Wednesday, December 21, 2005

My Commute

Working for the MTA is nobody's idea of a picnic. Let's get that straight right away. I'll spare you my customary "growing up around here..." lecture and simply state that I know a handful of guys with TWU jobs. Two are electricians in the LIRR's Hillside Maintenance Facility, and a few others work for NYC Transit. It's not easy work, it's often dangerous, and that sort of employment isn't for everyone.

I'd never begrudge anyone a pension, either. Half pay for the rest of your life after twenty years of service once you turn fifty? Who in their right mind wouldn't jump on that if given the chance? Sounds good to me. I have a friend who dropped out of college some years back to go to work for Jamaica Bus. Started out cleaning and parking buses in the depot down near Kennedy Airport. We all thought he was insane.

"Another five years," said his older brother, "he's gonna be laughin' at all of us."

Boy, was that poignant.

Here in New York, we're hip-deep in heavy industry, and the entire area happens to be one of the world's major seaports, so we've got just about every conceivable 'macho' job on the planet covered. For guys in "my neighborhood" -- there I go again -- the city itself is our industry. Like Pennsylvanians, for generations, went to work in steel mills and coal mines, and as Texans struck out into the oilfields, kids from the five boroughs of New York and Long Island have aspired to "get into the union." To "get the bennies," and "get vested," serving the city in some capacity.

The point of it all is to get your "twenny an' out," start collecting your pension, and get down to Florida by the time you turn forty-five. You're then required -- have to check the manual on this one, but I'm reasonably sure it's mandatory -- to start a housepainting business and refinish a boat. Mustaches are optional, but I'll look that up, as well, just to be sure. There could be fines involved for non-compliance. Damned near everyone I know is doing the same thing -- just killing off their twenty years until the pension kicks in. Meantime, you spend your time figuring ways to work the system, refinancing your mortgage, and telling everyone what a great hockey player your little future derelict is.

It's all good, if you ask me. You live around here, and you're not college material -- and, in many cases, even if you are -- you'd be insane not to milk the process for all it's worth. You move up the ranks in any of our unionized structures around here -- civil service, construction, teamsters, et al -- and you'll eventually be making seriously livable money. Not that you'll ever break the bank or anything, but you'll have immediate security, the best medical benefits package imaginable, and the knowledge that there's a big-assed light -- your pension -- at the end of the tunnel after twenty years.

I fully understand the desire, and the necessity, to take care of people upon retirement after years of service, especially in jobs like these. I really do. But if a guy drives a bus for twenty-five years, and retires at the age of fifty, I have a bit of difficulty reconciling the responsibility of the MTA to pay him -- based the salary he earned over the last three years of his tenure -- $40K per year (estimating here) for the next thirty years while he goes and works somewhere else. I'll probably be crucified for saying something like this, but I've always been mystified by the sense of pension entitlement around here. It's all anyone ever talks about. Mind you, this is coming from someone whose entire family is comprised of civil servants and union members. And I won't even get into the fact that most, if not all, of these union pension plans compare favorably to those received by twenty-plus year veterans of the US military, a subject I find particularly galling.

The MTA, however, isn't completely blameless here. The raises they're offering hardly match the cost of living increases employees will face over the life of this contract, and most jobs of this nature in New York are grossly undersalaried. But what the fuck do people expect with the monumental pension expenditures the entire system is facing? Most employers offer retirement plans which entail matching contributions, 401Ks and the like, but in "The Union" -- pick one -- all you essentially have to do is wait it out, and they'll simply hand over the cash, no questions asked, after your twenty years are up. And I can guarantee you that we'll see the results, whatever the outcome of these negotiations, in the form of major fare hikes in the very near future, as if $2 a ride to take the subway isn't absurd enough as it is.

So what happens? They shut down the entire fucking city, and then walk away from the table. Honestly? The rest of it is fine. Take your raises, take your pension, take everything else. No problem. But the moment Roger Toussaint and the rest of the TWU decided to get up from the table and walk out of the room, they should've been forced, at gunpoint, to sit the fuck back down and get the damned thing hammered out.

Toussaint: "I think that our members of the union has the goodwill and support of most working New Yorkers who distrust the MTA. I think that we'll have the growing support of working men and women."

Dude, in which alternate fucking sphere of reality are you living? Sure I "distrust" the MTA. We all do, just like we "distrust" the intentions of every major employer in the United States. Working people all collectively harbor that "distrust," but you're not winning anyone over by leaving us out in the cold to make a point about what you think you're "entitled" to. Do yourself a favor. Head over to Penn Station at around 5 PM tomorrow and see how much support you've garnered from the people standing in line down 7th Avenue, and then go back to the negotiating table so decent people can fucking go to work on Thursday.