From all reports, one of the more common sentiments expressed by strike-bound New York commuters—along with “Is it worth taking the LIRR to Jamaica?” and “I can’t feel my fingers!”—has been that the transit workers, regardless of whether they deserve a better contract, are being selfish in shutting down the city’s mass transit lifelines on the day before the winter solstice. Or as one 20-something was overheard saying in a Brooklyn coffee bar: “I don’t know if I think it’s illegal, but it’s immoral. And I’m totally pro-union.”
New York may be a union town, but that’s only relative: About 30 percent of city residents hold union cards, well above the national average, but a figure that still leaves more than two-thirds of the riding public with no personal experience of contract negotiations and picket lines. For union members, especially those in the public sector who are looking ahead to future faceoffs with Pataki and Bloomberg, it’s easy to see this as the first skirmish in a long battle against pension and health-care givebacks. For everybody else, even those with no love lost for the oops-we-just-found-a-billion-dollars MTA, it’s easier to slip into a sort of race-to-the-bottom schadenfreude: You make sixty grand a year and you’re kvetching about not getting to retire at age 55? Quit yer bellyachin’! As one anonymous poster to the TWU’s blog wrote—before the whole thing was overrun by someone repeatedly scrawling “ROGER TOUSSAINT, OSAMA BIN LADEN LOVES YOU! YOU’RE A TERRORIST!” and got taken down—”Who are you to take well-paying jobs (for your education levels) serving millions of people and then hold us hostage by striking?”
It’s an attitude, sighs James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute, that betrays an awfully “primitive understanding of how the labor market evolved in this country.” But then, the strikes that brought us, for example, the eight-hour day were way back in the 1870s, and are no longer recorded even on crude clay tablets. Today’s web-surfing commuters are far more likely to have read neocon scare stories about the “pension bomb” that is supposedly set to explode under the city budget.
“The Manhattan Institute has been framing this as the workers’ greedy pension demands, as if they’re seeking golden parachutes, when it’s the governor’s tax cuts that are going to make the fare go up,” says Parrott. The MTA’s crushing debt load, he notes, resulted from Governor Pataki’s decision to cut off state capital funds—not to mention things like raiding a quarter-billion dollars from the MTA surplus in 1995 to pay for state income-tax cuts. Which may not have been illegal, but . . .