The Electric Commentary

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

NYC Transit Strike

Ace is at home today because a bunch of overpaid transit workers decided to go on strike, even though it is illegal.

Megan McArdle is not optimistic:

The point being that the workers did indeed want a strike. They've been itching for it for years. That's because they know they will win. In the private sector, the company would probably fire them and replace them with machines. But this is not the private sector, and the transit union controls not only a large number of votes, but a huge amount of funding. The City Council recently changed the law to allow political campaign contributions to come from individual locals, rather than the national union. That means that they can swing a huge chunk of change by getting locals from around the country to donate to our council members.

There's a surprising upsurge of sentiment for going Ronald Reagan on them. This will not happen; Reagan had a large reserve of skilled air-traffic controllers from the military that he could instantly deploy to take over the ATC jobs while new people were trained. There's no such reserve of non-union train drivers, and while driving a subway train is not exactly rocket science, transit folks are still haunted by the fact that one of the worst subway disasters in New York history occurred when scabs were brought in during a strike in the early twentieth century. That's even presuming that there were union-busters in the Metropolitan Transit Authority; there aren't. The organization is solidly Democratic, as is the city power structure that is trying to influence the negotiations.

But the union's position is surprisingly unsympathetic, even to liberal New Yorkers. The workers make an average of $55K, more than what your average New York journalist makes. They have a lavish pension, on which they can retire at 55, and incredible benefits. And yet to judge from their interactions with ordinary New Yorkers, you would think that they were enslaved in Egypt. Everyone I know detects an expression of positive glee on the faces of the conductors who close the door just as you are getting to it, or the booth operator who makes you stand there, watching the trains come and go, while she stacks her pennies in orderly piles. No one I've talked to feels that they are entitled to more money, fewer disciplinary hearings, or better benefits. Everyone seems pretty eager to see the transit workers forced to wait until their sixties to retire like the rest of us. It's not as if the bulk of the jobs are so physically demanding that it's unreasonable to expect them to keep sitting in their booths for another ten years.

If you have the same antipathy for unions that I do you should read the whole thing. It will make you smile.

If there is one thing that is worse than a union, it is a public sector union. At least in the private sector the management side is actually opposed to the union, and it has some ability to hold the union's monopoly power in check. In the public sector, the union and management are often on the same side, more or less. It is the worst kind of monopoly. It not only has ultimate scarcity leverage, but also government leverage.

I'll never understand why people put up with collusion like this. These workers should obviously be fired, for not showing up to work, for damaging the economy of the nation's largest city during Christmas, for breaking the law against public employee strikes in New York, etc.

They won't be fired, of course, which is a testament to the effectiveness of having a governmental constraint on monopoly instead of a free market restraint. If we decide that a monopoly is unavoidable in some instance we usually put some restrictions on the monopoly. In this case, the monopoly simply lobbied to have the restrictions removed, and even though they are still on the books, they are not enforced. There are no good monopolies, and it always saddens me that unions are seen as a positive by most people.

The only good thing about a strike is that it is fun to cross picket lines.


  • "Stuck at home" is a poor choice of words...

    Could I get to work? Yes. Am I at work? No.

    By Blogger Ace Cowboy, at 11:35 AM  

  • Fair enough. It was just too cumbersome to write that "the incentives for Ace to go to work today were reduced by a transit strike. But that is a poor choice of words, as you didn'te exactly sound sad about the situation.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 12:26 PM  

  • obviously, i'm on your side on the union debate. this is not good. but you have to hand it to them - they're definitely going to get what they want (or at least some of it). with such little risk of failure, they're smart to do it.

    it doesn't really make sense though, that and a cashier or ticket puncher makes $55k a year and yet are in small supply. other than the conductors (and i'm sure a few other positions), it seems most of those jobs would require such little training that scabs would be lining up for miles.

    By Blogger ethan, at 1:00 PM  

  • Not that I didn't think you were being light-hearted with your last comment, about it being fun to cross picket lines, but it's worth noting that it is NOT, in fact, fun to cross picket lines.

    One of my clients had a strike by one of their unions a few years back (four years ago, maybe). Nothing huge happened that I know of during that strike, but the /previous/ time that union went on strike (early 80's, I think), at least one person died in the violence that ensued from people crossing the picket line.

    That place has some of the craziest union rules I've ever heard of. And the have between 5 and 8 different unions, so there's always bickering, and payroll is just a mess. I can't go so far as to say that I've ever found a union I considered "good" overall, but I do think some of the things that certain unions protect, such as personal injury situations, are necessary in many cases.

    By Anonymous mitch, at 1:45 PM  

  • "I do think some of the things that certain unions protect, such as personal injury situations, are necessary in many cases."

    Workers comp takes care of most of this nowadays.

    When the Teacher's Aids went on strike at my school, a bunch of law students went out and picketed with them holding signs that said "I want a pony." The TAs didn't even seem to get it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:59 PM  

  • Heehee.

    Mitch you make a good point. I meant the "it's fun to cross picket lines" part seriously, but I should have added, "except for the picket lines that will kill you for doing so."

    Most of the time they just yell at you, but they do turn to violence far too often.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 2:13 PM  

  • "The organization is solidly Democratic, as is the city power structure that is trying to influence the negotiations."

    I don't find that argument too persuasive. New York has elected Republican mayors for four straight terms. How come whenever there's good news coming out of New York, about crime or the schools improving or the streets being cleaner, everyone talks about how New York is set up so that the mayor runs everything, and the Republican mayors have been effective? But when something goes badly, suddenly the Democratic power structure is to blame.

    By Blogger MDS, at 10:20 AM  

  • First of all, it's a pretty tough sell to say that NYC isn't heavily democratic based on Rudy and Bloomberg. California as a whole is obviously also solidly democratic, yet they have Arnold.

    Both Guliani and Arnie were backlashes against perceived corruption/incompetence. For Arnie it was the massive deficit blamed on Davis (rightly or wrongly) and for Guliani it was crime in general.

    NYC is still prominently democratic, and quite sympathetic to unions. I don't know what the mayoral powers are in this situation, but if Bloomberg has some authority here, I'll criticize him right now for not acting republican enough.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 10:52 AM  

  • Also, in this particular case, I suspect that democrats wiil shoulder much of the blame because they're the typical party of unions. If you sympathize with the union you'll blame the city and probably Bloomberg and the Republicans, but if you're just pissed about not being able to get around, democrats are the obvious targets.

    If there was a sudden increase in crime, I suspect that the Republican would be the target for criticism. That is supposed to be his specialty.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 10:58 AM  

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