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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

Off the Rails

Cities, Economics New York City

THE Transport Workers Union, representing the city's nearly 34,000 subway and bus workers, is threatening to call a strike this Friday if the Metropolitan Transportation Authority doesn't sign a contract to its liking. Such a strike would be illegal: public employees in New York State are forbidden from walking out on the job.

And not only would a strike be illegal, it would be unjustified. The authority is a generous employer by any standard. Its employees take home bigger paychecks and more lavish benefits than most of the city's private employees. The authority is not looking to drastically slash those salaries and benefits. It is merely proposing to increase worker productivity and to cut back modestly on its own pension and health-benefit obligations.

Subway operators and token clerks are blue-collar workers, but their paychecks match those of middle-class workers, even ones in New York City. According to the authority, the average subway or bus operator earns nearly $63,000 per year. The average subway conductor earns about $54,000. The average station agent earns about $51,000. A subway cleaner earns about $40,000.

Compare these numbers with salary figures in New York's private sector. According to the state comptroller, the average New York City worker earns about $60,000 a year. This number includes workers on Wall Street, whose six-figure salaries distort the picture. Take out well-paid finance-industry workers, and the average worker in New York earns just $49,000. What about workers without a college education? Most factory workers, health care employees and restaurant and retail workers in the city earn under $35,000.

And the transit union workers have one thing most people in the private sector don't: job security. During this round of contract negotiations, the authority isn't proposing layoffs. It is asking only for the kind of flexibility that private-sector employers demand. For example, the authority wants to train subway operators to work as conductors and vice versa. In exchange, workers would get a 3 percent raise the first year and 2 percent the second (with the second year's raise contingent on the workers' cutting back the number of sick days they take to 2002 levels). Their above-average paychecks would increase in line with inflation.

The union leadership calls this offer unacceptable - but in truth, it's unlikely that the union would strike just for a couple of more percentage points in salary and a few extra sick days. It's the authority's modest proposals concerning pension and health benefits that have the leadership and the rank and file angry. Roger Toussaint, president of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, has called the proposals "an insult to our members."

What does the authority want that's so insulting? Most union members are now eligible to retire, at age 55, after 25 years on the job, at half their annual pay; the authority wants to raise the age to 62 for new employees. (Mr. Toussaint calls this "selling out our unborn.") Union members now pay nothing toward their own health-insurance premiums; the authority wants new workers to contribute about 2 percent of their pretax wages before overtime toward those health benefits. Most employees in the private sector would love to be similarly insulted.

These proposals for health care and pension benefits are what would provoke a strike. But the authority is simply trying to rein in runaway costs so that it can maintain adequate service for the city's transit riders.

The transit authority's pension costs for subway and bus workers have tripled since 2002, to about $450 million, and will keep escalating as workers continue to retire long before private workers can. Health benefits are up more than 40 percent since 2002, to about $400 million this year; these costs will continue to rise as well.

By 2008, the authority - that is, riders and taxpayers - will spend more than $1 billion annually on these escalating costs. This amounts to about one-third of the total fares the authority will earn that year from city subways and buses and is partly why it projects an $800 million deficit in two years. Worse, since the authority has limited financial resources and already shoulders a historically high debt burden, money that goes toward paying overly generous benefits takes away from investment in New York's public-transit network.

If the Transport Workers Union goes on strike this week, many New Yorkers will have ample opportunity to reflect as they walk to work or sit in traffic. They should think about which side - the authority or the union - has acted unreasonably.