When Transit Strikes

As I write, Gotham is on the edge of its seat. We are waiting to see if the transit workers, whose contract expired twenty-eight minutes ago, are going to walk out. If they do, it will be disruptive, to say the least. Estimates of the cost to the city’s economy start, I believe, at around four hundred million dollars a day. It also couldn’t come at a worse time for the city’s merchants, some of whom make their entire annual profit during the Yuletide purchasing spasm.

I am not working on any recording projects at the moment, so there are no studios for me to get to, and in my capacity as a software developer for PubSub I won’t be adversely affected – it is as easy for me to spawn bugs at home as it is in our Financial District command center, thanks to the miracle of Open VPN. But many will be deprived of their livelihood, and our colossal engine of commerce, the very heartbeat of capitalism itself, will certainly sputter, if not stall.

I wonder about something, though. There are seven hundred twenty-two miles of subway in the city, and God knows how many miles of bus routes; at any given moment the trains and buses can be at any point on their respective lines. Presumably the operators and conductors themselves get to work by train or bus; if the strike is called, and the wheels must stop rolling, where do they leave the vehicles, and how do they get home? It’s awfully nasty out tonight.

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  1. Duncan says

    So what happened? As the one guy (or one of a dozen or so) who would have been convenienced, rather than inconvenienced, by a transit strike, I’ll tell you: Toussaint (the TWU) blinked, and lost. That’s it. End of story. They’re going into a limited strike (limited so the strikers, and more importantly, the TWU execs, can’t be penalized), which will only affect wage workers who will be hurt by the strike.

    Don’t mistake: strike, and I’ll be fine. New York’s population of millionaires and billionaires will be fine. Toussaint blinked, and called a strike that will only affect New York workers in the lower and middle class. Nice going, champ.

    Posted December 16, 2005 at 8:34 pm | Permalink
  2. Only the billionaires with their helicopters will be fine. The millionaires with their limos will be stuck in the heavier traffic.

    I have to tell you though, that I have no sympathy at all for strikers. If they were worth more money than they were getting paid, then all they would have to do is threaten to quit _individually_ and the company would come up with the money to keep them.

    Gathering into a gang and threatening to to ruin a company or a city if they don’t increase your cut is extortion. Practically any group could do that. All the tech people at my company could go on strike and ruin the company. If all the middle management at any big company went on strike, they could ruin the company. If all the upper management went on strike, they could ruin the company. Does that mean they are under-paid?

    Unions are nothing but gangs, out for the welfare of their own members (or, more accurately, their own leadership) and I can’t imagine why anyone ever thought they deserved public support.

    Posted December 17, 2005 at 4:00 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi Duncan,

    I agree with you that the limited strike – against private bus lines, so as to avoid legal troubles – is a craven move, and only hurts the blameless working folks.

    Dave, I think your view overlooks the fact that individual blue-collar workers are in a very weak position against plutocrats and giant corporations, and that it is only by acting collectively that they can balance the equation. I’m no socialist; I am well aware of the problems caused when unions get the upper hand, and I also understand very well how corrupt union leadership can be. But it is important to recall the sufferings of workers here in America before modern labor and antitrust laws were in place. Surely you aren’t arguing for a return to those cruel times.

    Posted December 18, 2005 at 5:02 pm | Permalink
  4. To the extent that the “sufferings of workers” were caused by violence or threats of violence or collusion by employers, I wouldn’t argue for a return to those times. To the extent that these “sufferings” were merely the natural result of scarcity and demand, yes, I would. For every family that benefited from a union job, two families were harmed by increased prices and fewer jobs.

    I do not believe that the unions were an overall benefit to working families. They happened to be around during a period of great economic growth, growth in all income levels, and they took credit that they didn’t deserve. Workers who were in non-unionized industries also gained in wealth, just more slowly. And their slower growh in wealth was caused by the unions; which didn’t move wealth from the rich to the poor, but from the poor to the middle-class.

    The entire movement was horribly selfish and harmful.

    Posted December 18, 2005 at 11:05 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says


    This is a large and complex historical and sociological topic, and while there has certainly been no shortage of corruption and bullying on the part of labor unions over the years, I think you greatly underestimate the extent to which the efforts of organized labor were instrumental in establishing humane working conditions and decent wages for the nation’s labor force. You mention, for example, that the unions drove prices up, but fail to add that they also drove wages up. Labor unions were also important in setting standards of quality and practice, as one might imagine from the fact that they derive originally from medieval craftsman’s guilds.

    But the most important point is that is was only by uniting that workers could deal with their plutocratic and often ruthless employers on anything approaching level terms. You said that “To the extent that the “sufferings of workers” were caused by violence or threats of violence or collusion by employers, I wouldn’t argue for a return to those times.” But it was only through the formation of labor unions that such violence and collusion were able to be resisted.

    Again, I agree with you that the pendulum can swing too far in the other direction, and that greedy unions can corrupt and cripple a city or nation’s economy and political system. I am also aware of the historical ties between the nation’s labor unions and the Bolsheviks. There must be balance, and that is often difficult to find. But simply to regard all organized labor as “gangs”, and to dismiss with a wave of the hand the improvements of the worker’s lot that they have brought about, seems to me rather reactive and simplistic.

    Posted December 19, 2005 at 12:59 am | Permalink
  6. Well, I don’t dismiss the good things they did. My qualification “to the extent that…” was intended to acknowledge that the unions actually did serve some legitimate functions. Worker safety is another arguably legitimate function.

    Posted December 19, 2005 at 4:36 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says


    Well, perhaps our opinions really aren’t so far apart after all, then. Thanks for coming by to comment.

    Posted December 19, 2005 at 10:20 am | Permalink