Transit worker contract a major test for Cuomo’s union ties

Governor Cuomo shakes hands with MTA construction workers.
Governor Cuomo shakes hands with MTA construction workers.
The Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Cuomo shakes hands with MTA construction workers.

Transit worker contract a major test for Cuomo’s union ties

The governor started out by bashing labor, but later embraced unions. Where is he heading next?
November 27, 2019

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has worked hard to burnish his political brand as a staunch champion of the labor movement and as the Empire State’s great builder of 21st century public infrastructure projects.

But now, the intense acrimony surrounding contract negotiations between Cuomo’s management team at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Transport Workers Union poses a reputational risk to the governor’s pro-union credentials, according to 10 veteran labor leaders. Most of the interview subjects did not want their names published because they were either not cleared by their union to offer public remarks or have ongoing business in Albany. 

"There's no doubt that from a New York state union standpoint, all eyes are on how this goes down between the MTA and the TWU with this contract because the perception is out there that the TWU supported the governor," said a member of New York City Central Labor Council who only spoke on the condition of anonymity. 

The TWU labor pact expired in May and the negotiations are playing out as pressure continues to build on the transit agency to make itself more efficient as part of a grand bargain to get an influx of capital money, made possible in large measure by the imposition of congestion pricing in Manhattan. 

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office reported in September that despite the commitment of $32 billion in state and federal funds for the MTA’s 2020-2024 capital program, “additional funding will still be needed to modernize the subway system.” 

DiNapoli also reported that even “before taking into consideration the next 5 year capital program, outstanding debt is projected to reach $41.8 billion by 2022, an increase of 19 percent from 2019.” By the comptroller’s calculations, debt service, the cost of paying off past borrowing, “would increase by 31 percent, exceeding $3.5 billion by 2023 when debt service will represent nearly 20 percent of total revenue.”

And while the MTA did convince the city and Albany to make a multibillion-dollar commitment to a major overhaul and modernization of its physical plant, the agency’s operating budget – which covers salaries, overtime and debt service – is awash in red ink, with a deficit that is projected to grow from $6 million in 2020 to $443 million in by 2023. 

Early in Cuomo’s tenure when it came to public employees, he sounded more like Chris Christie, his Republican counterpart in neighboring New Jersey, on his desire for public-employee pension reform and benefit cost containment. In 2011 he let it be known he was considering firing 10,000 workers, or more than 5 percent of the state’s workforce . That same year, Cuomo successfully pressed for a sixth pension tier that significantly rolled back retirement benefits for future civil servants, raising the retirement age from 62 to 65 and pushing up employee pension contributions from 3 percent to 6 percent.

Like Christie, he initially took aim at the teachers’ union, vowing to break the public school “monopoly.” He embraced the idea of linking teachers’ pay to students’ performance. Teachers even went so far as to picket outside the governor’s mansion during a holiday party.

“I remember he (Cuomo) told us (privately) he had to be really tough on us in his first two years and then he would take care of us,” said a former public employee labor leader, who did not want to be named. “But it took a lot longer than he said it would. In the meantime, the powerful and well-off people got steak and ice cream and we got the crumbs of austerity.” 

There were consequences.

During his first re-election bid in 2014, the state Public Employees Federation endorsed Cuomo’s Democratic opponent, Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and anti-corruption activist. The New York State United Teachers did not make an endorsement and the New York State AFL-CIO, representing 2.5 million workers, sat the race out.

Despite being heavily outspent by her far more experienced rival, Teachout’s anti-corruption insurgency bested Cuomo in 23 of the state’s 62 counties, a major embarrassment for a potential presidential contender. Teachout’s success was a harbinger of an increasingly energized progressive wing of the state’s Democratic Party that started to zero in on Cuomo’s facility with working with state Republicans who controlled the state Senate with the help of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference.

New York’s move to the left was not in isolation. Just as tea party activism had upended the Republican Party and set the stage for Donald Trump’s rise to power, many young progressive voters were finding their voice while seeking to upend the Democratic Party establishment.

By 2015, Cuomo had jettisoned his ‘Christie-light’ persona, settling contracts without his old “my way or the highway” tactics. Just as fast food workers across the country were staging job actions in their “Fight for Fifteen,” Cuomo made a national splash with his unilateral move to raise the minimum wage for state workers to $15 an hour. The following year, the Legislature passed Cuomo’s legislation phasing in a $15 minimum wage for much of the state. 

In his 2018 primary face-off with actress and education activist Cynthia Nixon, Cuomo improved significantly over his 2014 performance against Teachout, in large measure thanks to winning the enthusiastic support from both the public- and private-sector unions.

Leading the charge against Nixon, who was running to the left of Cuomo, was John Samuelsen, the international president of the TWU, who was one of the few labor leaders to back U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders for president in 2016.

Samuelsen’s calculation was that in Cuomo’s latest version of himself, the union had been able to settle “two contracts under terms that exceeded the New York City pattern for bargaining.”

Nixon tried to pin the blame for the deterioration of the city subway system on Cuomo. And, in the aftermath of a New York Times exposé on the costs of rebuilding the New York City transit system, Nixon flagged union labor as a problematic cost driver. “With the deals they have now, you can’t hope to make the improvements to the trains in a fiscally responsible way,” Nixon said at the time. “Everybody’s got to pull together, and everybody’s got to make sacrifices.”

After Nixon’s primary loss to Cuomo, Samuelsen chalked it up to her criticism of organized labor. “So, her basic instinct was to jump on the narrative put forward by the nonunion developers that want to chase the trade union movement out of the subway construction projects and want to blame the workers for problems with subway construction,” Samuelsen said.

Now, the latest MTA-TWU contract talks appear to have stalled, with both sides digging in after the union spent heavily on a broadcast media blitz to try to leverage public opinion. 

Relations between Pat Foye, who was picked by Cuomo to run the MTA in March, and Tony Utano, president of TWU Local 100, grew adversarial in the spring. In May, the agency briefly sent police officers to stake out agency timeclocks after the Empire Center for Public Policy published a report detailing a $418 million spike in overtime, a 16% rise over the previous year.

The reports of a worker on the Long Island Rail Road making $344,000 in overtime, and several others also making huge sums, prompted Cuomo to weigh in. “This is about stealing, this is about fraud, this is about people saying they worked and charging the taxpayers when they didn’t work, right?” he told reporters. “That’s stealing. It’s criminal.”

Samuelsen shot back by comparing Cuomo’s remarks about worker overtime to President Donald Trump. “There’s no evidence at all of widespread criminality. It’s a big lie,” Samuelsen told the Times. “This is what Donald Trump does.”

Based on interviews with both TWU leadership and rank and file members, Cuomo’s remarks were taken as an attack on a workforce that has increasingly come under physical assault throughout the transit system. The union maintains the spike in overtime was the result of the agency’s decision to only hire 800 of the 2,000 workers it said were needed to return the system to good repair.

At a subsequent MTA board meeting, Samuelsen, who is also an MTA commissioner, warned management that they were creating a dangerous atmosphere. “This is the type of behavior you’ve engaged in that triggers strikes on the New York City subway system,” Samuelsen said. “I’m not saying that as a threat. That’s the truth.”

In a recent interview, Samuelsen was more circumspect. “When the governor does the right thing by the TWU, we have let it be known,” he said, “and when he hasn’t, we let that be known as well.”

Talks between the TWU and the MTA got underway on Nov. 12 but fell apart on Nov. 14, with TWU Local 100 President Tony Utano saying the discussions "actually set us back” and claiming that Foye and his team came to the “negotiations these last three days unprepared and disorganized, they presented contract demands, including a wage offer, that is worse than the insulting package they gave the union back in August.”

“MTA Chair Pat Foye is engaging in bad-faith bargaining with TWU Local 100 and has unfortunately chosen the path of conflict with NYC transit workers,” said Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO, in a statement issued on Nov. 14 by the TWU. “Organized labor in NYS stands behind transit workers 100% and we demand that Foye bargain in good faith.”

After talks broke down, the MTA sent out just a two-sentence statement from spokesman Tom Minton. “The MTA is committed to reaching fair contracts with its unions, including TWU Local 100, that will be mutually beneficial,” he said. “Beyond that, we don’t negotiate in the press.”

In October, when TWU tried to engage the MTA in an effort to save tens of millions of dollars in specialty prescription drugs costs, Foye dismissed the proposal as the “Utano Specialty Drug Scam,” claiming it was anti-immigrant, discriminated against employees of color and “corrupt” and “unlawful.”

“As it stands, Foye has created a pressurized situation where the relationship between transit workers and management grows more hostile every day and somebody is going to have to address it,” Samuelsen said in a phone interview Nov. 17. “And this is not in the governor’s interest nor in the public’s interest.” This week, however, Utano said that Foye had reached out to propose reopening negotiations on a new contract, and that he had accepted.

To understand what is at risk for the governor it’s important to keep in mind just how much of his tenure has been consumed with achieving his current alignment with labor, a critical asset for a relatively young man in a Democratic universe where this cycle’s three top tier presidential candidates are in their 70s.

For Cuomo, defusing the highly combustible MTA-TWU standoff is shaping up to being one of those key leadership tests that can define a legacy. Ultimately, it’s hard to be perceived as a master builder if you can’t keep the trains running.

Bob Hennelly
is a reporter for The Chief Leader.
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