Unions have been fighting a losing battle for decades to protect employee health care and retirement benefits. This weekend, an especially militant union, New York's transport workers, made a bold move to defend past gains. It was they that shut down buses and subways in the nation's biggest city this week just before Christmas. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.


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 billion-dollar surplus. But it's also worried about rising health care and retirement expenses. Earlier this week, it said it wanted new hires to pay 6 percent of their salaries towards pensions. Saying he would not, quote, "sellout the unborn," union head Roger Toussaint led a walkout. Harley Shaiken is a professor and labor specialist at the University of California at Berkeley. He says the strike is a risky attempt to keep management from shifting costs to workers.

Professor HARLEY SHAIKEN (University of California, Berkeley): 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. But these kind 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.

LANGFITT: 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.' Richard Hurd teaches labor studies at Cornell.

Mr. RICHARD HURD (Cornell): This is a more militant union than most public-sector unions. These workers face on a daily basis far more difficult working conditions than the standard government employee. And the workers as a group feel that management is too heavy-handed. That tends to breed a militant attitude among the work force that you don't see in other public-sector unions.

LANGFITT: 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. Stephen Malanga, author of the book "The New New Left," which focuses on the power of public-sector unions.

Mr. STEPHEN MALANGA (Author, "The New, New Left") The miscalculation that this union has made is by going on strike because by doing that they've really put the issue of their pensions and their benefits front and center and I think that a lot of private-sector workers are saying--you hear them saying this--these folks already have a good deal. Why are they inconveniencing me?

LANGFITT: Steve Christburg(ph) oversees collective bargaining for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME. He says New York should support transit workers for trying to stop management from taking away their benefits. Commuters, he added, should not resent the union for having negotiated good contracts in the past.

Mr. STEVE CHRISTBURG (AFSCME): Well, 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 as luxury commodities because they're basic necessities.

LANGFITT: AFSCME represents 120,000 workers in New York. Next year their contract comes up for negotiation. Christburg says if the transport workers lose the strike, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg could ask his workers to make similar concessions. Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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