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TWU Local 100

The Dirty Truth Behind New York’s Transit Crisis

By staff - League for the Revolutionary Party, January 14, 2018

Editor's Note: The IWW does not advocate organizing through political parties, and instead proposes organizing a revolutionary union of the working class. That said, the criticisms made in this article are sound and the overall demands entirely reasonable.

This is an edited version of a Revolutionary Transit Worker pamphlet distributed at transit workers’ meetings and at protests against the MTA in Fall 2017.

Underfunded and deep in debt, New York City’s subway system is falling apart. Derailments, fires, electrical failures and equipment malfunctions have become everyday events, multiplying the perennial problems of overcrowding, delays and cancellations. On-time performance has dropped precipitously, from 84% in 2012 to 63% in April 2017; monthly delays are up to 70,000 from 28,000 in 2012.[1] The purpose of the subway system ought to be to get workers to work rapidly and enable people to get around the city cheaply. But its six million daily riders cannot be confident of getting to work on schedule or to get anywhere reliably.

While the entire riding public suffers from the long-lasting and deepening crisis, the worst effects fall disproportionately on the working class and especially poor people of color. Their subway stations are the least maintained, and many workers in the “outer boroughs” have to take slow-moving buses to even get to the subways. Frequent fare hikes hit hardest those who can least afford them, forcing more and more people to jump the turnstiles and risk arrest. And under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Broken Windows” policy, which directs police to crack down on minor violations in poor neighborhoods, the cops seize tens of thousands of mostly young people of color every year for fare evasion.[2]

The effects of the transit crisis on the riding public are obvious and intolerable, but the system’s workforce is also under severe stress. Management has been increasing pressure on workers to maximize effort, while allowing decades of understaffing as well as often dirty and unsafe working conditions. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has only recently started necessary large-scale hiring, with plans to bring on 2700 new Maintenance of Way and Car Equipment workers. But there is no plan to alleviate the burden on train operators and conductors, bus drivers, station agents and cleaners, whose numbers are far too low for the system to operate in anything close to a humane way. And all transit workers face forced overtime as well as demands to sacrifice working conditions, wages and benefits.

The spike in subway delays, derailments, and fires gave rise to the tabloid label “Summer of Hell” in 2017, the culmination of a long-term failure to modernize the system. Governor Andrew Cuomo responded by declaring the subways to be in a “state of emergency.” At the same time, Cuomo and de Blasio both denied responsibility, each claiming that the other was in charge. The truth is that the MTA is a nominally independent agency of New York State, set up to insulate politicians from being held accountable by voters for the system’s failures. In its present form, however, the governor and his upstate allies control a majority of the votes on the MTA board (the mayor controls a few). So the buck ultimately stops with Cuomo.[3]

And Cuomo is no friend of the subways. When public outrage at delays and overcrowding spiked last summer, Cuomo grandstanded that “New York is going to put its money where its mouth is” and trumpeted a $1 billion cash infusion for the MTA. But that pledge was a flat-out lie, since he was really cutting funding for subways by more than a billion dollars! He had already cut $65 million from the MTA’s budget by reducing the state’s annual reimbursement for the $320 million in annual funding it had lost in 2011 when Cuomo granted new tax exemptions to a range of business enterprises. And after his pledge, Cuomo had the MTA cut $1.2 billion from its subways budget, funds that had been earmarked for improving the signaling and communications systems.

That money was redirected toward favored projects that serve his capitalist backers – like the ill-conceived AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport that would head away from the central business district and be no faster than the current bus-to-subway connection, in order to benefit corporate developments around Willetts Point in Queens. Cuomo also took a profusion of self-promoting bows when the Second Avenue line opened in January 2017. This line runs only to Manhattan’s higher-income Upper East Side, with fancy stations built to make ample profits for developers. It does not go to the Lower East Side, East Harlem and the central Bronx, working-class neighborhoods served by the elevated lines that the new line was originally designed to replace. Indeed, since the 1950s there have been no new lines and few extensions in the outer boroughs where 80 percent of the city’s population, including most workers, live.

Further, in 2016 Cuomo had declared that the state would fulfill its budgetary commitments to the MTA’s capital plan only once all other possible sources of funding had been exhausted. Then he got the state to dramatically raise the MTA’s debt-ceiling by $55 billion, to an astronomical total of $123 billion, so that it could issue more bonds to Wall Street profiteers. Of course, demanding other possible sources of funding sets the stage for more service cuts, attacks on transit workers’ wages and working conditions as well as more fare hikes every couple of years.[4]

It’s not just Cuomo. The Flushing line extension, built under the city’s previous mayor, billionaire Republican Michael Bloomberg, was designed to service property development near the Hudson River waterfront. De Blasio likewise has joined the real estate party and is pushing projects which will encourage new luxury housing and shops, including a streetcar line, the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), along the East River waterfront. This project will encourage new luxury housing and shops; it threatens the homes of hundreds of thousands of mostly Black, Latino and Asian working class people, who are protesting the gentrification project vociferously. There is a crying need for Brooklyn-Queens crosstown lines, but workers are right to oppose the BQX that is planned at their expense.

Cuomo, de Blasio and a succession of prior governors and mayors have presided over the underfunding and decay of the transit system in order to satisfy the profit demands of the capitalists they serve. Real estate tycoons have demanded that funding for the system’s maintenance and development be deprioritized in favor of projects and lines that will enhance the profitability of their investments. And Wall Street bankers insist that the system be increasingly financed by bond issues that guarantee them regular returns, rather than through progressive taxes that they would have to pay. Debt and interest payments to Wall Street now account for almost 20% of the MTA’s budget. Thus, despite capitalism’s financial crises and long-term stagnation (see below), New York’s public transit system has become a source of steady profits for capitalist parasites.

Your Next Bike Share Ride May Be Powered By Union Labor

By Amien Essef - In These Times, November 11, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Only a decade ago, bike share programs were considered European. But just as the concept takes off in urban areas around the US, the workers who make it possible are unionizing.

After New York City workers organized the first ever bike share union in the US in September, three other cities—Washington, D.C., Boston, and most recently Chicago—have made significant progress on their own bike share worker organizing campaigns. A majority of workers in all three cities signed union authorization cards this fall; D.C. workers are negotiating a union election date while Boston and Chicago workers will vote whether or not to unionize within the next month.

The roughly 280 bike share workers in these four cities—who, despite the bike share services’ varying names, all work under the same owner, Alta Bicycle Share, which was recently bought by the real estate company REQX—may all soon be represented by the Transport Workers Union. TWU represents workers in more traditional public transit sectors like bus drivers and airline workers, but Local 100 now aims to lead a national campaign to organize rentable city bicycles like Citi Bike in New York and Divvy in Chicago.

“If it’s on wheels,” says TWU Local 100 director of education Nicholas Bedell, “we want to organize it.”

But the union didn’t actually launch the national campaign. According to workers, the headlines generated by a successful union drive in New York, where Local 100 is based, prompted workers in D.C., Boston and Chicago to contact TWU on their own accord.