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Dec 22, 2005 12:08 am


Politics and Policy for Pataki



Here in New York, as we work our way through the second day of the Transit Workers' Union's illegal strike, TWU head Roger Toussaint has accomplished the seemingly impossible--producing a unified reaction, on a domestic issue, from the editorialboards of the city's six leadingdailies. In a rambling press statement this afternoon, Toussaint claimed that he had a"higher calling" than following the law and compared the striking workers to Rosa Parks. Even ignoring the extraordinarily generous health and pension packages the TWU enjoys, given that the starting salary for a transit worker is higher than the starting salaries for police officers, firefighters, teachers, and even CUNY assistant professors, it's a little hard to see the TWU cloak itself in the mantle of social justice.

George Pataki's chances of receiving the GOP presidential nomination in 2008 range from slim to none. But the TWU strike presents him with an intriguing opportunity to do what's best from a policy angle--take a hard line to try to control runaway public employee pensions--while also acting to maximize his political interests--standing up to a union that almost casually defied the law. Reports from the Times this morning aren't promising in this regard: it appears as if the MTA all but caved in to the TWU in final negotiations, and only Toussaint's ideologically driven eagerness for a strike led the TWU to look for an excuse to walk out.

Those of us at CUNY have much at stake in this affair. Not only did the illegal strike disrupt our fall-term finals, but the TWU's action represents the first test in a generation to the Taylor Law. The law prohibits public employee unions from striking; it has been the only thing preventing Barbara Bowen, president of the PSC, CUNY's faculty/staff/adjunct union, from pulling the trigger on the strike that she very much desires. No wonder, then, that Bowen today sent around a missive to all CUNY faculty claiming that as"the TWU negotiations spotlight the ideological nature of [the PSC's] negotiations," one"of the strongest things we can do to support our own contract fight . . . is support the TWU." (Always good, when you need political support, to side with a lawbreaker who's even been repudiated by his national union.)"In defying the Taylor Law's regressive, punitive ban on strikes for public employee unions," Bowen continued,"TWU is helping to change the political climate in which all collective bargaining for public employees in New York takes place." The PSC head speaks the truth: we've seen more aggressive attacks on organized labor in the last two days than at any point in the last five years in New York.

Hopefully, Pataki will hold firm, and leave figures like Bowen and Toussaint to live out their ideological fantasies without causing any more direct harm.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

To KC:
Is ideology supposed to be a bad thing, so that ideologically-driven contract demands are worse than others? I don't see it.

I haven't quite made up my mind about the legitimacy of the strike, but the whole "ideology" issue seems a red herring to me. Contract demands are basically driven by expectations about what one's own side deserves. Touissant is certainly exaggerating when he compares the TWU's struggle to get its workers what they deserve with Rosa Parks's struggle to sit on the bus. But Touissant is hardly alone in his exaggerations. Everybody in New York seems to be exaggerating nowadays (cf. Bloomberg's "thug" comment).

Set aside the exaggerations and what you have are people without a contract who want more than what they're getting. It's not wrong of them to invoke considerations of justice to make their case. They may be wrong in the particular claims they make (I'm neutral on that), but they are not wrong to invoke justice as such. If that is "ideological," I don't see what's wrong with it. In fact, I don't see how labor demands could intelligibly be made in a different way.

To Ralph:
As for Ralph's comment about the TWU's being "enormously 'privileged'" my question would be: what "privilege"? Their benefits and salary are earned, they're not a matter of noblesse oblige. It doesn't really matter whether other people earn less than the TWU, or Assistant Professors (or even CUNY Instructors!) would kill to make the same amount. The transit workers' labor is obviously central to the very functioning of NYC. It is not wrong of them to say, "If you depend on us, you should pay up."

A general issue:
KC has stressed the illegal nature of the strike. Touissant may be exaggerating, but I am surprised that no one here has asked the obvious question: is the Taylor Law justified, and if so, on what grounds? On what grounds can a government insist that people must work without a contract? I find it very strange that we live in a country that prosecutes private companies for "monopolistic" or "coercive" practices in its anti-trust laws, but then allows the government--which is an ipso facto monopoly--to use the Taylor Law in labor negotiations. Isn't there a double-standard at work here?

To Anthony Paul Smith:
To put on my anti-proletarian hat for a minute: Anthony Paul Smith makes some legitimate points, but let's not exaggerate the skills that TWU workers have or exercise. Yes it can be hard to work in the transit system, and few PhDs could hack it (few; not none--I know plenty who could). But the level of service offered by some of these transit workers--at least in NYC--is pathetically low. Simply to ask some of these workers the simplest question in a civil tone of voice is to invite torrents of abuse from them. One has to live this on a daily basis to understand it. So frankly, while there are bitchy-to-insane commuters, there are bitchy-to-insane transit workers, and there is a bit of each deserving the company of each at work here.


Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

KC:

I agree that the union is being hypocritical for the reason you cite. And I think many of your criticisms of Touissant are well taken. You're also right that the Taylor Law was a compromise of the sort you describe.

I guess my response--as an ideological free-marketeer--would be that the whole package is unjustified from beginning to end. In a just world, the TWU (or PSC-CUNY) would have the right to strike, full stop: no Taylor Law, no pro-union provisions in state labor law. So my ideological conclusion is that the strike is an illustration of what goes wrong with labor markets when you depart from free market norms.

The result of the "compromise" you describe is just an all-around increase in coercion (and confusion), a kind of Hobbesian all-against-all transferred to labor relations. Management is coerced by the pro-labor provisions, workers are coerced by the Taylor Law. So I suppose what you say causes me to modify my original stand slightly. It's not just the Taylor Law that's unjustified but the whole package it comes with.

I would disagree however with the claim that a strike "harms" the public. I don't think a withholding of labor is a harm, except in the context of contractual reliance. If I don't do something for you that I never had the obligation to do, I can't be said to "harm" you even if the outcome for you is a bad one. I didn't do anything to you, I just didn't give you what you wanted or needed. That isn't a "harm"; it's a disappointment. The number of New Yorkers who regard themselves as "harmed" by the strike testifies to the importance of transit workers: when they say "We've been harmed," what they mean is "We can't do without their labor." But if so, they should be willing to pay for it.


Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Yes, but the whole point is that they don't have a contract right now. They're working without one and trying to formulate the terms of a new one. The question is what the terms of the agreement will be, not an already-existing agreement.


Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

They could, but do they have to? My point is that there can't be "contractual reliance" based on an expired contract. An expired contract isn't worth the paper it used to be written on.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/29/2005

Which is to say that you appear to be incapable of following the logic of an argument. My point isn't that just because I had no cushy retirement all other workers should be denied a cushy retirement. That appears to be what you _think_ I said. You had dismissed my opinion on the grounds that my experience was incomparable with the NY workers. I was merely reminding you that my own experience recently has been much more comparable to theirs than anything you've known in your very limited experience.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/29/2005

Anthony, You are ignorant.


Anthony Paul Smith - 12/29/2005

Sounds like you and the other faculty didn't get organized enough to work out a good pension plan. I guess the workers in New York shouldn't either.

Your daughter could have paid her own way though or joined the military. Those were my options and since they were the worst available to me they should be the only available to everyone else too. Right? I mean that's what you're saying here.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/23/2005

People obviously can do all sorts of imprudent and, even, illegal things. It is very strange, however, to walk away from the benefits of a continuing implied contract in defence of the entitlements for other people who have never yet been entitled to its benefits.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/23/2005

The fact is that, as long as negotiations continued, they had and could continue to work under the terms of the contract that had expired.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/23/2005

Irfan, Your "except in the context of contractual reliance" is absolutely crucial. New Yorkers have _been_ paying the transit workers very generously and have every reason to expect to be able to rely on them to do what they agreed to do. Without contract reliance, the whole social fabric comes apart very rapidly.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/23/2005

Anthony, I don't understand why you insist on talking as if you know what you're talking about. The illusion that you are in the "real world of work" and know that it's "really hard out here" in ways that a CUNY professor or a "retired professor" do not is ludicrous. When I left my last full time teaching position, I had to take a newspaper route and run a cash register at a grocery store to help put my daughter through college. As a grocery store clerk, I was a union member. So, your abundant experience hardly gives your opinions a weight that we ivy-towered types lack.


Robert KC Johnson - 12/23/2005

It seems to me that using contract negotiations to address what Toussaint called his "higher calling" than the law--to achieve social justice--is to misplace their rationale. If the TWU wants to promote its version of "social justice," it should feel perfectly free, like any other interest group, to lobby the legislature for new laws; or to mobilize on behalf of the Working Families Party; or to organize street protests. But the chances of using a contract negotiation to achieve "social justice"--or any other explicitly ideological aim--are very remote, as Toussaint discovered with the disastrous strike. Had he confined his aims to economic or work-related issues, he almost certainly would have gotten a great deal (the MTA caved on everything in its final offer) without the widespread condemnation and fines associated with the strike.

The Taylor Law was a compromise. Public sector workers in New York were given the right to organize by law (which they previously had held only through executive orders); public employee unions received dues-checkoff provisions, de facto closed shops, and the civil-service security associated with government jobs; and binding arbitration was created to resolve contract impasses. In exchange, public employee unions were given large penalties for striking, since, unlike the case with other labor unions, any public-employee strike directly harms the public. The position of the TWU (and the CUNY union, the PSC) is that they should have the right to strike, but nonetheless retain all the pro-union provisions of state labor law. That's rather hypocritical.


Anthony Paul Smith - 12/22/2005

Ralph,

What's the point of organized labour if it has no power? One more blow? Come on! Everyone's pension is slowly being taken away and replaced with the very unstable 401k. The fact that those workers have done shit about it doesn't mean that these transit workers shouldn't. I too thought they would lose, but again, the powerful winning doesn't mean that they were right to do so. I'm in the real world of work (not CUNY or a retired professor) and it is really hard out here.

KC,

You still haven't shown that your use of ideology is at all coherent. Please address this.


Robert KC Johnson - 12/22/2005

It appears as if Ralph's prediction was right on target: facing crippling fines, the union has decided to accept a "recommendation" to end the strike.

Union negotiations often are about economic matters--wages, benefits, etc. Toussaint, at his press conference yesterday, said this strike was about his "higher calling" than the law--using the negotiations to achieve "justice." I'd classify this as an ideological demand.

Not quite sure to what the comment on treating "those within the academic profession as unequals" refers.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/22/2005

Anthony, You seem to have no problem with absolutizing the claims of one small group of low-skilled but crucially placed workers against the interests of _all_ other workers and the position of their _own_ national leadership. Somehow, I fear that the transport workers in NYC are going to lose this one and, when they do, it will be seen as yet one more blow to organized labor in the United States.


Anthony Paul Smith - 12/22/2005

KC,

But you have failed to show that you have a concept of ideology that makes sense which always seems to take away from your arguement since you use the word ideology as support for why certain actions are bad. I don't care if you are agreeing with people you don't often agree with, this does not support your position. Everytime you mention ideology you throw it out with sense that it is "bad". Though your small concesssion gives me a bit of hope, though I think if you had a more complete concept of ideology you would be able to see that it is absolutely an ideology (and more clearly so than the union in this case).

Ralph,

And I'm sure most PhD's would love working in tunnels all day with passengers who range from bitchy to insane. I think we have a very different conception of skill. Following this as closely as I can without much access to the net and from what major news agencies have reported the union's main grievence is with the two-tier pension system that would effectively split any hope of unity with the union. While KC has expressed support for treating those within the academic profession as unequals, I don't think you can carry this over to transit workers. Workers matter.

That the national union doesn't support the strike does not neccesarily show that the stike is bad, but perhaps that the national union is less interested in the workers that make up the union.

Isn't it somewhat backwards to say that transit workers can't strike, putting them, by the way, on level with such high-skilled workers as paramedics, firefighters, and police officers? After all, in France the transit workers strike almost every three years and, I might add, their transit system is far superior to Chicago's (I don't know about New York).


Robert KC Johnson - 12/22/2005

In the post, I quoted PSC president Barbara Bowen as describing the TWU's crusade as ideologically driven. I don't agree with Bowen often, but I don't see any reason to disagree with her on this point.

Union negotiations often feature heated rhetoric on both sides, followed by hard bargaining. In this instance, from all available evidence, the TWU didn't seem very interested in bargaining, since all the concessions made between Friday and Monday before the strike were made by the MTA.

The basic issue, however, as the mayor has pointed out, is that the TWU has violated the law. I admit that expecting public sector employees to follow the law could be considered an ideology.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/22/2005

Anthony, I don't think that you've looked at the contract that the Transit Workers are trying to defend very closely. This is an enormously privileged group of low-skill workers. Assistant professors across the United States, to say nothing of unemployed ph.d.s, would kill for such a contract.


Anthony Paul Smith - 12/22/2005

KC,

Please, please, please! - explain how you don't practive ideology or, alternately, define ideology.

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