Fault Line

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

Onerous policies and work rules aren't the only ways employers can treat employees without respect, says Ness, the Brooklyn College professor. Nowadays, managers tend to single out individual workers in more insidious ways. They give workers the "silent treatment," refusing to acknowledge their presence. Or managers mock their work efforts, insinuate that they're lazy, even resort to derogatory names.

Ness, who edits the labor journal WorkingUSA, believes the feeling of disrespect pervades the economic spectrum—indeed, he has fielded such complaints from wealthy doctors and middle-class professors "down to the guys who drive the [subway] trains." The issue has only gotten worse in this era of restructuring and downsizing, where companies scramble to cut costs and ratchet up employee productivity. Respect is tough to find in this put-your-nose-to-the-grindstone- every-minute culture.

Things have gotten so bad that labor experts now see unions in both the private and public sectors pushing in contract talks for "respect clauses" to ensure worker dignity. Such clauses might require employers to address employees with politeness, or ban worker intimidation and other forms of emotional abuse. There's even a fledgling movement in the U.S. trying to get "anti-mobbing legislation," as it's called, to do away with such maltreatment. Similar laws already exist in Sweden, France, Spain, and Germany.

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

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    "People elsewhere are feeling disrespected and they want it to stop," Ness says.

    For the TWU, there's no simple solution; respect is a hard issue to negotiate. The union initially called for an end to the current system—and a clean slate for everyone. But the MTA counterproposed bringing an independent consultant to review the process. That idea is not comforting to union officials. "There's always ambiguous language," Campbell says, "and the MTA has armies of attorneys."

    Last Thursday, as the strike wound down, the Voice interviewed a few picketing workers, asking for their names. The men joked about supervisors scanning the article, matching first names to job descriptions and work sites, and then making sure to give the guys who talked to the press a hard time. Such worries, it seems, come with the job.

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