After six months of negotiations, mostly behind closed doors and with a few vitriolic union rallies along the way, the MTA and its largest workers union this week reached an agreement on a four-year contract.
Although both sides have called it a win, based on the details available, the Transport Workers Union Local 100 appeared to give up very little and got the raises they wanted, while experts that have reviewed the agreement say the MTA’s savings are minor.
“The easy thing to understand is that this does increase the strain on the MTA's budget. The harder thing to figure out is by how much,” Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute said.
The 37,000 TWU members that work for subways and buses will receive a 2 percent raise for 2019, 2.25 percent in 2020, 2.5 percent in 2021 and 2.75 percent in 2022.
The MTA said it had budgeted a two percent a year raise in the 2020-2023 financial plan.
But Gelinas noted that while the raises are locked in, the savings are not.
She estimated the new raises could add $100 to $350 million to the MTA budget, depending on how much savings the MTA gets from the union. The MTA is preparing to reduce 2,700 positions through layoffs and attrition, as part of the agency’s reorganization and an effort to stave off a projected $1 billion deficit by 2023.
“We're taking a big risk," she said, "the risk that we’ll have a recession and all these numbers get even worse, but also that the MTA can’t achieve these savings, but are stuck with the costs.”
According to the MTA, the new contract will save the agency $44 million a year in health care and overtime costs, which would add up to $176 million over the four-year term of the contract.
All told, labor costs account for more than half of the MTA’s annual $16 billion operating budget. A recent report found overtime costs at New York City Transit, which is in charge of the subway and bus systems, alone went up 16 percent in 2018 over 2017. The MTA has moved quickly to install biometric timekeeping clocks across the agency. But it's unclear how much savings in overtime will result from that. While the technology should cut down on falsified overtime reporting, which occurred with four Long Island Railroad workers, LIRR workers are not covered by TWU contracts and the MTA has not proven widespread overtime fraud. Most overtime work is done at the behest of managers.
With regards to overtime costs, which the MTA leadership has admitted is expensive but necessary to improve the subways and execute the Subway Action Plan, the new contract makes it easer for workers to swap shifts with those able to do similar work. The MTA expects this change could save $17 million a year in costs.
"We won a solid contract,” Eric Loegel, vice president of Rapid Transit Operations and the Transport Workers Union, told Gothamist/WNYC. “We defied the odds. The MTA demands were horrific, they ran a smear campaign against transit workers. This was set against the backdrop of a budget crisis.”
He then added: “We prevailed, we stood strong and won some big improvements."
Among the concessions the MTA secured, the union has agreed to pay $100 for a visit to the emergency room (previously it was $0), although that $100 is waived if a patient is admitted to the hospital, rather than discharged. And the copay for brand name drugs increased from $10 to $20.
“The tentative agreement is responsive to the financial challenges we face and addresses important issues such as accessibility, overtime and healthcare costs,” MTA Chairman Pat Foye wrote in a statement.
But when asked to clarify how the contract will address accessibility, the MTA press shop and union leaders were unable to answer. A release noted the creation of a “tri-party committee” with the MTA, TWU and accessibility advocates to focus on delivering projects quickly and efficiently.
Maria Doulis, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission said the contract fails to provide the MTA with the savings it needs during a critical period in which it must deliver significant improvements in service.
“It was important for labor to come to the table and make its contribution to the turnaround the way riders have with increased fares, drivers have with congestion pricing, and taxpayers have through new taxes. This contract doesn’t really do that,” Doulis said. “It does take baby steps in the right direction on some important measures, but it doesn’t go far enough.”
Following the approval of the contract by TWU leadership on Thursday, the agreement will now go for a vote by the members before the MTA board signs off on it.
Members of Progressive Action, a private group of TWU workers, complained about the deal on Facebook saying that after factoring an increases in union dues, taxes, and cost of living, their incomes will still fall short compared to those at other city agencies.
Tramell Thompson, a conductor and founder of the group who plans to vote against the contract, questioned what the union is really getting, since the members already had two percent a year raises in the past.
"There's nothing in the contract that benefits workers," he said.
He asked what exactly the union gave away in order to make workers more available for swapping during those overtime shifts, and expressed concern about concessions that haven't been shared by TWU or the MTA because "nobody knows what the official contract looks like."
However, he added: "If the union is shoving the highlights down our throats, then members will vote (for) it."