by Frank Goldsmith, published in Labor Today, December, 2020
THE RIGHT TO STRIKE MIGHT HAVE SAVED SCORES OF NYC TRANSIT WORKERS
For those of us who were born in or moved to New York City there is one constant in our lives. It is the MTA, the quasi public, independent New York State Transportation agency, created in 1968, that runs the New York City Transit System, the Long Island RR, Metro North Railroad, Staten Island Railroad and the very powerful and mysterious Capital Construction. It will always be the bungling 500 pound gorilla in our lives. Top hired executives come and go with boilerplate promises to right the ship. They all leave, a little richer, but with unfulfilled agendas.
The MTA, after many years of promises to diversify, remains a bastion of white men in top leadership, decision making positions.
The workforce on the other hand is more and more Black and Latin with increasing numbers of international workers from South Asia and Eastern Europe. Top executive leaders provide a steady revolving door leadership pool for London, Washington DC, Toronto, Philadelphia and NYC.
The New York City Transit NYCT system enables people getting to work and back. Or to a theatre show. Or to Coney Island. But for the 40,000 plus members of Local 100 Transport Workers Union, since the 1930s, it’s a matter of life and death.
Thanks to it’s TWU originator Irish Revolutionary founder Mike Quill, and his union leaders and membership to follow, members have a steady job, strong contractual enforceable worker job rights, good wages, decent health benefits and a reliable pension when and if they reach retirement age; now 63 for most current union members. It was 55 years before the 2008-9 Wall Street crash. Retirement age for transit workers should be same as Police, Fire and Sanitation: 20 years of service. It isn’t.
There is just one union for the whole New York City Transit NYCT system. It’s called “wall to wall” representation. It most similar situations there are multiple unions so that the employer can effectively play one against the other.
But there’s a catch. The fundamental work is very dangerous. For example, since 2001 over 15 workers have died via accidents on the job. Most of which were preventable. Track workers being most at risk. New labor/management agreements were enacted to protect these at risk workers with marginal success. They are not State regulations enforceable by State inspectors.
But since 2001, the union hired a director of Occupational Health so that the membership has become more and more aware of health related morality and morbidity risks. The Director merely described what they, in fact, already correctly knew or suspected. But it was an important step to bring more respect to the job.
For example, recently retiring at 55 years of age, Tony Nigro, a bus maintainer, succumbed to diesel exhaust (DE). This long suspected dangerous exposure induced lung cancer to exposed workers. His landmark workers’ compensation case cleared the way for others. But, Dorota Nigro, Tony’s wife, lost her long time planning retirement partner.
A pancreatic cancer case from exposure to degreasers in the Coney Island car repair shops awaits a Board decision.
Both the lung and pancreatic cancer legal cases were made possible by an independent researcher, Dr. Debra Silverman, from the federal National Institute of Health.
Since the self governing MTA, operating often above the normal law, won’t allow independent medical experts to study aggregate health insurance, individual names being redacted data, health insurance records, workers, their families and the union don’t know the patterns of health status of their membership. This denial has the semblance of criminal negligence.
The results of such basic epidemiological research could bring preventive measures to the workers and reduce health insurance premiums, pension costs and workers’ compensation awards and premiums. Yes, short sighted; but that’s the MTA. Aetna is their current health insurance carrier. And, they’ve indicated no opposition to the study.
So. It doesn’t come as a surprise to most union members and the interested media general public that the MTA reacted so poorly, and legally very defensively, when faced with the two great challenges of the 21st Century: the WTC disaster and the Covid crisis.
WTC & COVID
In 2001, the MTA followed the lead of then President George Bush’s environmental director Christy Todd Whitman’s directive. She said, with great authority, almost immediately after the WTC towers were hit and fell; that the air was safe to breathe.
Over 3,000 TWU union workers had been immediately mobilized to use readily available NYCT back hoes and other construction equipment to clear the way for other construction company high end equipment. For over 2-3 weeks These workers were and remain at high health risk. TWU regular members were ordered, almost immediately, to conduct union business with the MTA at 2 Broadway and all through the area south of Canal street. This location is directly Across the street from the highly toxic smoke that was still bellowing out of the hole from the remains of the WTC. It bellowed until early 2002.
TWU local 100 have lost members to respiratory and cancer related diseases. And we still are.
Mike Jerome was ordered to conduct grievances at 2 Broadway. He died about 17 years later of pancreatic and related cancer. His family received money from the Victims Compensation Fund VCF. But Michael was dead and not with his family.
Hundreds of station cleaners were assigned and worked for weeks cleaning deadly toxic dusts underground. How many actually filed for VCF?
One bus operator who was assigned to carry workers out of the area for weeks; developed physical and mental health problems. Yet, the MTA aggressively fought his workers’ compensation case. The judge ruled on his behalf and chided the MTA for its tactics.
If Local 100 hadn’t actually rejected the Bush/Whitman/ MTA false environmental assessment many more transit workers would have perished and suffered far more chronic and deadly diseases. The MTA was forced to implement cleaning and related activities that only partially stemmed the high risk tide.
2020 Fast forward to March 2020. Not learning from 2001, this time the MTA AGAIN FOLLOWED the advice of a discredited trump administration, another Republican administration, that the Covid was no real danger. So facial coverings for bus and subway workers were not necessary. The federal CDC failed from the beginning.
At least 100 TWU members have died and hundreds tested positive bringing possible disabilities and need for costly long term and difficult medical care. Overall over 135 MTA employees died.
Rank and File Members Knew the danger. Demanded Protection
Union members from the beginning in early March demanded face masks. They intrinsically knew the dangers. The employer, the MTA said NO: Don’t frighten the passengers. (The MTA now call them customers.)
The infamous mid March debate between the NYC mayor Bill DeBlasio who wanted to impose a “SHELTER in Place” rule was rejected by NY State Governor Andrew Cuomo saying he did not want frighten people. But 10 days later Cuomo called for a “pause.”
This was in mid to the end of March. It was around that time that the MTA, the NYS Agency under Cuomo direction, started to switch positions on masks. But, it was too late.
When deaths started to mount John Samuelsen, the TWU international president, demanded an expanded contractual death benefit for deceased TWU Local 100 members. He was Local 100 president and as a track worker, knew personally the MTA gruesome record.
The MTA said ‘OK’ but only if the federal government would pay for it.
President Samuelsen said, “No way.” And after a public media debate, deaths mounting each and every day, the MTA agreed to increase the contractual based death benefit from $25,000 to $500,000.
Why? Clearly because their refusal to provide PPE protection the MTA was legally culpable under the labor contract and in the court of public opinion.
But hazard pay and death benefits are no substitute to preventing these preventable health and safety hazards to begin with.
- It wasn’t until very late March that the MTA started providing masks to B/O, maintenance members and train workers. But the implementation wasn’t uniform right away.*
- And Covid testing was not conveniently available at MTA properties, a logical place; and it still isn’t today. Only Temperatures, a very minimal task, are taken. Workers saw this as window dressing.*
- And while surfaces in all buses and subways are routinely sterilized and cleaned, its actual breathing and human bodily fluid droplets that transmit Covid.*
- And requiring passengers on buses and subway cars was still being contested. Mandatory masks for bus and subway passengers took place in late September.*
During March to June, Trains and buses became the lifeline for Essential health care workers getting to and from work. And as such, transit workers became essential.
It Was Too Late
*As has been determined thoroughly by NIH and other infectious disease experts, every day and week delay resulted in the over 200,000 deaths the US has today.*
While President Trump was and remains the main culprit; the Woodward tapes clearly stated, in Trump’s own words, HE KNEW WHAT OTHERS DIDN’T. Just like the infamous Nixon tapes.
But make no mistake, the MTA is also still fully culpable.
Trump belongs in front of the UN Hague Criminal Court. Well know writer Carl Bernstein correctly called his actions: “homicidal negligence.” The MTA leadership have to live with themselves.
But the main question remains did it have to be? Did other cities and countries do better?
Was this the transit experience in Europe and South America?
A resounding “No” it wasn’t. Just as the US has the highest overall deaths and death rate; the same is true for NYC transit workers as a defined worker cohort.
Here are some examples of comparable urban transportation systems.
Internationally, protections for Bus and Subway/Metro workers and the ability of their union representatives to gain the maximum protections stemmed from the political leadership of each country. On the European mainland the leadership responded with dramatic actions. Nationwide lockdowns.
Paris, France has a bus and subway system of 64,000 workers, combined, which highly comparable to NYC. Yet , they only had 8 deaths for bus and metro workers together. In correspondence with the Paris CGT RATP General Secretary Bertrand Hammache, expressed shock at the New York deaths.
Under the right of center FRENCH President Emanuel Macron and their parliament strict regulations of “sheltering in place” were imposed to stop the spread. Strict fines were imposed. It worked.
President Emanuel Macron announced on March 16, 2020 an initial country wide lockdown to stop the Covid virus.
The use of masks by public workers started then. That included bus and subway workers.
On the other hand, British PM Boris Johnson was slow to act, being an arrogant upper class Tory. He followed the lead of his Anglo-American partner Trump. But after he contracted the virus and was treated in the great NHS hospital system, he changed his tune.
But it was too late.
According to an official TfL report From February to May 2020 There were 27 deaths out of 34,000 total London bus operators. They are represented by UNITE trade union.
Since bus operators work in a sealed cabin, masks are a personal decision. Passengers that face TfL workers must wear masks as of June.
There was no data on bus maintenance workers.
In the Underground Tube which is known as the TfL or LUL subway system, there was just one death. The militant and powerful RMT represents these workers.
There are 13,600 underground RMT union workers June 15 masks became mandatory for all underground passengers. Mick cash is the RMT General Secretary.
This in a country that has a similar death rate as the US.
The crisis in Spain reached immediate also reached crises levels in March. Here are mortality figures:
- Number of…
- Bus operators 5,700
- Bus maintenance 1,000
- Total. 6,700
- Bus operators 0
- Bus maintenance 0
- Total 2. 1. supervisor; 1 auxiliary worker
- Subway workers 7,138
- Subway worker deaths 4
Mandatory Masks were issued in early March. 2020. Madrid had a state of emergency from early March through June 2020. The lockdown was reimposed in late September.
While the central government is left of Center; Madrid political leaders are right of center. Furloughed public workers were full compensated.
Mexico City, México
There are 15,239 metro subway workers in the Mexico City system.
32 have died to date.
The system is massive. It is 225 km in length with 11 lines; trains each have 10- 11 cars; it carries 3.86 million passengers a day.
The system is called: México City METRO or Sistema de Transporte Colectivo STC.
The union is: Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores del Sistema de Transporte Colectivo.
There are 20 million people in Mexico City.
Not sure when or if masks were made mandatory for workers and /or passengers.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Mandatory masks started on March 19. N95 were used and the surgical masks. Quarantines was enforced by police.
The SUBTE metro subway system in Buenos Aires has had 5 deaths. The system has 4,000 workers, 2,800 belong to the union. Workers with children, mothers or fathers responsibilities and/or have compromised health problems, asthma, diabetes etc, stay home at 100% of wages.
Beto Pianelli is the SUBTE General Secretary.
No data available for bus operators. They belong to a different trade union.
São Paulo, Brasil
There are 53,000 Bus operators in São Paulo.To date 75 have died. Maintenance death numbers are not available.
Bus Members are mostly affiliated to the UGT trade union. They had to fight for sterilizers, masks, general cleaning and job security. They eventually got them all.
In the metro, Represented by the CTB union, there have been 6 deaths out of 8,500 metro workers.
The union had to file charges against the Company for not providing full protective equipment. The union made their own masks when there wasn’t enough for all subway workers. That was well into to crisis.
Also the CTB took aggressive action to make sure all subway workers/ union members 60 years of age and older; and those with compromising diseases did not work. They received full wages.
Brasil as a whole has special age regulations for all people over 60 years of age: special exit lines at grocery stores; reduced transit and related fares; etc.
São Paulo has 20 million people in the whole city.
This in a country where it’s leader Jair Bolsonaro openly opposes any Covid restrictions; a Trump disciple.
Masks have been mandatory since May.
Report from Luiza Bezerra CTB youth director.
In Victoria Australia the Rail Tram Bus Union RTBU, where the pandemic first broke, demanded masks for passengers. The government declined. But after massive community action they caved by the end of April 2020. Now passenger masks are required.
RTBU represents 8,000 rail, bus and tram workers across high density areas across Australia. They’ve had no member deaths.
The European cities were hit before the US but in Paris, Lisbon and Madrid strict lockdown was imposed. As was the case in Germany.
In a report received from India, masks were made mandatory since March. Inner city and all other public transport system were either stopped or sharply curtailed. There is no specific mortality information for Delhi. Delhi has 11 million population second to Mumbai at 20 million.
What is clearly evident is that MTA failed in its charge to protect its employees. And it wasn’t until that failure became deadly evident that the demand of rank and file members forced the union leadership to confront the MTA, and indirectly the governor, to change course and provide the necessary PPE. But it was too late for too many union members.
Maybe, had the membership had the Right to Strike recognize by the United Nations Under The Declaration of Human Rights, with the Right To Strike, this might not have happened. That’s right, under the NYS Taylor law, public workers don’t have the strike right. This Right to Strike is fully recognized throughout Europe, the Eastern countries, Australia, Latin America, etc.
In our governing systems “checks and balances” are often a reference point. We don’t have that regarding our public workers. Legal Power lies with the State of New York and it costs us Transit lives.
And by simple comparisons to other international sites, where public sector striking is legal, it is clear that quicker action would have saved lives.
Immediate Preventive Actions Saved Lives.
Special Note: I want to specially thank our friends and comrades from: Buenos Aires, Paris, London, Australia, São Paulo, Madrid, and Mexico City for responding to my request for direct on-the-ground information regarding the trade union bus and metro/subway transportation workers in their jurisdiction. This reporting took place in the early part of 2020. The deep struggle continues for worker rights
Dr. Frank Goldsmith served as Director, Occupational Health (2000-2018) for Local 100, Transport Workers Union (TWU). Currently, Dr. Goldsmith is Associate and International Editor of Labor Today and serves as North America Coordinator for the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU).