Talkin' trash to the garbage around me.

22 December, 2005

MTA Strike: It's about race

From today's NYT:
When Roger Toussaint, the president of the transit workers' local, defiantly announced a strike, he proclaimed that his union was taking a proud stand against the concessions that employers had demanded nationwide.

But Mr. Toussaint has quickly discovered that engaging in an illegal walkout can leave a union with a weak hand. His union faces a $1 million fine for each day on strike, a state judge is threatening to throw him in jail and thousands of individual strikers stand to lose two days' pay for each day out.

Not only that, but the mayor, the governor and editorial writers are denouncing the union as greedy and showing contempt for the law. The front page of The New York Post screamed, "You Rats." And the transit workers' parent union has come out in opposition to the strike.

The headline may as well read "Rich White People to Colored Transit Workers: Drive Us to Work or Else!"

Here is my understanding:
  • The majority of workers for MTA are racial minorities.

  • The yearly wage of an MTA worker (IIRC) is $50,000.

  • From folks I've known who have lived in New York - for most people, $50,000 is barely making it for a family income. With another income of equal (or more likely, less) renumeration, you could live what most Americans would consider to be a middle-class lifestyle in ultra-spendy NYC.

  • MTA workers spend their workdays navigating traffic. Or underground. Or cleaning the tunnels. Or working long, boring hours at the turnstiles. Unpleasant, but critically important jobs.

  • Millions of people whose hard work makes NYC the intoxicatingly brilliant city that it is rely on MTA to get to and from work. MTA stops - so does the city.

  • MTA leaders - and presumably (but I have no firm evidence of this) their members - have endorsed a bargaining position which keeps the MTA retirement age, for which members become eligible for pensions, at 55 and refuse to accept a lessening of pay or other benefits for new employees.

  • The MTA management recently "found" $1 billion. Yup, billion.

  • Mayor Bloomberg calling striking transit workers "thuggish" and "greedy" for demanding that they be allowed to pursue the American Dream while living in one of the United States' (or, for that matter, the world's) most expensive cities smacks of out-of-touch arrogance - especially given the indispensable role of TWU workers in keeping the city humming [btw - does anyone know if Bloomberg has ever even used NYC mass transit? Seriously, I'd like to know if he has any idea of what transit workers face everyday]. Moreover, Bloomberg's tone sounds like the lord of the manor cuckolding the hired help. How dare they demand a middle class lifestyle for making sure that I can get about my day! They're public servants!

    It would be one thing if this were simply a European Marxist drama playing out on the picket lines in the city. This is the States, though, and if there's one thing that's for certain in this part of the world: race and class are inextricably linked. The Times unwittingly drives this home:
    [Robert W. Snyder, author of Transit Talk] said Mr. Quill was smart for striking when John V. Lindsay was weak - it was his first day as mayor. In contrast, Mr. Toussaint has gone on strike when the tide seems against him. Mayor Bloomberg was just resoundingly re-elected and Governor Pataki is thinking of running for president.

    "Pataki knows that if he is friendly to the unions it won't play well in the South Carolina primary," Mr. Snyder said. "And Mayor Bloomberg has no appreciation of labor unions. He is very business-minded."

    [emphasis mine]

    The bolded portion, loosely translated for Republican partisans, means that Pataki needs to look tough on uppity colored folks. Especially when you take into account how union membership among racial minorities is booming, these statements become the rhetorical equivalent of Reagan going to Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1980 and declaring "I believe in states' rights" - a thinly coded approval of discrimination aimed at racist elites and tailored to garner the votes of disaffected Southern white workers looking for a scapegoat.

    Again, my understanding of the workers' demands are that they are fighting not only for their own benefits (and let's face it, after shuttling literally millions of people around with limited breaks, irate commuters, and dangerous, high-stress work environments for years, these people deserve decent pay and to enjoy their pensions at a decent age!), but they are trying to keep MTA jobs from going the way of Wal-Mart - low pay, few benefits, no job security, and preying upon an economically depressed population. Don't these folks deserve it?

    New York City works because TWU workers do. Solidarity.
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