Fault Line


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.

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.”

“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.

“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.”

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.

“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.