Friday, December 23, 2005

Back to the Bargaining Table:

Even though the strike is over and most of us can go back to getting to work on time, the matter of a contract for the TWU is still not over.

Many people I come in contact with always ask me why is it the MTA, or any city agency for that matter, have a hard time coming to an agreement on a contract with the unions whenever the old one expires. As recent as last night, I was working late in my office when I ended up having a debate with the cleaning lady on the strike situation. Obviously she is a union employee and was pro-union so I was intrigued in getting her opinion and to see if I could sway her by having her look at the issue a different way. Knowing that trying to convince her that the pension the union gets is a good one would be a waste of my time, I thought I would change tact. Instead I took the position of “why does a bus driver need a contract to do his job”?

Her initial response was because the worker needs protection from their employer who is always looking to take advantage of them. I immediately saw this was going to be difficult and that I wasn’t dealing with someone who I could explain Adam Smith and the invisible hand of capitalism too. Nonetheless, never backing down from a challenge, I continued on. My next question to her, was do you know the purpose of a contract? After some silence I explained that the purpose of a contract was to create an “agreement between two or more parties that creates for each party a duty to do something or even not to do something”. The key words in the definition that makes a contract work and why it is so hard to get a contract completed when it comes to city workers is “for each party”.

If we think historically why contracts are used it is because both sides need protection from the other. Meaning if either side backs out of the deal the other side could be left with serious economic harm. For instance when Dell computer signs a contract with Intel for chips it is because Dell needs to be sure that a certain amount of chips will be available so they can build their computers and sell them. For Intel they need to be sure that they don’t spend millions of dollars to make chips for Dell and then have the company say they don’t want them. The contract protects both sides from harm. For athletes a contract is used so the Yankees don’t have to worry about Derek Jeter one day in the middle of the season going to Boston and Derek Jeter doesn’t have to worry about the Yankees cutting his pay if he goes into a slump. One last example is one almost everyone has experienced, which is the use of contract to purchase or rent a home. The lease on your apartment is so the tenet doesn’t have to worry about being thrown out in the street or have their rent raised for a certain period of time and for the landlord not having to worry that the tenet moves out having to go through the painful process of finding a new tenet.

The point is that a contract is used because ‘each party” needs to be protected from the other. This is why getting a contracted signed by the TWU and MTA is so hard. The only side that is getting protection in the contract is the union, while the MTA doesn’t get anything. Nor because of the nature of the job does the MTA need protection from its employees beyond that the law already allows. If the bus driver or conductor wants to leave, the MTA will have no problem replacing that person with somebody else that would like to take that job. If we think of the contract that the TWU wants, every item is about what the union gets and nothing is about what the MTA gets. Now if the TWU were willing to put in the contract that, like Derek Jeter on the Yankees, TWU workers couldn’t quit for another job during the span of the contract without retribution then the MTA would have a benefit that would make a contract easier to sign. However this isn’t the case and TWU workers can leave at anytime.

After this explanation to my union friend, I asked again do you still think a bus driver needs a contract? Though she stalled with her answer it still came out a stubborn yes because the worker needs to be protected. I then said yes that would be one reason for a contract and informed her that since the 1920’s there has been dozens of labor laws placed on the books to solve her concerns, but I asked again what is the MTA being protected against, which they are entitled to under the idea of a contract. Her response this time was silence, as she had no answer. In the end as I left for the day I didn’t know who had the most satisfaction, me knowing I stumped her on the need of a contract for city workers or her on the realization that her and her union brethren were doing a great job sticking it to the man.

Merry Christmas.

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