Elizabeth Lynam, deputy research director at the commission. "The only requirement is that they converse fluently in English. They are fairly compensated . . . and maybe too high."

The economic reality in New York is that private-sector wages have fallen for the lower-middle and working classes, and union jobs are much sought after.

The Transport Workers Union, whose militant roots reach back into the Irish and Italian migrations of the early 20th century, is a tough adversary. To speak of labor-management dialogue has often been an oxymoron; labor negotiations and strikes are approached as set battles.

When a judge jailed transit union leader Mike Quill during a 1966 strike (it is illegal for public employees to strike in New York state), Quill responded: "The judge can drop dead in his black robes. I don't care if I rot in jail."

The union's hierarchy now tends toward West Indians, Latinos and East Asians, but the leaders have a fierce sense of their history.

Gene Russianoff, a lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign, a riders advocacy group, cautions that the MTA should not doubt the workers' sense of grievance, particularly when the city has become so expensive.

"This is a union that involves serious physical labor, and the poorest people in New York flock to it and they band together," Russianoff noted. "It's not dead history -- it informed the strikes in 1966 and 1980. And if the MTA is not careful, it'll inform the next strike."

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