To Arbitrate or Not to Arbitrate: That is the Question

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Now that transit workers have rejected their contract with the MTA, the two sides are waiting to find out if they’ll go back to the table OR have an outside party settle their dispute. The MTA has asked the state to appoint an arbitration panel which could impose a settlement. WNYC’s Beth Fertig has more on what’s next.

REPORTER: Larry Sortino is typical of those who voted no on the contract. He rejected the deal because didn’t want to pay 1 point five percent of his salary for healthcare.

SORTINO: I never paid into the medical for 22 years, 22 years in March it will be for me and I don’t want to pay now.

REPORTER: Sortino is a train operator. During a lunch break at a diner near the Coney Island station, he acknowledged he didn’t think too much about what would happen if the contract failed. Arbitration was a distant concept. He presumed the two sides would just make a better deal, with a wage increase higher than almost 11 percent over 3 years.

SORTINO: I thought that we would get more money, figuring it would be 5, 5, and 5. Or 17% like sanitation got or the teachers.

REPORTER: So how do you feel about them going to binding arbitration now? That’s a real possibility, did you understand that that could happen when you voted no?

SORTINO: No they didn’t explain it to us about the binding arbitration.

REPORTER: Sortino says he doesn’t regret his vote because he believes he made a statement. But he does worry about what’s next. And that’s the one thing uniting more than 33 thousand members of a union so sharply divided that they rejected their contract by only seven votes.

On a platform at the Coney Island station, Cleo Tucker, a cleaner, wears a button that says “Stand together for a Strong Local 100.” It’s a message from Union President Roger Toussaint’s Unity Team. But, Tucker says,

TUCKER: That button’s not how I feel today.

REPORTER: Tucker voted yes.

TUCKER: If it goes to binding arbitration we’re going to get the short end of the stick.

REPORTER: His fellow station cleaner Michael McCloud has a similar take.

McCLOUD: I don’t see what they can do. What options do they have? It’s almost like if you paint yourself in a corner where do you go? And you’ve already played, you’ve already played the one card that was supposedly that was your way to say give us this or else? Once you’ve played that hand what else can you do?

REPORTER: Leaders of the Transport Workers Union have said they’ll resist the MTA’s efforts to go to binding arbitration. They have until early February to respond to the MTA’s request. But the state’s Public Employment Relations Board will ultimately decide if the two sides are at such an impasse that only an outside panel can come up with a deal. And if that happens, the union – and the MTA – would both have to accept whatever the panel decides.

A few dissidents in the union are warning arbitration could lead to a second strike. But that’s highly unlikely, judging from WNYC’s interviews with transit workers at Coney Island. McCloud, the station cleaner, and bus driver Mike Ellison summed up the popular sentiment.

McCLOUD: I don’t think they’ll strike again, I don’t think they’ll get the support that the first strike got because I think a lot of people were very seriously compromised.

ELLISON: It’s not a good thing to do. Because everybody hurts. Public hurts. All of us hurt.

REPORTER: For now, the MTA is playing hardball. It’s already proposed a much less generous offer that keeps the healthcare payment, while also proposing a 6 percent pension contribution for new members. It was that controversial pension increase that caused the union to strike. Union leaders see this as proof that arbitration would only lead to a worse deal. But one labor expert disagrees.

PAASWELL: They’ll end up probably with the same deal.

REPORTER: Robert Paaswell is director of the University Transportation Research Center at City College. He says arbitration is intended to serve both sides.

PAASWELL: The arbitrators – really they have to agreed on by both sides. So you’re not going to find three tough anti-union arbitrators coming in appointed by the state. You’ll see people who are pro union issues on one side and pro management and somebody perhaps in the middle. Or three people who sort of lean towards the middle who really come to grips with what are the pressing issues?

REPORTER: Binding arbitration has been used by the police and firefighter unions, but never before by the transit workers. Last year, the police union would up with higher wages as a result. But the annual starting salary for new officers was lowered to 25 thousand dollars.

The transit union is still hoping to resume negotiations with the MTA. But without a united membership its leadership is certainly weaker.

On Stillwell Avenue in Coney Island, bus driver Michael Illuzzi wonders now if maybe he should have voted for the contract. He was among 10 thousand members who didn’t vote at all. Illuzzi says he was confused by the costs and benefits. And he saw no clear direction within the union.

ILLUZZI: We were very confused. There was a lot questions that were not answered, how much more this was going to cost us down the line. It was - you know what? The union never actually cleared a lot of points. Then we had the guys, the dissidents come up with all kinds questions that nobody could give us the answer. And this is the reason we were all confused about it and a lot of guys voted no.

REPORTER: After 27 years on the job, Illuzzi is getting ready to retire. Toussaint and the MTA, however, still have lots of work ahead. The union’s Executive Board will hold a meeting on Tuesday where its fractured leadership will have to navigate a new strategy. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.