M.T.A. Gets Off Easy In Dispute With Workers

050806 article wiseguys M.T.A. Gets Off Easy  In Dispute With WorkersAs the labor dispute afflicting the city’s transit system trundles on—yes, the subways and buses are rolling, but the dispute remains unresolved—scapegoats are being sought. There has been a lot of finger-pointing recently. But most of the fingers have been pointed in the wrong direction.

To judge from tabloid editorials and the pronouncements of some of New York’s leading politicians, the blame in this struggle rests with Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union (T.W.U.) and its leader, Roger Toussaint.

In fact, prime culpability for the current logjam should be hung around the necks of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (M.T.A.), its chairman, Peter Kalikow, and Governor George Pataki.

Today, more than four months after the transit strike ended, the road to a final settlement is clear. But the M.T.A. refuses to travel along it.

The deal that crystallized in the days after the December stoppage gave T.W.U. workers a raise in salary but required them to pay toward health insurance for the first time. The M.T.A. dropped a controversial demand for increased pension contributions from future workers.

In January, leadership complacency and militant activism in the T.W.U. led the members to reject the agreement. The proposal was defeated by seven votes out of more than 22,000 cast.

In a ballot completed two weeks ago, the workers overturned their earlier decision, voting to accept the original deal by a thumping 71-29 percent margin.

Once the re-vote had been held, the agreement could have been rubber-stamped by the M.T.A.’s board. The tumultuous story would have ended there. But the authority had other ideas.

The M.T.A. used the union’s initial vote as an escape hatch from the December deal. It continues to insist that the agreement is void. The T.W.U. has taken the M.T.A. to court in an effort to recognize the deal.

If the M.T.A. maintains its position, a binding-arbitration process will drag on for months, deeper enmity will develop between the authority and its employees, and the risk of further labor unrest, which could easily have been eliminated, will be exponentially increased.

Yet it is the T.W.U. that is labeled the intransigent and irresponsible party in the dispute.

Mr. Toussaint is not one of the most agile operators in labor history. His pre-imprisonment march across the Brooklyn Bridge, accompanied by a minion rolling his suitcase, was as inappropriately grandiose as the Reverend Al Sharpton’s comparison of the union leader with Nelson Mandela.

But the T.W.U. president doesn’t deserve the level of abuse he has received. A recent Daily News editorial excoriated him for his “disastrous leadership.” The New York Post claimed that he had become “intoxicated by his own revolutionary rhetoric.”

Mr. Pataki said that those who sympathized with Mr. Toussaint because of his brief imprisonment should not worry about “someone who actually provoked this illegal action.” Mayor Bloomberg echoed that complaint, arguing that it is wrong to “make a hero out of anybody who breaks the law.”

The view that the union has gotten what it deserved for behaving illegally has become common currency. Mr. Kalikow last week reiterated that the strike was “a criminal act.”

That is true. But it also conveniently obscures the reality of the current situation. If the M.T.A.’s prime concern is really to avoid rewarding lawbreakers, it should have stood on that principle back in December. It did not do so. The T.W.U. is no less law-abiding now than it was then.

The unpersuasive rationale offered by the M.T.A. for its abandonment of the December deal has led some to suspect that its real motivation lies elsewhere.

With a possible Presidential run to consider, and a record that needs burnishing with evidence of fiscal conservatism, the Governor has been especially critical of a provision that would see thousands of transit workers reimbursed for excessive pension contributions. The proposal, which would cost about $130 million, will fall if the dispute goes to arbitration.

The Straphangers Campaign last week castigated the M.T.A. for stubbornness that, it alleged, was motivated by a desire to “protect your patron, George Pataki.”

Whether directly inspired by Mr. Pataki or not, the M.T.A. is trying to humiliate its workforce.

That is not merely unjust; it is also shortsighted. It is time for the authority to show some sense and some grace. It is time to get the deal done.