It's a collision America is seeing more often: Management tries
to have workers move back their retirement age and pay more for
healthcare, while workers try to keep their benefits and make up for
lost ground on wages.
This labor-management clash forced 7 million commuters in New
York Tuesday to resort to bicycling, rollerblading, or just plain
hoofing it to work after a 3 a.m. strike shut down the transit
system for the first time in 25 years. Bundling up in 20-degree
weather, some commuters piled in, four to a taxi, or got caught in
traffic gridlock at checkpoints designed to ensure at least four
people were in each vehicle.
Some of the issues in the Big Apple - especially the effort to
diminish pension and healthcare benefits for future employees - will
be watched carefully by other unions. Management teams around the
nation will also be watching to see what succeeds and what doesn't.
"The surprise is that it's only now that not just unions but
[their members] are starting to cry, 'Where's mine?' " says Ken
Goldstein, a labor economist at the Conference Board, a business
research organization in New York. "We're paying the price for
keeping the lid on wages and costs."
The transit workers in New York started by asking for a 24
percent pay raise over three years. Since the Metropolitan
Transportation Authority (MTA) has a $1 billion surplus, the union
felt it was entitled to a significant increase.
However, the MTA replied that the surplus did not come from
operations but from selling assets. Management's last offer was
reportedly for 10-1/2 percent over three years. This would be above
the 3 percent settlement for each of the next four years that the
Philadelphia transit workers received after a one-week strike at the
end of October.
"Three percent per year for three years is considered a good
settlement," says Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations
at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
Aside from wages, the major issue facing municipal unions is
healthcare and retirement costs. In Philadelphia, SEPTA, the
Southern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, started negotiations
by asking workers to pay 20 percent of their base pay toward the
cost of medical premiums.
The workers eventually agreed to pay 1 percent of their base pay.
"It will defray 4 percent of SEPTA's medical costs," says Richard
Maloney, a spokesman for SEPTA.
In July in San Francisco, a transit strike on the Bay Area Rapid
Transit (BART) was averted after the workers agreed to increase
their healthcare contributions from $25 to $75 a month starting in