Last week commenter Alon Levy criticized the Manhattan Institute’s position on transit unions, and Nicole Gelinas in particular, as being too focused on overall pay levels while neglecting overstaffing. Nicole wrote to me soon after to defend her record on the transit issue, and it does indeed look like she’s addressed the issues that Alon talks about:
Alon Levy takes my comments out of context. I have talked about pay cuts in regards to token-booth clerks – retail-level workers who earn more than $54,000 a year (plus benefits) to staff stations. The MTA, because it has no flexibility to cut the pay of these workers, has simply dispensed of the workers wholesale, leaving many station entranced unmanned. There is a disconnect here: the public prefers to see a person in the station; the MTA loses revenue when no one is there to monitor fare-beating (also, at some stations, including downtown, the NYPD must deploy people to stations to deter this fare-beating, at a much higher cost); and there are many people with retail skills looking for part-time jobs who would happily do the job at a market wage at less than $54,000 a year. The MTA should have the flexibility to hire part-time workers at lower wages and benefits to staff empty stations.
She then points to this article she wrote back in 2009, where she takes aim at union work rules – which, as she pointed out in the email, is an indirect way of talking about staffing:
Track workers are one obvious opportunity for smart cost-cutting. The MTA employs 1,865 of them on the city’s subways. According to seethroughny.net, a project of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, each gets paid an average of nearly $59,000 (not including benefits or health care), for a total of $109 million in 2008. But as graduate students at Milano, the New School’s urban-policy program, found recently in research for the Manhattan Institute, New York doesn’t spend its resources efficiently here. Following union rules, the MTA schedules “nine hours of a track worker’s 40-hour week” during peak rush-hour times for trains. But MTA safety rules keep workers off the tracks during rush hours. In other words, the MTA schedules workers “when no work can take place.” Riders and taxpayers are paying people to do nothing. Worse, because union rules mandate eight-hour shifts and a normal eight-hour shift will almost always overlap with a rush hour, workers often wind up completing their tasks during overtime, for which they’re paid lots more. Overtime accounted for about 12 percent of the total spent on track workers last year, the Empire Center data show.
The MTA has experimented recently with how to reduce these costs, conducting a pilot program with the union to schedule workers on a four-day week—including two 12-hour days on the weekend, when scheduled trains are fewer, bringing up the number of hours in which workers can actually do work. The MTA could achieve savings, too, by going to two 12-hour days and three four- and five-hour days, since this kind of “off-peak week” wouldn’t overlap with rush hours and would completely eliminate unproductive paid work hours. But it would require “the abolishment of the eight-hour shift, an important bargaining agreement for the TWU,” the Milano students noted. Because the MTA spends so much on these labor costs and because the costs are so inefficient, such improvements could eventually save riders and taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year.
There were also a very interesting debate in the comments section (as always – I don’t think any blog has commenters as insightful and on-topic as you guys!) of the post in question on the importance of paycuts in reforming the MTA.