Bikes and Benefits: Citi Bike’s Labor Lesson
Last week, the workers at Gotham’s Citi Bike bike-share program got their first union contract—a huge victory for the employees. But the agreement between the Transport Workers Union Local 100 and Motivate, the private company that owns Citi Bike, was nowhere near what the workers would have gotten if they worked for the TWU’s usual public-sector negotiating partner, the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
The agreement highlights the problem that the average private-sector worker faces. If you’ve got skills and you’re willing to organize your co-workers, you can negotiate for pretty good working conditions and even some great working-life benefits.
But you won’t get any private employer to guarantee a dime for you in retirement, whether for a pension or for health care. Nor will you win any featherbedding that drives up wages by making workers less productive.
On Thursday, TWU local chief John Samuelson called the bike agreement “historic.” And it is. New York is the first city to organize its bike-share workers. The TWU is working on similar agreements for Boston, Chicago and Washington.
The agreement is good for the workers, too. Workers will get an immediate 10 percent wage hike, and 20 percent over five years. A year and a half from now, dispatchers, mechanics and call-center workers will make $19 an hour, or nearly $40,000 annually for the company’s 150 full-time workers. Nobody will make less than $15.50.
Workers will get fully paid health benefits, as well as predictable work schedules (a big problem right now in retail and other low-pay industries). Newer full-time workers get two weeks’ paid vacation (longer after two years), and full-timers get seven paid holidays (part-timers’ benefits are reduced to reflect their hours). And Citi Bike has promised not to cut jobs below the number it has today.
Perhaps most valuable for a young workforce, full-time workers get eight weeks’ paid leave when they have a baby. That’s four times more than what the TWU’s workers at the MTA get.
“These are family jobs,” says Ed Aviles, 42, a bike rebalancer (who moves bikes from full stations to empty ones). Avila, who lives in public housing on the Lower East Side, was on unemployment benefits before taking this job.
What’s missing, though, is an MTA-style retirement plan. If you work on the subways or buses, you can retire as young as age 55 (as long as you’ve done 25 years of work), with half your salary guaranteed for life. And you get guaranteed health care in retirement, too, even if you’re too young for Medicare.
Citi Bike workers, by contrast, get what the rest of us get if we have reasonably OK jobs—an employer matching our 401(k) contributions.
Another thing that’s missing from the Citi Bike deal: protection from work rules. For decades, the most powerful public-sector unions have kept their employers from making them more productive—and thus cutting overtime. (The Long Island Rail Road, in particular, is famous for this.)
The Citi Bike agreement, though, says that managers “have the absolute right to create and implement reasonable rules and regulations.”
And if the workers don’t like something at some point, they can’t threaten to strike. “The union agrees that it will not call, engage in, participate in, or sanction any strike, sympathy strike, stoppage of work, picketing … or similar economic action,” the agreement says.
Though the TWU can’t legally strike against the MTA, it did in 2005. And the LIRR’s unions (not the TWU) used the threat of a strike to wring an unaffordable labor agreement out of the MTA last year.
The TWU agreement with Citi Bike, then, is even more “historic” than Samuelson said.
As other private-sector workforces, including Gawker workers, organize, they’ll probably get similar improvements in working conditions and benefits, as long as their employers can afford them.
What they won’t get is anyone to guarantee their retirements—nor can they really threaten a mass-scale industrial action to try to win anything that employers won’t give semi-freely.
Private-sector employers don’t offer guaranteed retirement benefits anymore because they can’t afford to. Not even the MTA can afford to do so—it just hasn’t yet admitted it.
What does this mean for truly progressive policy? What we need isn’t great retirement benefits for public-sector folk and nothing for everybody else. We need to separate retirement from employment—whether public or private—and instead have a mass-scale program to help everyone out more in retirement.
This could mean a bigger Social Security program for people who contribute more into their own accounts managed to reduce investment risk, with huge tax credits for lower-paid and middle-class workers.
Or it could mean something else. But progressive pols should start talking about it—and stop pretending that the outdated public-sector retirement system is still working.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Twitter: @nicolegelinas
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