The New York transit strike begun today is a blatantly illegal act of economic sabotage by a union so selfish that it is willing to destroy one of the most important business weeks in the city in a last-ditch attempt to preserve privileges that most private sector employees can only dream of — like the ability to retire at age 55 with a full pension, or the ability to not contribute at all to health insurance costs. It is also an opportunity for New Yorkers to take a step back and assess how we got here — and how to fix it.
How We Got Here
The union's demands are unrealistic and its tactics irresponsible. It is the union that is primarily to blame for the strike. It needs to be said, though, that the mismanagement of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is a major factor that has also contributed. In 2003 the subway fare increased to $2 from $1.50 amid claims that the system was in a fiscal crunch. Then all of a sudden the authority discovered a surplus so large that it decided to cut the fare to $1 as a holiday present to riders. You don't have to be a labor-management negotiating genius to know that the best moment to discover a billion dollar surplus isn't on the eve of triennial contract negotiations. Other events contributed to a sense of cynicism, from a contract for new subway cars that was awarded on the basis of a reported $500,000 phone call by a former senator, Alfonse D'Amato, to indictments for overbilling in connection with renovations to the MTA headquarters at 2 Broadway. Management reportedly spent $7.6 million to renovate the bathrooms at 2 Broadway, which tends to undercut the case for parsimony with the union.
How to Fix It
Enforce the Law: If the MTA moves even a scintilla toward the union's negotiating position as the result of this strike, it would reward the union's illegal behavior and send to the dozens of other unions who do business with the state, the city, and the public authorities a message of appeasement — that if you want a better contract, go on strike, even if it is against the law. That may be how things work in Latin America or Paris, or how they used to work in the New York of the 1960s and 1970s, but it is not a way to run a successful city in the competitive global economy. It's a recipe for making New York's state and local tax burden, already among the nation's heaviest, even worse. The right move for the MTA now — the only move, if it is going to avoid a strike every time a contract is up for renegotiation — is to take an extremely hard line with the Transport Workers Union Local 100. As a first step, the MTA could refuse to negotiate with this union until the workers are back on the job. If that fails, the authority can begin hiring and training permanent replacement workers. The strikers mustn't be permitted to escape the full penalties of the Taylor Law, which include docking workers' pay and jailing the union leaders.
Sell the Monopoly: One reason riders are in such a pickle is that the MTA is a government monopoly. If the subway were the way it was during its heyday of expansion, various private companies, each with their own labor contracts and policies, would be competing. So a strike on the IRT wouldn't necessarily mean a strike on the IND. And rather than every subway line in the city being shut down in a strike, there would be an alternate route. It's one reason that instead of a Metropolitan Car Rental Authority we have Hertz and Avis and Thrifty and Budget and Dollar and Alamo and National and Enterprise. Competition results in better pricing and service and reliability. So that if the Hertz agents go on strike, there are other companies to rent from. Not so with the MTA. It's time to break the monopoly. A good place to start, as Nicole Gelinas suggests in today's New York Sun, would be by genuinely privatizing some of the MTA's bus lines. The subways could come next.
Send the Politicians Home: The MTA symbolizes everything that is wrong with Albany. It's linked closely enough to Governor Pataki that he can milk it for patronage, but it's distant enough that he can claim it's not his fault. We doubt many will credit that claim after he spent the run-up to this strike campaigning for the presidency of America. While the subway serves New York City, it is controlled by an authority whose board members are primarily appointed by the state government. The whole culture of Albany — the corruption, the cronyism, the unwillingness to stand up to special interests like the unions — is epitomized by the MTA strike. New Yorkers are already angry at the incumbents in Albany, as evidence by a poll this fall by New Yorkers for Term Limits that found 77% of New Yorkers favor "placing term limits on members of the State Legislature and the governor so they can not serve any longer than eight consecutive years in the same office."
Those, like us, who tend to see the bright side of most situations already see the strike as a chance for many to spend some time with their families relaxing at home instead of working. Children were thrilled to have an extra hour or so before they started school today. But serious businesses are getting seriously hurt by this strike. If it results in more than anger and inconvenience but actually leads to change for the better in the city and state, the ride may ultimately be worth the fare.