TWU 100 Union Politics Ensnarling NYC MTA


October 19, 2012, 8:58 p.m. ET



TWU 100 Union Politics Ensnarling NYC  MTA

Union Politics Ensnarling MTA

by Ted Mann
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its largest union on Friday held contract talks for the 15th time this year, an unusually slow pace that has prompted criticism of the labor organization's president.
The MTA has prodded John Samuelsen, the president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100, to come to the table more often, according to correspondence reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. And Mr. Samuelsen's internal union critics have seized on the speed of negotiations as a sign that he is putting off a contract full of painful concessions until after a union election in December.
Mr. Samuelsen defended his approach, saying the union is hamstrung by the effects of an unpopular 2005 strike that gutted its finances and crippled its organizing power. A more aggressive posture—with the threat of a strike in play—wouldn't work, he said.
"This union is simply not organizationally prepared to strike," Mr. Samuelsen said. A strike is "off the table, not forever, but it's off the table."
Mr. Samuelsen's union critics haven't advocated a strike but said he is being too conciliatory with the MTA as it tries to extract concessions that would result in no net pay increase for workers.
"If it's the case that the [union] administration has planned its contract strategy around its elections, then everybody should be angry about that," said Joseph Campbell, Mr. Samuelsen's leading opponent for control of Local 100, which represents more than 35,000 MTA workers.
The dispute highlights a tenuous assumption: The MTA's budget is dependent on achieving three "net-zero years"—that is, either three years of flat pay for union workers, or concessions that would balance out the cost of raises. MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota has been careful to caution that recently announced service restorations, for instance, depend on the MTA getting its "zeros" from its labor force.
It is up to Mr. Samuelsen, his allies and critics within the TWU acknowledge, to find a way to avoid giving them. Mr. Samuelsen has rejected concessions and said his workers need raises to keep pace with the city's cost of living. An impasse could lead to labor arbitration, where neither side is confident how it would fare.
MTA negotiators and Mr. Samuelsen have conducted only 15 "main table" negotiating sessions since the beginning of the year, including a meeting Friday at MTA offices in Manhattan.
The Journal reviewed roughly eight months' worth of correspondence between the union and the MTA's director of labor relations, Anita Miller, provided in response to a public records request, and heavily redacted by the MTA.
A pattern emerges in the exchanges between both camps over the spring and summer—Mr. Samuelsen expressing willingness to negotiate but frequently canceling appointments, Ms. Miller gently chiding the labor leader about the need to negotiate in earnest if the MTA and TWU are to reach a deal.
"I am concerned that we have not met in a while to continue main table negotiations," Ms. Miller wrote on May 22, nearly a month after their previous meeting.
At issue, the MTA reminded the union, was the chance of striking a deal that would allow Mr. Samuelsen to win some form of wage increase for his union members, in exchange for concessions on work rules or other priorities that the MTA has sought to hold down its costs.
"As I am sure you would agree," Ms. Miller wrote, "our best hope of reaching a negotiated settlement is to continue setting aside ample time to discuss proposals that might serve to fund desired wage increases."
In another letter, sent one week later, Ms. Miller again prodded Mr. Samuelsen that the sides "should be meeting regularly," then proposed three new meeting dates. The MTA withheld Mr. Samuelsen's response in its entirety, but a follow-up makes clear that he rejected each of those dates.
Mr. Samuelsen underwent surgery in early spring, which delayed talks for about a month. At other times, he said he would be unavailable because of travel plans, including to Albany to lobby on union concerns.
The mere frequency of meetings doesn't necessarily measure the parties' willingness to engage with each other. Messrs. Samuelsen and Lhota say they speak frequently by phone.
Mr. Campbell said the union leader should have been in intensive contract negotiations last year, before the existing contract expired. Instead, the pace of talks has been "infrequent," Mr. Campbell said.
Like his ally, former Local 100 President Roger Toussaint, who led the 2005 strike, Mr. Campbell said Mr. Samuelsen has been insufficiently aggressive with the MTA and should have used the last union contract's expiration deadline, Jan. 15, to raise the pressure to strike a deal.
"Traditionally, TWU has been one of the most militant unions, and that's why we're respected in the city among the unions," Mr. Campbell said. "Right now, we don't see ourselves in that position."
Mr. Samuelsen said he has to balance the desire of members to avoid concessions and seek raises with the lingering organizational hangover of the 2005 strike. He said they are doing better than other state unions that struck deals more quickly. "Granted, we're 10 months without a contract, but we're also the only union of state workers that is not shackled with tremendous concessions right now," he said.
The union's executive board, including some now criticizing Mr. Samuelsen, decided they wouldn't set a strike deadline that might appear to be an empty threat, he said.
The negotiating postures of previous union leaders have led either to concessions or to the 2005 strike, which crippled the TWU's finances, Mr. Samuelsen and his allies charge.
"Yes, this is a new course for Local 100," Mr. Samuelsen said. "But we've never been in a massive economic downturn, and so shortly after a strike that devastated the fortunes of the TWU."