The end of an era at the Transport Workers Union

Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor

As president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100, John Samuelsen represented the MTA’s biggest workforce – subway and bus workers – for more than seven years. Last week, Samuelsen won a promotion to the union’s national level. A transit-union head isn’t a transit-planning expert; he represents his workforce. But a union chief learns a lot about transit and transit management over the years. On his way out, Samuelsen has some advice to offer the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority and to outsiders who care about why subway and bus service deteriorated to a crisis point this past summer.

Samuelsen represented transit workers well, avoiding the strife and financial woes that plagued his predecessor, Roger Toussaint. Toussaint pushed the union into an illegal 2005 strike that carried a heavy price. The union had to sell its headquarters to pay the fines. But members didn’t see much of a personal benefit in return.

Samuelsen, by contrast, was savvy enough not to push too hard during his first round of contract negotiations. The union’s contract expired in 2012. The TWU’s longtime informal motto was “no contract, no work” – meaning that without an immediate agreement, the union would strike again. Samuelsen, however, stayed pragmatic, letting his members work for more than two years with no deal. 

He was rewarded, in 2014, with a contract that avoided the pay freezes that the rest of the state’s workforce had taken. He also won parental leave and better dental and eye care. Samuelsen’s second contract, inked early this year, featured gains for transit workers. In the long-term, these were bad deals for the MTA, ultimately overseen by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But they weren’t bad deals for today’s transit workers. 

Long-term, the MTA faces huge pension and healthcare liabilities. On healthcare alone, it owes $18.5 billion to future retirees. Samuelsen acknowledges that New York, like other states and cities such as Illinois, Chicago, and Detroit, could someday have trouble making good on these promises. “I recognize that is the reality that could happen,” he says, but “I’m not concerned that it’s gonna happen,” with pension funds “in good shape” and with the MTA making a payment each year – $600 million – to try to pare down its healthcare liability. These payments are not enough, but bridging this gap will be a future union leader’s headache, one way or the other. 

For transit workers, he says, pensions are “deferred income” – to make up for the fact that the TWU has 7,600 members who do complex work in the construction trades, such as electrical work. MTA workers make “substantially less” – he estimates the gap to be $22 an hour – than construction workers in New York’s unionized private sector, thanks to the federal and state prevailing-wage laws that govern the private trades. (This distortion in other labor markets is also an argument for reforming those prevailing-wage laws.) Samuelsen notes that if he weren’t so new to the job when he was negotiating his first contract, he might have pushed back on the modest pension reforms for new transit workers that Cuomo did achieve in his first term through state legislation.

Unions are political entities – so what does Samuelsen think of his political career? He’s most proud, he says, of leaving the local union with a “political caucus that’s still intact.” In other words, Samuelsen’s successor, Tony Utano, didn’t win office because of a massive break in strategy or tactics. This transition is more like a Joe Biden succeeding Obama rather than Donald Trump.

Finally, what does Samuelsen think of his long-time employer, the MTA, for whom he once worked on the tracks? Samuelsen outlasted three MTA chairmen (including current chair Joe Lhota, who is now back for a second round after his 2012 stint).

Samuelsen thinks the woes that subway and bus riders are experiencing stems from mistakes the MTA made nearly a decade ago, after the financial crisis. In 2010, he remembers, then-chairman Jay Walder wanted the union to open up its then-existing contract for budget cuts. When that didn’t work, he persisted with budget cuts that, Samuelsen says, led to today’s delays and disruptions.

“It was penny-wise and dollar-foolish to defer maintenance,” he notes, pointing out that the short-term financial gains the MTA booked from such cuts will be erased by the emergency and catch-up work the MTA is doing now. “It’s not only the overtime,” he says, “but the damage to the brand. The loss of trust [by] the riders, it’s gonna take them years to recover from that.” Samuelsen thinks Walder is better at managing CitiBike, whose workers he also represents.

In Walder’s defense, the elected officials who ultimately control the MTA’s financial resources rarely think beyond their election cycles. Plus, Walder’s successors, including Lhota back in 2012, had ample opportunity to reverse these maintenance cuts. As the MTA makes up for past failures now, “I’ve never seen this much work going on” underground, Samuelsen says. He predicts, as his ally Cuomo recently did, that riders will soon notice the difference.

So what does Samuelsen think the MTA should be doing better now to help its long-term outlook? 

“There should be a massive investment in surface transportation” – that’s buses to non-transit wonks – “in Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn.” Samuelsen thinks service cutbacks and traffic above ground have spurred a “mass migration to the subways.” This imbalance, in turn, results in too much wear and tear on rail cars. It also causes more cutbacks in bus service. “There are less people on buses, so the [MTA] says, ‘let’s disinvest,’” he notes, when managers and urban planners should be doing the opposite. He also counsels a “fresh look” at bus routes, with a focus on designing new routes that could “pull people out of the subway.”

What’s good for the TWU isn’t always good for the MTA or for New York. Samuelsen did his job, in sticking up for his members and also knowing when not to go too far.

If New Yorkers can take just one lesson from his observations, it is this: beware of cutbacks made in the name of efficiency, especially at an entity as sprawling as the MTA, where problems can take years to culminate in a disaster that causes politicians to take notice. Often, we’ll pay for those mistakes later – as we’re doing, now, with an emergency plan to fix the subways for an emergency that was entirely predictable and avoidable.

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Follow her on Twitter @nicolegelinas.

NEXT STORY: New York City's (re)naming binge