Thursday, December 22, 2005

Quill and Touissaint

I don't mean to express too strong a criticism of the Transport Workers Union in their decision to go back to work today. It seems pretty clear that they didn't have the support of the public, and that they were facing some pretty draconian penalties for staying on strike.

On the other hand, their casus belli was a strong one, and their president made a very strong point in adverting to the irony of billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg calling them greedy.

Still, it was good to see them take their stand, and to show that they know the lesson that
Mike Quill
knew: the workers have never gotten anything without a fight, and never will.

It's a lesson we should all remember. Everybody I know is pissed off at George Bush, and outraged at what he has done. Unfortunately, I don't know that many people who are doing anything about it.

Let's get to work.


Blogger palko said...

Hey John,

When we were all together in October, I remember Becky talking about organizing the librarians or some other staff members where she works. It was hard for me to believe that there could still be non unionized workers in the States anymore. More than 20 years ago I heard that Kodak's workers had never been unionized or that at some point Kodak realized they would be much better off if they could provide benefits that unions call for, but without the pressure of having to deal with unions. I don't know if what I heard was correct and or if it still is correct, but it makes sense to me.

On the other hand, I also believe that it's very easy and dangerous to talk about rampant corruption in unions and to suggest that they have outlived their usefulness.

It's also amazing how quickly anti-union news makes its way into the media and drowns out opinions from the other side.

These days I'm working for the Allianz insurance company. It's a huge corporation and the benefits and collective bargaining agreement are pretty good. But the union membership here in Bratislava is very low. I would say less than 10%.

During my first few days on the job here I was told that I could join the union if I wanted, but more than one person said that it really wasn't important. We get the same benefits whether we're in the union or not.

I didn't think about it at the time, but just recently I decided to join the union. Certainly, over here, attitudes about unions are harsher because of the communist past, but I don't think it makes sense for employees to give up their power and place all their trust in their employers.

Paul McCullough

December 27, 2005 4:09 AM  
Anonymous TomMcC said...

Hi Guys,
The issues involved in the TWU strike are not as simple as they might seem at first. I think some of the demands that the union was making were unreasonable (for example, yearly 8% increases, an earlier retirement age) and that the offer that the MTA made (raises of 3.5%, 4.0% and 3% over the next three years) was not too bad. Also, the TWU's national union did not support the strike.
In addition, it seems to me that pensions (defined-benefit pensions, that is, where you are promised a certain amount on retirement) are a benefit that was probably ill-advised from the beginning. my understanding is that employers began to offer them when they were unable to offer higher salaries, but over the past few decades, it has become clear to employers that the promises that were so easy to make years ago will become virtually impossible to keep in years to come. I have no idea what the statistics are, but of the corporations I have analyzed in the past year (between 15 and 20, I would say) only one had a fully funded pension. All of the rest had amounts in their pension funds that were insufficient to cover the pension obligations that they had already incurred. And even this understates the problem, because pension accounting, for a variety of reasons, even assuming no willful deception, will generally overstate the health of a company's pension fund.

Anyway, I believe that the TWU would have done much better to take the MTA's offer. This is not to imply in even a small way that the MTA was bargaining in good faith. But in the end I don't know that Toussaint has done his members any great favor. Politically, too, he made a ridiculous error. To call a strike in the springtime, when the weather is decent, wouldn't be so bad. plenty of people would still be inconvenienced, but not necessarily angered. To call a strike during a cold spell and just before xmas ensured that the union would get no support from the commuting public. What makes it worse still is that, as Manhattan has become more expensive, people working in low-paying Manhattan jobs were particularly hard hit by the strike, as they had to miss work or spend more money and/or time getting to work. People in better paying jobs could sometimes even work from home, and people like me who live in Jersey but work in the financial district were able to get into the office without a hitch.
I think the threat of a strike would have in the end been a much more effective tool than a strike itself.

I also think that it's necessary, rather than dangerous, to talk openly about the rampant corruption of unions, so that they might clean up their acts and get back to serving their members rather than serving the personal and political agendas of their leadership.

December 27, 2005 10:46 AM  
Blogger Jack McCullough said...

I'll think some more about these comments later, but I have a couple of immediate thoughts:

1.Paul, it may be hard to believe, but the rate of union membership among American workers has gone down dramatically over the years. When I was in law school taking Labor Law the rate of unionization among American workers was only about 20% (maybe 25%) and it's a lot lower now. It's probably higher in the public sector. In education it's pretty high. In Becky's school district the teachers have been organized for years; this effort was to organize the paraeducators--aides, etc. Decades of conservative domination of national politics have led to policies that are increasingly hostile to workers' rights to organize.

2. I agree with you that it's dangerous to talk so blithely about union corruption. While there have been historic instances of union corruption, I think talking about corruption in the present climate simply plays into the desires of management to weaken unions and dismantle workers' rights. It's impossible to argue with a straight face that the views of management have been underrepresented in the current media world. Just the reverse is true--anytime labor stands up for something they are portrayed as the cause of the problem, obstructionist, inconveniencing people, etc.

3. If companies aren't funding their pension plans they're stealing from their workers. If workers have agreed to accept pension plans in exchange for lower salary, and then the company doesn't fulfill the promises it made to provide the pension because they've changed their mind (maybe because it now looks harder to do than it did when they made the promise), the workers are out all the wage concessions they gave up, and they don't get the pension they were promised. What's more, they're now ten or twenty years older,with no ability to make up the pension contributions they're being screwed out of.

I'll write more on the other points later, probably from home.

December 27, 2005 12:20 PM  
Blogger Jack McCullough said...


First off, I don't know the answer. In any labor dispute I start out supporting the workers. I'm not in their position, and they know best what their working conditions are, so I am always very reluctant to criticize the decision to strike in any work place. As one recent example, when the air traffic controllers went out on strike and were fired by Reagan, the primary issue was working conditions, particularly workplace stress. Then, what happened when Reagan busted the union and hired scabs? The scabs got in there, worked for a while, and found that the job was so stressful that they wanted their own union to fight for what the real workers had been fighting for. Of course, having stolen the jobs of the real workers by scabbing, and thereby strengthened the hand of management, they are in a much weaker bargaining position than they would have been otherwise. If anything, I think the right to strike is more important for public employees because if they can't strike there is nothing in place to induce management to bargain in good faith.

Second, they have an important precedent, established by Mike Quill: no contract, no work. As a related point, if you take away the strike you take away any chance for the workers to exert pressure on management. It is true that it inconveniences the customers, but if it weren't for the fact that the customers get only one side of the story, the customers wouldn't necessarily blame labor whenever there is a strike.

Third: two examples of the fact that the customers only get one side of the story: How many times did you hear references to the NHL strike last year, even though it was actually a lockout and the players were ready and willing to play? Another example, more pertinent to the Transit Workers' strike, is that almost all the news coverage was about the incovenience caused by the strike, you couldn't see or read a story without seeing the strike referred to as "illegal". In contrast, I only saw one story in the Times that demonstrated how the chair of the MTA board caused the strike by bringing up a new demand (the 4% pay cut for new employees) at the last hour, and even in later days, when you went to the Times web page to the section they identified as their whole collection of strike-related stories, they weren't showing that one. Thus, even the Times, which is allegedly a liberal paper, took an overwhelmingly pro-management slant.

Finally, Tom, you suggest that the deal management was offering was so good that the workers should have taken it. Don't you think that a management offer that protects incumbent employees at the cost of future employees is a pretty transparent move to turn the new employees against the union?

December 27, 2005 2:34 PM  
Anonymous TomMcC said...

I can agree, as I think I may have said at the beginning, that the MTA was likely not negotiating in good faith. The $1 Bln surplus and the MTA's decision to give part of it to riders in the form of free fares in December, as well as their idea to carve up the surplus in ways that mostly did not address workers' needs was a gratuitous slap against the workers.

Many people I spoke with had sympathy for the workers and for the idea that they should get a fair deal. No contract, no work may be a good principle, although it may not particularly resonate with the great majority of the labor force, since we do not have contracts, and since the union is now working without a contract, it appears not to be absolute.

I think the deal they ended up getting was better than the one the MTA had offered, which leads one to suspect that they did well not to accept that offer. But of course there was a cost to that, since each worker ended up being fined 4 or 6 days' pay. [Any worker who leaves the MTA this year will probably have gained no benefit from the strike (I have no idea what % of workers ever leave the MTA voluntarily, although I suspect its pretty low).] I wonder if they could have done better or just as well by threatening to strike later (after the holiday season?).

As to the legality of the strike, I don't believe there is any reason to doubt that it was illegal, since there is a state law that seems quite clearly to ban strikes. I read in another blog that the same law also made illegal some of the MTA's actions--this idea of course did not get a lot of media play.

I again agree that pro-labor coverage is rare. But being not 100% against this strike does not make you anti-labor. After all, the national TWU was against the strike.

The NHL lockout was clearly not a strike, even though people often referred to it as such. However, when it comes to pro sports, particularly the NBA, NFL, MLB and to a lesser degree NHL, the numbers involved have reached a level where I have a hard time generating any sympathy for either side. The idea that somebody making millions should be in a union is at the very least bizarre.

December 28, 2005 9:27 AM  
Blogger palko said...

Did the union choose December for their strike for a particular reason?

I agree with Tom that the timing may have been poor. I don't know of many revolutions that took place in June, July, August or September, when it was too hot or during harvest season. They seem to come in October and November, don't they?

A January strike may have also been better for general PR.

And they may have lost some money in the short run, but nothing like this can be very effective if you think short term.

It's nice to read intelligent debates, but maybe a few personal attacks would add some spice to this.

January 02, 2006 7:33 AM  
Blogger palko said...

Did the union choose December for their strike for a particular reason?

I agree with Tom that the timing may have been poor. I don't know of many revolutions that took place in June, July, August or September, when it was too hot or during harvest season. They seem to come in October and November, don't they?

A January strike may have also been better for general PR.

And they may have lost some money in the short run, but nothing like this can be very effective if you think short term.

It's nice to read intelligent debates, but maybe a few personal attacks would add some spice to this.

January 02, 2006 7:33 AM  
Anonymous TomMcC said...

Why strike in December?
It seems clear that the strike was timed in December because poor planning (unless it was intentional) caused the contract to expire in December. The MTA and TWU dealt with this now by negotiating a 37-month contract, so that the new contract expires in January. The TWU claims to have laid out a principle that it would not work without a contract, although that principle only lasted a day or two, as the union is now working without a contract.

I don't know whether the long-term benefits will outweigh the short-term costs of the strike. I also wonder about the long-term efficacy of strikes in general, but since I haven't seen any data, I don't have any opinion.

January 03, 2006 10:39 AM  

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