New NY MTA Chief Sends Warm Signals to Union on First Day, in Contrast to Predecessor

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(Photo: Stephen Nessen)

On his first day as Executive Director of  the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Joe Lhota made a symbolic gesture of solidarity with transit workers, according to the union that represents them.

Lhota co-authored a letter along with Transport Worker's Union Local 100 President John Samuelson to be sent to the District Attorneys of the five boroughs of New York City. It calls for a tougher crackdown on crimes against transit workers.

"We are writing today to urge you to prosecute these cases to the fullest extent of the law,” Lhota and Samuelsen wrote in their letter, which was first reported by Pete Donohue of The Daily News.

The letter comes as negotiations  are set to begin Tuesday afternoon over a new TWU contract agreement.  The current contract expires January 15, and the TWU has said it does not intend to accept three years of no pay raises, the deal that Governor Andrew Cuomo has wrested from other major state unions.  When one union, the Public Employees Federation, rejected that deal, Cuomo threatened 3500 layoffs.  The union revoted,  and accepted the "triple zeros" with a few modifications.

But the TWU is known as one of the more militant unions, and as protesters occupy both Wall Street and Albany, pressure is mounting on Cuomo not to let a so-called millionaires tax expire.  Samuelson has already said his union won't take a pay freeze unless "millionaires pay their fare share."  In 2005, TWU workers struck just days before Christmas, bring the city to a standstill for three days as temperature dipped well below freezing.

Lhota 's predecessor, Jay Walder, had a a toxic relationship with the union.  Among other actions that were seen as as anti-union, Walder cut hundreds of station agent jobs, which were seen as an entry into the middle class by the mostly minority workers that held the job.  The union retaliated by mocking Walder for owning a country home in the south of France. When the otherwise admired Walder quit for a job in Hong Kong, the union issued a statement essentially saying "good riddance."

“For the workers to see that Lhota actually seems to care about them, that will go a long way,” TWU spokesman Jim Gannon told TN.

Lhota has already met several times with Samuelson Gannon tells Transportation Nation, adding that the joint letter was Lhota's idea. “It was interesting that he would reach out in such a fashion, because that’s such a statement.”

A draft of the letter obtained by Transportation Nation bears the logos of the MTA and TWU Local 100 side by side as the letterhead.

Lhota took the Lexington Line in from his home Brooklyn Heights and spent most of his first day in meetings.  He observed the MTA board's finance committee meeting where he heard his first official update on his new agency's balance sheet — one of many hard truths he'll have to reconcile if he is to succeed. The former Cablevision executive and deputy mayor under Rudolph Giuliani takes over as executive director with pressure from all sides for fiscal reform.

In addition to the looming TWU bargaining, riders are demanding more service, speedier construction and fewer disruptions just as several upstate Republican State Senators want to repeal a payroll mobility tax on suburban commuters that raises 1/8 of the MTA's operating budget each year.

Add to that, a $10 billion budget gap in the authority's capital plan, which pays for everything from new trains to the Second Avenue Subway.

Lhota still needs to be approved by the Republican-led state Senate before he can officially take the top spots of CEO and Chairman of the MTA.