The Daily Q: What’s at stake for MTA riders as union contract expires?

What’s at stake for MTA riders as union contract expires?

It is a busy week for New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. Yesterday, the State Senate confirmed its new chairman, Joe Lhota, a former New York City deputy mayor, budget director and finance commissioner. And this Sunday, the Transit Workers Union’s contract for 38,000 bus and subway workers will expire. Reaching a deal on a new contract will pose an immediate test for Lhota, who is known for cutting costs in his previous jobs, as he and the TWU go head to head in the final days of negotiations. The MTA is expected to demand wage freezes and require workers to pay more of the costs for their for healthcare.

As the negotiations tick down to their final days, The New York World wants to know: How could the city’s public transit riders be affected by the MTA contract negotiations?

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What we found

First things first: New York City probably isn’t going to see a transit workers’ strike this time around. Although the contract for the Transport Workers Union expires on Sunday, and there are still significant differences between the TWU and MTA management on the terms of the next contract, the TWU has voted to stay on the job if negotiations continue beyond the deadline. “You’re not going to see transit workers with picket signs out on the street Monday morning,” said TWU spokesman Jim Gannon.

Another key issue on riders’ minds is the threat of future fare hikes. In the MTA bailout deal struck with the state legislature in 2009, the agency committed to moderate fare hikes in early 2009, 2011 and 2013. But even though we know when the next hike will hit – around January 2013 – the amount of the increase is uncertain.

Gene Russianoff, a staff lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign, said this amount would be determined outside the contract negotiations but that the authority’s finances will affect the amount of revenue that must be raised. The last fare hike was 7.5 percent overall but fully 17 percent for monthly unlimited Metrocards. Another 17 percent increase would raise the cost of monthly unlimited passes to $122, a sum that Russianoff said “it wouldn’t hurt to be in the 1 percent to pay.”

Finally, the effect of the negotiations on services for riders is unclear. MTA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz referred The New York World to the MTA’s four-year financial plan, which assumes net wage savings of $323 million from union employees along with fare and toll increases in 2013 and 2015. “There are no service cuts assumed in the financial plan,” he emailed in a statement.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean service would be unaffected. Russianoff noted that one reform the MTA has proposed in the past to cut costs is creating more one-person trains in which a single worker performs the tasks usually performed by both a conductor and a train operator. Russianoff calls the arrangement as “trains without conductors” and the Straphangers Campaign opposes it. “Just having one person in the front of a train that is carrying 2000 people is not conducive to safety,” he said.

Ortiz stressed that the MTA was committed to reducing its overhead. “Our financial situation remains fragile,” he wrote, “and relies on this ‘net zero’ wage initiative and a continued focus on cost cutting.”

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