Op-Ed/Viewpoint on the New York City Transit Negotiations

Mike Friedman mikedf at amnh.org
Sun Dec 15 18:24:19 MST 2002


Op-Ed/Viewpoint on the New York City Transit Negotiations
by Michael Zweig 10:47am Sun Dec 15 '02


The transit crisis is testing New Yorkers in fundamental ways. In addition
to the logistical heroics we will have to invent to navigate the conditions
of a strike, should one occur, the conflict raises questions we will
confront repeatedly in coming months as the Federal, state ,and city fiscal
crises continue to unfold.
Op-Ed/Viewpoint on the New York City Transit Negotiations By Michael Zweig
December 12, 2002

The transit crisis is testing New Yorkers in fundamental ways. In addition
to the logistical heroics we will have to invent to navigate the conditions
of a strike, should one occur, the conflict raises questions we will
confront repeatedly in coming months as the Federal, state ,and city fiscal
crises continue to unfold.

Basic to the crisis is the claim that there is no money, in this case to
pay for transit worker raises and health benefits. But over the last
decade, fare revenue has increased dramatically. More people are
using the system than ever because service has improved while fares have
gone down with MetroCard discounts. Meanwhile, MTA figures show that
transit worker productivity has gone up from fewer than 4,200 passengers a
month per full time hourly worker in 1996 to 5,000 last year, and the cost
per passenger has fallen almost 30 percent in the
past 10 years. If there is no money, it is only because the state has cut
its support and the fiscal crisis seems to make restoration of government
support impossible.

Next year's hole in the state budget is projected to be around 10 billion
dollars. September 11 and the weak economy are the usual suspects to
explain this disaster. But, according to the new York State Office of Tax
Policy Analysis, next year's budget will be missing over 13 billion dollars
because of the many tax cuts implemented under Governor Pataki's leadership
since he came to power
in 1993. The tax-cut hole is much bigger if we count the cuts enacted
during the Cuomo years. Despite the weak economy, without those past tax
cuts there would be lots of money available for the transit system and
other public purposes. There would be no fiscal crisis at all.

The tax cuts have had broad public support. Yet, for most of us, this has
been a mistake. The New York Times reported that the Federal tax cut pushed
through by President Bush last year, much larger than our state and city
cuts, gave $32 a year on average to working class families making less than
$44,000 a year (60% of all families) while
giving $5,300 a year to the top 1% of families, whose incomes average $1.1
million a year. The transit fare increases the MTA now wants to impose, to
get money newly unavailable from public sources, would eat up in one month
the entire year's Federal tax cut for a New York City
working family. In addition, there will be higher tuition coming next year,
higher co-pays on medical bills, and other reduced services entailed in the
fiscal crisis. The tax cuts have been a bad deal for working class people.

By trying to solve the transit crisis through higher fares, service cuts,
and attacks on transit workers, the MTA is taking us back to the strategies
of the last city fiscal crisis in the 1970s. By demanding higher wages, no
increase in the fare, and more state aid, the TWU workers are charting
another course that has implications far
beyond their own contract. Are we going to deal with the fiscal crisis by
going back to the days of mass layoffs, declines in all public service,
decay of our infrastructure, increases in poverty, and the destruction of
the city's tone and morale, while leaving the corporations and
super-wealthy elites with their tax-cut gains? Or are we going to resolve
the crisis by reasserting the importance of the public sector- in transit,
but also in health, housing, education, sanitation, and public safety- and
getting the money to
pay for these things through a progressive tax system that raises money
from those who can best afford to pay, and whose wealth would be impossible
without these public services?

Media coverage of the transit negotiations has focused almost entirely on
the possible impact of a strike on New Yorkers as consumers of transit
services. Most subway and bus riders are working-class New Yorkers. Long
after the anxiety and inconvenience of this transit dispute, we will be
living with the consequences of the strategy we choose to deal with the
fiscal crisis. New Yorkers have a lot more riding on these negotiations
than their rides to work.

Michael Zweig is a professor of economics at the State University of New
York at Stony Brook and Director of the Center for Study of Working Class
Life. His most recent book is The Working Class Majority: America's Best
Kept Secret (Cornell University Press)



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