Fault Line

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

"All I can say is nothing has changed," she tells the Voice. "There is such a punitive mentality. The atmosphere is like poison."

The Voice contacted the MTA last Thursday—shortly before the sides imposed a media blackout—to obtain comment for this article, but got no response.

To hear the TWU tell it, the number of disciplinary actions has been fairly consistent over the past few years. In 2002, it hovered at 16,466. Two years later, it dropped slightly to 15,204. During the 2002 contract negotiations, the MTA agreed to an informal level of discipline whereby a worker would receive a verbal warning before a written citation. That was supposed to reduce disciplinary actions, but clearly it hasn't.

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

Details

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  • "In a nutshell," says one TWU staffer, "management's attitude didn't change."

    What has changed, the union says, is that supervisors are now claiming multiple violations for a single incident: For example, if the problem is attendance, supervisors will hit the worker for that, as well as for having an incomplete doctor's note. And fewer cases are being resolved at lower levels, so more are getting bumped up to arbitration instead. Eileen Sullivan, the TWU director of grievance and discipline, says she has more than 30 arbitration calendars a month, each with up to 30 charges on them. "They seem to be bogging us down by taking cases all through the process," she says.

    Many transit workers were reluctant to discuss their own run-ins with supervisors, saying they fear retaliation. A few did talk, however. Diane, a train operator on the No. 5 line for 16 years, was suspended for three days over what she says was a miscommunication about time off. George Perlstein, a TWU executive board member who works as a car inspector at the 207th Street yard in Manhattan, was cited several years ago. He was preparing a train for a run when he noticed a problem with the air conditioner, tried to fix it, and received a 600-volt jolt of electricity. Suffering from minor burns, he took seven days of sick leave.

    "To add insult to injury," Perlstein relays, he returned to the job only to find that he'd been written up for "not work-ing safely."

    And then there's Gregory Jacob, a mechanical engineer for 17 years, who battled prostate cancer in 2000. Like many on the picket line, he expressed disgust over the MTA policy of having an authority inspector visit workers who call in sick and of penalizing those who don't get a doctor's notice. "I'm still on the sick-control list," Jacob says. That's what happens if you take more than five of 12 annual sick days without providing a doctor's note; when you're on the list, it's no note, no sick pay. Though Jacob acknowledges that some of his fellow workers could abuse the sick days, he says, "I'm not one of those. But until I retire I will never get off that list."

    Of course, in any organization, some discipline is essential. Transit workers are charged with operating and maintaining billions of dollars' worth of equipment, and are entrusted with safely transporting millions of lives. So it probably makes sense that bus drivers get punished if, say, they have too many preventable accidents. The problem, says M31 bus driver Jerry Torres, is that "with the TA, everything is preventable." Some rules leave little room for judgment calls: Flagging, which is failing to pick up a passenger at a bus stop, is an obvious no-no. But what's a driver to do when the bus is dangerously full?

    "There are rules and violations and more rules and violations," says Michael, a bus valet at the Jackie Gleason Bus Depot, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. "Basically, the violation issue comes down to harassment."


    Though their work situation is unique, the transit employers clamoring for respect have a lot in common with the average American laborer these days. Tom Juravich, the director of the University of Massachusetts Center for Labor Studies, explains that the same complaints we've heard from the TWU strike front lines—about long hours, tough conditions, and abusive treatment—are heard in virtually every workplace. He says, "This is a trend we're seeing across the country."

    Juravich has just finished his latest book, Bread Without Roses, in which he lays out how the United States economy has undergone a massive transformation of workplace conditions since the '90s. Gone are things our parents came to expect on the job—the coffee break, the lunch hour, occasional downtime. Today, we not only toil longer hours, but we do so under greater pressure. And with this, he says, has come a kind of rules crackdown.

    "Our work has become intensified," Juravich explains, "and part of that is this re-application of company rules." In his book, he describes the scene at a Verizon call center where conditions seemed to him "straight out of the 19th century." Employees had to get permission to use the bathroom. They had to conduct calls within a time limit. They had sick days available, but got sanctioned when they took any.

    "It's not dissimilar to what we hear with the transit workers," he notes, adding, "It's a larger trend that's pushing people to the brink of what they can handle."

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