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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

The Great MTA Talks Show

Governance, Cities, Cities New York City

Transit union’s bogus complaints

Tourist season is over — so Broadway has cut-rate specials to attract locals. But the best free show is the over-the-top opera now being staged by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Transport Workers Union.

The three-year contract between the state-run MTA and the TWU expired a week ago. The opposing sides are in a knockout fight over a new, possibly five-year, deal.

Last week, John Samuelson, representing the TWU’s 34,000 workers, got so angry that he canceled talks, accusing MTA chief Joe Lhota of a “shocking violation of good-faith negotiating practices.”

But Samuelson’s gripe made no sense. He accused the MTA of leaking stuff to the press, violating a private agreement and “poison[ing] the atmosphere.”

The nerve of the MTA — maybe thinking that the public should know something about a deal that could cost riders and taxpayers $15.8 billion over five years, dwarfing the $4.5 billion first phase of the Second Avenue Subway.

But the MTA has always been crystal clear (well, for it). Two MTA leaders — Jay Walder, who quit last year, and now Lhota — have said publicly that they can’t sign a contract that offers raises, at least for the first three years. The only way workers will get raises, the MTA has said, is if the union agrees to work-rule changes that make up the added costs by getting more value out of employees.

Just eight weeks ago, the MTA said: “If three ’net zeroes’ [are] not achieved, deficits balloon” — to half a billion dollars a year in 2014.

As for what work-rule changes the MTA wants — yes, one side has offered detailed updates. On the MTA’s wish list:

* Track workers to work a shorter four-day week with longer days, so they can get more done at night, when fewer trains run.

* People who clean buses to lubricate and refuel those buses.

* Overtime to start after 40 hours a week, rather than after eight hours a day.

* Workers to pay more for health benefits.

Who leaked this list? It was the TWU — on its Web site, last month.

Days ago, the TWU released new information, saying the MTA would give it 2 percent raises in each of the fourth and fifth year, which it won’t accept.

So how can Samuelson be mad at the MTA for “leaking”? He probably isn’t; rather, he’s nervous.

The union chief knows that he can’t get much for his workers in this economic environment when other state unions have taken wage freezes. But if he admits this, his members will vote him out. He’s like a mayor or governor elected on big-spending ideas who finds himself in a crisis that requires spending cuts.

One way out is for Samuelson to make the MTA look so unreasonable that he just can’t do a deal. If either side can demonstrate that talks have reached an “impasse,” the dispute goes to an independent panel. Whatever happens there, Samuelson can say it’s not his fault.

This strategy would explain why Samuelson has added demands — including a wild one that asks the MTA to “join us in supporting legislation for the protection of an age-55 retirement pension.”

He knows that Lhota won’t support something that could interfere with Gov. Cuomo’s top proposals for the year, which include big pension reform. So why ask? Because he knows that the MTA can never agree.

Same for his call for “improvements in medical, dental and optical benefits” — when everyone else who works for the state is paying more.

This isn’t a one-man show. MTA management wants good morale among workers, who can make life easy or hard for the brass. It also doesn’t want the public or the politicos to blame it for giving away the store — but it also doesn’t want workers to blame it for not giving away the store. So many in the agency’s top ranks would be happy to see the contract tossed to arbitrators — whether that’s good or bad for the public.

Everyone enjoys a good drama. Cloak-and-dagger negotiations and secret “leaks” are fun for reporters and give lawyers lots of profitably billable hours. But there’s nothing secret about the facts here.

Behind the curtain, there’s no money. Samuelson hopes that good special effects will divert everyone’s attention from what happens backstage.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post

This piece originally appeared in New York Post