Fault Line

Deal or no deal, transit workers want more respect, less punishment

Charles Woods, a subway car cleaner for 17 years, was working his regular 9-to-5 shift at the Parsons-Archer station on May 18 when a train rolled into the landing. He began collecting trash in the cars he'd been assigned, picking up a newspaper and a soda can, when a twentysomething female passenger asked him for help.

"She wanted to go to East New York, but she took the wrong train," Woods recalls. She was nervous, he says. "I had to calm her down—'It's OK. It's OK. You're not lost.' " She told him she couldn't read the map well, but would understand how to find her way if he could explain. He did. It took all of two minutes, Woods claims.

This good deed could have cost him his job.

Respect for everyone: J.P. Patafio on the picket line in Brooklyn
photo: Steven Sunshine
Respect for everyone: J.P. Patafio on the picket line in Brooklyn

Last Wednesday, if Woods hadn't been on strike with 33,700 other transit workers, he would have attended an arbitration hearing over a disciplinary notice his supervisor filed because of the Parsons- Archer incident. The boss charged Woods with "lounging"— neglecting his duties as a cleaner—and recommended dismissal. Woods's lengthy good record quickly pushed that punishment off the table. Yet even though he produced a letter from the passenger attesting to his help, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority didn't throw out the charge. Instead, it offered him a deal: Three days "in the street" (meaning unpaid suspension) and an end to the hearing process.

"I said no," Woods tells the Voice. "If I take three days, I'm admitting I did something wrong." He knows he's rolling the dice by fighting; he feels the burden is on him to prove he wasn't lounging on the job. And he thinks he's taking another risk by speaking publicly. "Just talking to you, they're going to come and harass me again."

Last week's transit strike may indeed have been about dollars-and-cents issues like pensions, health care benefits, and wages. But to a person, Transport Workers Union members often spoke of their strike as a fight for something much more fundamental—what union leader Roger Toussaint described in his first contract presentation to the MTA back in October as "respect on the job."

For too long, TWU members insist, they've been disrespected—by Governor George Pataki and Mayor Mike Bloomberg, by MTA chairman Peter Kalikow, even by surly customers. But the workers say the worst offenders, by far, are the supervisors who slapped them with some 16,000 disciplinary action notices in 2005, which translates into one for every two members. Everyone on the picket lines, it seemed, knew someone who'd suffered harsh punishment for a petty offense like wearing a tie crooked, or leaving a newspaper in a bus window, or going to the bathroom at unauthorized times.

The Transport Workers Union made respect a top priority in negotiations this year, bargaining for reforms to the current disciplinary process. At press time, it looked like they wouldn't get what they asked for. "There is no policy on intimidation," says Joe Campbell, a TWU vice chair. "There is nothing to stop people from being malicious human beings."

So, while the strike is over, the anger over discipline persists.


To be sure, other public agencies in New York City have rules and violations and discipline procedures. For the most part, though, other public employees do not describe the kind of abuse of those procedures dished out by the MTA. The transit authority, says Ginger Adams Otis, a transportation reporter for The Chief-Leader, "seems the most draconian of all of them."

Labor experts say transit workers are particularly vulnerable to discipline abuse—after all, the industry runs on schedules. Workers' performances are measured according to minutes and seconds. "It's all about money," says Immanuel Ness, who teaches political science and labor issues at Brooklyn College. "It's all about the economics of transporting people to and from major business districts." The MTA work rules are meant to make the system efficient. How they're implemented is another matter.

Otis has reported on numerous instances of managers citing workers for petty violations, then slapping them with harsh penalties. There was the case of five Sikh employees who were charged with violating the uniform code because they wore their turbans on the job. When the employees sued, the authority suggested they wear turbans with an MTA logo. (The case is still pending.) There was the case of a Harlem station agent who got hit with violations for leaving her station booth unattended. She had gone to the bathroom, reporting her exit and locking her door as per protocol. When she returned, a robber pulled a knife and looted her station, and she was later hit with three days suspension.

And then there was what happened to Woods. His case, Otis says, "is par for the course." At the MTA, she adds, "You get a lot of supervisors without a lot of oversight. They have carte blanche to get abusive, and some of them do."

Evidently, it's been that way for years. Sociologist Marian Swerdlow, who wrote Underground Woman about her experiences as a subway conductor in the 1980s, remembers the same complaints about respect and discipline that one hears today. Back in the '80s, train conductors were written up for a litany of trivial offenses: wearing a sweater under a uniform jacket; unbuttoning too many buttons on a shirt; not wearing a hat. Once, Swerdlow became sick on the job and fainted in the middle of a run. When she came to consciousness, she says, "I was written up for passing out."

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