COVID-19 and NYC Transit Worker Hell

by Marty Goodman, published on Socialist Action,  June 4, 2020

“We are not essential. We are sacrificial.” –from a May 5 Op-Ed article in the New York Times by Sujatha Gidla, a NYC train conductor and author.

As of June 3, the death toll amongst New York City’s transit workers hit 131. New York City bus driver Danny Cruz, who himself survived COVID-19, compiles a Facebook list of his fallen comrades. Cruz explained to the press in early April,

“Every time I have to add a name, my heart loses a beat…Why is this happening? Why were we not better prepared? How many more members will we have to lose?”

Cruz made those comments on April 7 when the death toll was 41.

More than 10,000 of 74,000 employees of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) have been quarantined during the pandemic. The quarantine and death tolls represent totals that are mostly from within New York City itself. MTA workers are organized by the 41,000-strong Transport Workers Union Local 100.

By April 8, the MTA death rate from COVID-19 among workers

“was three times the combined rate of the city police and fire departments, which employ first responders like cops and EMS crews.” (NY Daily News, 4/8/20).

In NYC, the rate of COVID-19 deaths within the African American and Latino communities are roughly double that of other groups, due to capitalism’s systemic racism. Given that the MTA’s workforce is mostly African American, Latino and immigrant, capitalism’s racist injustices could not have been more cruelly on display.

We are not essential. We are sacrificial,” wrote Sujatha Gidla, a NYC train conductor and author, in her May 5 Op-Ed article in the NY Times. Gidla described the hellish conditions of a subway Conductor,

“Common sense tells you that subway trains and platforms are giant vectors of this virus. We breathe it in along with steel dust. As a conductor, when I stick my head out of the car to perform the required platform observation, passengers in many stations are standing 10 inches from my face. At other times, they lean into the cab to ask questions.”

Gidla added, “My co-workers want doors locked on the two cars where the crew rides. We want hazard pay and family leave for childcare.”

TWU International President John Samuelsen, a former NYC track worker and former Local 100 president, observed,

“A diabolical person could not have engineered a better spreader of the virus than the New York City subway system. Transit workers, by the very nature of the work we do, we develop lung disorders at a disproportional rate. We breathe in diesel fumes, steel dust, manganese from welding. When I started as a track worker in the ’90s, a lot of the old-timers who were on the job then later died of lung disease.”

John Costa, International President of the International Amalgamated Transportation Union (ATU), the largest of the two U.S. transit unions, says that less than half of his members have masks, gloves and proper disinfectant. Costa says strikes are possible if agencies don’t respond to worker concerns.

                                             THE MTA’S RESPONSE TO COVID-19

The MTA is a NY State run entity that is $43 billion in debt to bankers and Wall Street crooks. The agency is overseen by Governor Andrew Cuomo, arguably a “progressive” Democrat, who has claimed that NY State is “broke.” Cuomo has cut funding to hospitals and education before the pandemic began and seeks even more cuts.

During the entire COVID crisis Cuomo’s MTA routinely claimed to be merely following Trump’s CDC guidelines, despite the alarming early number of transit worker deaths.

Early on, an April 3 MTA memo warned workers not to wear masks. An MTA official stated it would “panic” passengers. As no surprise to anyone, the Trump administration has not issued rules guidance on the right to refuse unsafe work.

At the onset of the crisis, Patrick Foye, MTA CEO and Chairman, employed the hollow excuse that it followed Trump’s Center for Decease Control (CDC) safety guidelines. Since 2012 the MTA has had an emergency “pandemic” plan to stockpile PPE and other supplies that were supposed to last six weeks, but not used. The World Health Organization declared a “pandemic” on March 11.

But, NY State isn’t really broke as Cuomo has been claiming. There are 112 billionaires in New York State worth a combined $525 billion, many of whom contributed to Cuomo’s election campaigns. If NY’s greedy class was taxed meaningfully, which would include taxing Wall Street’s trillions through a stock sales tax, NY’s debts would evaporate overnight.

The sequence of MTA lies and hypocrisy was exposed in a May 5 video entitled “They dropped the Ball,” by “Business Insider.” The 12-minute clip (search Facebook “They Dropped the Ball”) includes interviews with several transit workers who railed against the MTA’s “safety” practices, despite its’ public relations boast that it distributed millions of dollars-worth of PPE and performed 72-hour train sanitation practices.

Workers interviewed in the video said that they had not received PPE for weeks and bus sanitation schedules were not observed.

Initially, workers were told not to wear masks as it violated uniform policy and might alarm passengers (May 19 Bus memo). Train Operator Kimberly McLauren told the Business Insider, “Some locations received masks. Most did not.

Moreover, this writer, a retired NY transit worker, has viewed Station Booth daily sanitation logs that were completely without entries.

On April 30 Cuomo announced that trains and buses would cease operation and sanitized nightly, in part by non-union workers filling the staffing gap left by self-quarantining TWU Cleaners. The non-union cleaners are often immigrants working without health benefits.

Cuomo’s nightly train operation includes the ejection of innumerable homeless from trains who are then bused to overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe “shelters,” which many homeless refuse to enter. Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, a “progressive” Bernie Sanders supporter who is also threatening city workers with possible layoffs, there is a record 21,000 plus homeless New Yorkers seeking refuge from the street. A coalition of homeless advocates have protested the nightly round-up in a statement that said, in part,

“While hundreds of thousands of apartments and hotel rooms go empty…homeless New Yorkers have nowhere safe to stay. This is absolutely wrong and unacceptable.”

The “Local 100 Fightback Coalition” has also proposed using these vacancies to house essential workers near their jobs during the pandemic, enabling the shut-down of the pandemic plagued transit system.

After returning from quarantine on April 27, veteran MTA Train Operator Seth Rosenberg, a member of the Local 100 Fightback Coalition, told Socialist Action, that the horrific employee death toll represents,

“The complete and utter disregard for our lives by the MTA. Because of Cuomo the MTA didn’t shut down and transit workers paid the price.” By the middle of March, says Rosenberg, the MTA, “would not do the minimum to keep us safe. The MTA showed how repugnant it is.” (see Facebook: Local100 Fightback Coalition)

Bus workers took the initiative to tape off the front section of the bus to restrict driver contact with passengers, except for seniors and the handicapped. Riders boarded for free at the rear door. Bus officials conceded the safety measure to bus worker rank and file action.

Likewise, Seth Rosenberg and other train operators taped off a half-dozen seats next to the door to the operator’s cab. The door has a vent and permeable gaps that allow COVID-19 infected air into the train operator’s cab. Despite the worker’s safety precautions, Rosenberg was told by supervision to remove the tape. He did but followed it up with grievances. He still faces discipline for his potentially life-saving act.

Rosenberg was successful however in challenging MTA management over packed crew rooms that were in blatant disregard of social distancing.

The MTA’s smaller subdivisions, the 5,000 employee-strong Metro North – which has suffered three deaths from COVID – and the Long Island railroad system both extend beyond NYC. Metro North and Long Island train workers can strike legally and negotiated concessions from the MTA during the pandemic crisis, unlike NYC MTA workers who are subject to the union-busting Taylor Law strike prohibitions. Local 100 defied the Taylor Law when it went on strike in 2005.

Indeed, the MTA’s COVID-19 policy – and the entire national COVID response – highlights the contempt both capitalist parties have for the welfare of working people and the working poor, offering chump change financial relief, with no job or housing security and ever-longer breadlines.

TWU International President Samuelsen politically partnered with Gov. Cuomo when they cemented two contract agreements containing wage cuts for new members – creating a second-class union membership – violating basic union solidarity principles.

Nonetheless, TWU has issued a 10-point list of demands in an undated release that appears on the TWU Local 100 website. The list is notable for its largely toothless demands, which are unaccompanied by calls for worker action.

But, bottom line, no strikes were called by the TWU and ATU, two class-collaborating labor union leaderships – no matter what the death toll!

However, the ATU and TWU have now taken significant stands in support of protests against racism and police brutality in the brutal murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis cops.

On May 28, ATU Local 1005 Minneapolis Bus driver Kilgore Trout (a pseudonym) and other bus drivers in Minneapolis signed a petition refusing to transport police officers or arrested protestors. At one bus garage in downtown Minneapolis on May 28, some workers refused to drive buses that were being dispatched to transport police. (see Facebook union group: Justice4GeorgeFloyd)

The same day, at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, a TWU Local 100 Bus driver refused to transport arrested protesters to jail, which earned the sustained applause of demonstrators.

Socialists say,

“Fire MTA CEO Patrick Foye! Cancel the MTA debt to the banks and Wall Street crooks!”

Cut the war budget and fund a green, eco-socialist mass transportation system that is safe for workers and passengers!

Socialist Action says, “Capitalism is the virus!


Marty Goodman is a former board member of the Haitian Refugee Center of Miami. He witnessed the fall of Haitian dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier in 1986 and was an official election observer in the 1990 election of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He opposed the US/UN occupation of Haiti and is a member of the ‘Black Lives Matter in the Dominican Republic’ committee. Goodman is also a member of Socialist Action.

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