Deal Reached on New York Transit Worker Contract

Union leaders reach agreement with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority late Tuesday on a tentative new contract for transit workers in New York City. Part of the deal will require workers to pay more for their health care. Union members went on a three-day strike before Christmas. WNYC's Beth Fertig reports.

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First, they struck, and now they've got a deal. A week after bringing New York City to a halt for three slow days, leaders of the Transport Workers Union have approved a tentative agreement with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The deal provides a wage increase for almost 34,000 bus and subway workers. In exchange, they'll have to pay more for health care. Beth Fertig of member station WNYC reports.

BETH FERTIG reporting:

The New York City transit strike wasn't just over wage increases. It was over the long-term issues of pensions and health care and whether the union could maintain these benefits, despite the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's insistence on trimming costs. After a Christmas weekend of negotiations, union leaders finally approved a tentative settlement. It was announced last night by their weary president, Roger Touissant.

Mr. ROGER TOUISSANT (President, Transport Workers Union): This contract provided for wage increases of 3 percent, 4 percent and 3 1/2 percent in these next three years. It provided for medical coverage, health benefits coverage for retirees.

FERTIG: But the union gave in on one of its top priorities, health care. The tentative contract calls for all members to spend 1.5 percent of their salaries on health care premiums, which were previously covered entirely by the MTA. In exchange, the MTA agreed to drop its most controversial demand that future employees contribute more for their pensions. It also kept the retirement age at 55 for current and future employees.

By accepting this framework the Transport Workers Union is following a national trend. Unions across the country have been forced to pay more for benefits as the public and private sectors grapple with growing health and pension costs. But the Transport Workers Union has a more militant history than other unions, according to Stanley Aronowitz, a sociology professor at the City University of New York, who specializes in labor relations.

Professor STANLEY ARONOWITZ (City University of New York): So this is not the ordinary union with a leadership that's relatively complacent and relatively stable. This is a union which has had a lot of turbulence, and it's going to continue to have turbulence because this contract is not going to quiet things down.

FERTIG: There are already signs of discontent in the rank and file. The union faces a $3 million fine for its illegal strike, and members could be fined two days for every day they walked off the job. It's against MTA rules for workers to talk to reporters without permission, but off the record many believe the strike wasn't worth it because of the added fines and the new health care fees. One maintenance worker said, quote, "We got nothing." But others believe they did earn the respect of their passengers.

The city's almost 34,000 bus and subway workers will get to weigh the costs and benefits of the strike before they vote on the contract next month. The proposal also calls for the next contract to expire in January instead of December, meaning the union can't threaten another strike right before Christmas. For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.

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