The MTA and its largest union opened contract talks on Tuesday at the Sheraton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Both sides acknowledged tense times ahead.
The MTA said it is counting on its workers to accept a three-year wage freeze like the one Governor Andrew Cuomo extracted from the Public Employees Federation. But John Samuelsen, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, said he and his members won't buckle if the MTA tries to do the same. Samuelsen told WNYC's Brian Lehrer, "We're certainly not going to be bullied into accepting wage freezes by threat of layoff."
The current contract expires January 15.
Negotiations began with addresses by Samuelsen and MTA executive Joe Lhota to a conference room packed with TWU members. Lhota started with a compliment: "My first message to you is that I know the MTA employees are our most valuable resource."
The remark was in some ways pro forma. But its reception by the workers — hearty roars filled the room — seemed to signal something new between the authority and the union: a measure of mutual respect. Samuelson said he never felt that from Lhota's predecessor, Jay Walder, who fought with the union and laid off 1,000 workers in 2009. When Walder announced his resignation this past July, the TWU constructed its official reaction around the phrase "good riddance."
Lhota, who started on Monday, shrewdly made his first act in office to join the union's call for aggressive prosecution of attacks on bus drivers. The union says someone assaults a bus driver an average of three times a week in New York. Lhota reiterated the stance at the Sheraton, to more applause. He then switched to the matter at hand and declared, "As we begin the collective bargaining process, you have my commitment that the MTA will listen to your demands and that we will negotiate in good faith."
On the surface, the two men anchoring each side in the contract talks are opposites: Lhota wears an executive's suit and looks owlish behind thick glasses; Samuelsen is a bear of a man in an untucked union polo shirt.
But they seem to have gotten off to a good, if wary, start. When Samuelsen brought Lhota to the podium at the Sheraton, he asked his members not to boo. They didn't.
And when the meeting was done, the union chief made another unusual request of the crowd as Lhota and his deputies were leaving. "Please show respect for the bosses who are walking out of here right now," Samuelsen said. "We'll save our fight for another day."
Fighting there will be. Lhota cautioned that the MTA's budget was "fragile" due to "the ongoing economic crisis." Samuelsen countered that its members increased productivity in recent years and deserve a raise. Talks begin in earnest in a week or two.