Crunch Time for the TWU

Will Transit Union Dodge Punishment?

by E.J. McMahon |  | New York Post

Soon after the end of the Transit Workers Union’s illegal 60-hour walkout in December 2005, Local 100 President Roger Toussaint boasted that his members had made good on a “credible threat” to strike. Later today, a state judge in Brooklyn will decide if they can get away with it.

Like all public-employee unions in New York and most other states, Local 100 depends on the involuntary collection of member dues via automatic payroll deductions by an employer – in this case, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The dues checkoff was among the invaluable privileges extended to public-sector unions 40 years ago by the state Taylor Law. It was only fair, the law’s framers explained: After all, these unions would not be allowed to strike.

Following the letter of the Taylor Law, state Supreme Court Justice Theodore Jones ruled in April 2006 that Local 100’s dues-checkoff privilege should be suspended until the union submits “an affirmation that it no longer asserts the right to strike against any government.” The suspension didn’t begin until June – and now the union is crying for relief before another Supreme Court judge, Bruce Balter.

More than half the union’s 33,000 members have failed to voluntarily pay all they owe out of a measly $50 a month in dues (about two hours’ pay, on average) to help finance what Toussaint has called their continuing “class struggle” against the “Power Elite.”

To satisfy Judge Jones’ original stipulation, Toussaint submitted an affidavit acknowledging only that the Taylor Law doesn’t recognize a right to strike. As Mayor Bloomberg has pointed out, this falls short of what’s really required – namely, a formal declaration from Local 100 renouncing the right to strike and promising not to strike in the future.

Local 100’s recalcitrance is no surprise, given the union’s long history of militancy. What is surprising is the willingness of the MTA – ultimately controlled by appointees of Gov. Spitzer – to let the union off the hook.

Citing its fear that continued suspension of dues checkoff could interfere with “harmonious and cooperative relationships” in the workplace, the MTA suggested the privilege be restored “conditionally . . . subject to immediate revocation in the event of a strike or a strike threat.”

That position is a lot less tough than it sounds. In fact, it’s a virtual replay of the state’s ineffective response to the TWU’s 1980 strike. An 18-month forfeiture of the union’s dues checkoff ultimately was reduced to just four months – supposedly to be reinstated if the union struck or threatened to strike. But the union paid absolutely no penalty for threatening to strike in 1999 and 2002 – despite (as the city noted in a court brief) the costly preparations this forced on city taxpayers.

The union has paid a $2.5 million fine to the city for the December 2005 strike – but that works out to less than $76 per transit worker, or little more than a rounding error in the context of Bloomberg’s $59 billion budget.

And it looks like Local 100 could have afforded more. As of Dec. 31, according to an annual report filed with the U.S. Labor Department, the union had $39.8 million in net assets – including more than $24 million banked in an investment account after the $50 million sale of its West End Avenue headquarters.

In the year after the strike, Local 100 reported spending $420,000 on lobbying and political activity; $2 million on outside law firms; $69,600 for a “restructuring” consultant, and $108,000 on cell-phone bills for its staff – which mushroomed to 157 employees from an average of 117 over the previous three years.

Yet Toussaint claims the union now is so strapped, it can’t keep up with its members’ workplace grievances.

The logic of his position is dizzying: We broke the law by striking, and we’re being penalized because we won’t promise not to break the law again – but the public transit system should nonetheless resume collecting the dues our members aren’t willing to voluntarily pay us for the services we provide to them. Otherwise, “labor relations will be jeopardized.”

Meanwhile, Local 100’s Web site still features Toussaint’s defiant December 2005 speech calling the strike “our proudest hour.”

The aftermath of the latest transit strike has demonstrated, for the umpteenth time since 1967, that the Taylor Law’s penalties are only as strong as the elected officials who ultimately must stand behind them. Bloomberg has stood firm against restoration of the dues checkoff – but Spitzer has allowed the MTA to cave.

If Judge Balter sides with the union and the MTA, New Yorkers who can afford it might be wise to plan now on a long vacation in January 2009 – when the next transit contract is set to expire.