Why New York subway workers still lack a contract

After December's strike, the union rejected one offer and may face binding arbitration.

The morning commute is back on track in New York City since December's high-profile strike. But there are still plenty of rumblings of discontent among subway workers, and that could again derail the morning ride for 7 million commuters.

The reason: There's still no contract. In a stunning move almost two weeks ago, members of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 rejected the negotiated settlement worked out with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority by a slim seven votes. That prompted the MTA to essentially throw in the towel and ask for binding arbitration, which would be a first for the transit workers in New York, according to the Public Employee Relations Board. The union is adamantly opposed to binding arbitration. And so, after a raucous meeting this week, the TWU's executive board voted to return to the negotiating table.

"Binding arbitration won't allow our members to vote on a contract, and it takes pension pieces off the table, which our members want to talk about in this contract," says Ed Watt, a spokesman for the TWU. "We've been reaching out to the MTA, trading phone calls to get a read from them."

But at least for now, the MTA is publicly standing by its request for binding arbitration.

"We made them our best and final offer and that's what they rejected, so now we have to bring this to some kind of conclusion," says Tom Kelly, a spokesman for the MTA.

Mr. Kelly says the MTA is willing to meet with the union to hear what they have to say, but it won't necessarily reopen negotiations. That leaves the ball in the court of the Public Employee Relations Board, the state agency that can require binding arbitration and impose a settlement. It's not expected to rule until next week at the earliest.

And so, New York commuters are still riding on the hope of a settlement, and wary of more service disruptions. The three-day strike in December cost the city an estimated $1 billion in lost business and tax revenues.

"I understand they want good pay and benefits, but [the strike] paralyzed the city, and a second time around would just not be forgivable," says Maria Caban from the Bronx.

Asked about the prospect of wildcat strikes or slowdowns, Kelly of the MTA says, "We're concerned about anything that could affect service."

Mr. Watt of the TWU says another strike is unlikely, but he won't rule it out in the long run.

The union's rank and file is also holding out hope that there won't be another strike, but many are still feeling defiant. They rejected the last contract because it would require workers to contribute 1-1/2 percent of their salaries to their healthcare benefits, something that would be a first for New York municipal employees. Many workers worry that if they're forced to go to binding arbitration, the insurance costs would be imposed on them.

"I'm against binding arbitration for the simple reason that it doesn't afford us the ability to negotiate, and there should be a negotiation," says Rasheed Ali, a train operator for 24 years.

But others are more pragmatic, noting that with spiraling healthcare costs, most US workers already pay some out-of-pocket costs - that's if they're fortunate enough to have a union and insurance at all.

"I'm hoping that they'll all realize that sooner or later, they're going to have to pay for the healthcare anyway, and common sense is going to prevail in this," says Ray Volsario, a 27-year TWU veteran.

Some labor experts sympathize with the workers' determination to hold the line on healthcare costs, but they note that the problem is much bigger than one union.

"The transit workers are not going to solve the healthcare problem on their own. It's too much to ask one union to fight the fight for everybody else," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "This is something that has to be solved on a national basis."

Maia Ridberg contributed to this report.

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