Letter to the New York Times –
Stop the Lies about Subway Workers



John Ferretti, Conductor, Shop Steward TWU Local 100
Seth Rosenberg, Train Operator, Shop Steward TWU Local 100

To the Editor:

Re “How Politics and Bad Decisions Starved New York’s Subways” (front page, Nov. 19). It was a bitter experience for us, a subway Conductor and a Train Operator, to read that “subway workers now make an average of $170,000 annually in salary, overtime and benefits,” as we’re sure it was for very many of our fellow members of Transport Workers Union Local 100. Our paychecks and tax records prove that is far from accurate. And now, as incidents begin of subway and bus riders citing this figure as they hurl abuse at subway workers for being greedy, we are both downright angry and fearful of the consequences for as long as the Times does not print a prominent correction.

We are aware that your authors included average payments for overtime labor as well as the estimated value of our pensions and healthcare, but the figure they produced is still terribly misleading. With enough years on the job to receive the “top pay” rate, we earn $64,194 and $73,548 a year respectively for a 40-hour week (and wages are considerably lower, of course, for more poorly treated workers like Station Agents and Cleaners). To be sure, many of us work a lot of overtime – much of it forced on us by management who refuse to hire enough workers to meet the system’s needs. We are often locked into years of night-shift work that denies us a normal social and family life. Also, far too often we see little of the value of our pensions – transit workers typically live just a handful of years after retiring, a consequence of working in a toxic environment where, for example, we are constantly inhaling the steel dust that is created by breaking trains. And much of the “value” placed on our “health benefits” is never seen by us in any form – a mighty share goes straight into the bank accounts of healthcare companies and stays there as they work to charge as much as possible for as little care as possible (something workers everywhere experience). Failing to take into account the reality of overtime work, pensions and healthcare does workers a terrible injustice.

To emphasize how supposedly over-paid transit workers are, your authors point out that we have secured 7% higher wage raises than teachers in the period 2009-16. But the fact is that like the rest of the working class, the real value of transit workers’ wages has been steadily falling for decades, including in that period. That’s because the rising cost of living has outpaced the raises we have received – your authors’ comparison of our wage raises to those of teachers only expresses the fact that the real value of our wages has fallen less quickly than that of other workers.

The potential power that transit workers have to strike has made the politicians more fearful of attacking our wages and benefits than those of other workers. The politicians’ hope is that as the gap between our wages and benefits has widened in comparison to those of other workers, we will become demonized as having it too good and thus set up for attack. Your authors have made a significant contribution to that demonization.

Furthermore, your authors suggest that this state of affairs is the result of years in which “the M.T.A. has given concession after concession to its main labor union”. On the contrary, we have faced one significant attack after another, especially on our wages and benefits. We will cite just two of many examples: In 2006 we were stuck with a healthcare paycheck deduction for the first time after our tough-talking but ultimately weak-acting Local 100 president of the time, Roger Toussaint, ended our strike without a contract. And in 2012, then-president John Samuelsen conspired with Governor Cuomo to triple pension paycheck deductions for new-hires! With these massive givebacks in mind we can also understand another reason why slightly higher wage raises and other small concessions have been granted to transit workers – to help our corrupt union leaders convince members to approve contracts that give away far more.

These anti-worker myths undermine an article that is otherwise a highly informative study of the reasons for NYC’s transit crisis – reasons that we oppositionists in Local 100 have been complaining of, in print and speeches, for years! Both Republican and Democratic politicians have starved the system of funding while directing billions toward projects that directly benefit more affluent (and disproportionately white) New Yorkers, and especially corporate interests. And by forcing the MTA to issue bonds to raise funds, they have turned the city’s transit system into a cash cow for Wall Street financiers. The MTA now spends more of its budget each year on payments of profits to bond holders than it does on the welfare of its majority-Black and Latino labor force!

The struggle for transit justice is a struggle for racial and labor justice. And this struggle is set to get hotter after Governor Cuomo broke his promise to increase state funding of transit and instead cut the subways’ budget and saw to it that the MTA’s debt ceiling was raised so that it could issue more bonds to Wall Street.

The deepening crisis of NYC’s transit system won’t be arrested without challenging Wall Street and their political allies in the Democratic and Republican parties. If Local 100 mobilized against transit fare hikes and for an MTA debt moratorium, it could unite working-class New Yorkers to force transit improvements without making the working class and poor pay the price. It is a shame that your authors have attempted to add another obstacle to that effort.