Union says 'work stoppage' likely if Port Authority imposes contract
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The union representing bus and trolley operators says a "work stoppage" is likely if the Port Authority imposes a contract of its own making Dec. 1 as planned.
If members of Local 85, Amalgamated Transit Union, go on strike or are locked out, public transit will be halted for people who account for 230,000 rides a day.
"They've painted us into a corner," Local 85 President-Business Agent Pat McMahon said yesterday.
He plans to call a special meeting in the near future, "depending on when and where a hall is available," and 2,300 rank-and-file members will be asked to authorize a job action that would likely take effect on Dec. 1, a Monday. That's the day that the contract adopted by the authority board Oct. 24 is to be unilaterally imposed on the union.
"The more we look at this, if they go through with it, we have no choice but to do a work stoppage," Mr. McMahon said. "The union will not stand for this. So citizens should be looking for this [service stoppage] because it's what the Port Authority is forcing us to do."
He said options would be discussed at the union's mass meeting but contended any work stoppage should not necessarily be viewed as a strike.
"It could be deemed a lockout because the Port Authority is taking action that is illegal [by virtue of an imposed contract]," Mr. McMahon said. "Our members will have to authorize what we do."
While authority Chief Executive Officer Steve Bland has heard talk of a possible job action, he said Mr. McMahon's strike/lockout talk was the first time he had heard "anything authoritative."
"We're offering them excellent pay and benefits and we're leaving the doors open, so how can that be called a lockout?" he said.
The imposed contract provides 3 percent annual wage increases over the next three years. It also raises the retirement rate to age 60 with 30 years of service in order for employees to receive lifetime health care benefits. It also incrementally raises employees' health care contribution to the equivalent of 3 percent of the base wage, the same rate that management pays.
In return, the authority would be able to save a total of $13.3 million in its operating budget over the next three years. Legacy costs -- the primary concern of County Executive Dan Onorato, who's withholding $27 million in subsidies -- could go down $115 million in the same period.
"[A strike is] something they have at their disposal if the union leadership has such a blatant and callous disregard for customers," Mr. Bland said. "I'm not sure you turn down an offer when you're making $24.25 an hour ... so it boggles my mind that they would consider such a severe disruption of service to the community. If they do, it's on their heads."
Members of Local 85, who include operators, mechanics, first-level supervisors and other hourly employees, have remained on the job under terms of a contract that expired June 30.
Mr. McMahon said Local 85's legal counsel will continue researching options to keep the board from putting an imposed contract into effect. He also said the union has sent a letter requesting the authority to resume negotiations.
"We've gotten no response," Mr. McMahon said.
Mr. Bland said the only union meetings appropriate at this point would be to discuss implementation of the contract being imposed Dec. 1.
"Obviously, there are a lot of details to discuss but, absolutely, we have a contract that will go into effect," he said. "It's a responsible offer that doesn't reduce wages or benefits. Our board made it very clear that we took this action as a last resort."
Mr. McMahon said he had a copy of an office memorandum, not intended for his eyes, that discusses a 30 percent service cut and fare increases, some of which may be implemented no matter what the outcome of the labor dispute.
Mr. Bland called it a "draft" of ways that the authority might cope with its growing budgetary problems.
"We've been saying all along that if we don't get a contract, we have to reduce service levels and raise fares," he said. "For him [Mr. McMahon] not to think we haven't been working on that stuff ... that's a fool's paradise. It's not a final plan and we've been working on all sorts of contingency plans, including a strike contingency plan."
First Published November 5, 2008 12:00 am