Unions have been fighting a losing battle for decades to protect employee health care and retirement benefits. This week, an especially militant union — New York's transport workers — made a bold move to defend past gains: They shut down buses and subways in the nation's biggest city the week before Christmas.
New York transit workers are trying to hold on to what most private-sector employees lost long ago: generous pensions that cost workers little.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has a surplus of $1 billion. But it is also worried about rising health care and retirement expenses. Earlier this week, the MTA said it wanted new hires to pay 6 percent of their salaries toward pensions.
Saying he would not "sell out the unborn," union head Roger Toussaint lead the walk out.
Harley Shaiken, a professor and labor specialist at the University of California at Berkeley, says the strike is a risky attempt to keep management from shifting costs to workers.
"The benefits of the transit workers in New York really are the gold standard, when it comes to retirement at age 55, when it comes to not having to pay for health care," Shaiken says. "But these kinds of benefits are very much under attack in the public sector and certainly we've seen them implode in many areas of the private sector."
Given high health care costs and national trends, other unions might have responded differently to management's demands.
But the transport workers aren't typical: They have a long history of confrontation.
The union's founder — "Red Mike" Quill — was a one-time communist. When a judge ordered the union back to work during a strike in 1966, Quill famously said: "May he drop dead in his black robes."
"This is a more militant union that most public sector unions," says Richard Hurd, who teaches labor studies at Cornell. "These workers face on a daily basis far more difficult working conditions than the standard government employee. The workers as a group feel management is too heavy-handed. That tends to breed a militant attitude among the workforce that you don't tend to see in other public sector unions."
But shutting down the city's transit system just before Christmas carries huge risks. And winning over the public may not be easy. Most of the people who ride the subway do not enjoy the kind of benefits that union workers are fighting to keep.
Steven Malanga is author of the book, The New New Left, which focuses on the power of public-sector unions.
"The miscalculation this union has made is by going on strike and by doing that they have really put the issue of their pensions and benefits front and center," says Malanga. "And now I think that a lot of private sector workers are saying — and you hear them saying this — 'These folks already have a good deal. Why are they inconveniencing me?'"
Steve Kreisberg oversees collective bargaining for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME. He says New Yorkers should support transit workers for trying to stop management from taking away their benefits. Commuters, he adds, should not resent the union for negotiating good contracts in the past.
"I think the question should be asked the other way, which is why don't all workers enjoy fair health benefits and adequate retirement security. We shouldn't treat those two aspects of living like luxury commodities, because they're basic necessities."
AFSCME has one 120,000 workers of its own in New York. Next year, their contract comes up for negotiation. Kreisberg says if the transport workers lose the strike, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg could ask his workers to make similar concessions.