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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

Will the MTA Cave?

Cities, Cities New York City

Pols pushing contract sellout

In its final week of negotiations with Transport Workers Union Local 100, the MTA has the upper hand. Will the transit agency use that advantage for New Yorkers — or fritter it away?

Most politicians would prefer the second choice, as state senators made clear yesterday in confirming Joe Lhota as MTA chief.

The TWU’s contract for 38,000 subway and bus workers expires Sunday. The new contract will determine not just how much workers get paid, but also how much they’ll pay for health care — an MTA cost that will shoot up 46 percent in the next four years, to $1.7 billion.

Also at issue is how much leeway the MTA will have to save money in other ways. Can it, say, contract out some elevator and escalator maintenance for a fixed price, rather than use more expensive in-house labor?

If the contract allows, it might get track workers to work four days a week, but at longer hours — getting more work done during off-peak hours, when workers can approach tracks more safely. That means less overtime, which costs $500 million a year.

Since the contract will run three years, this is the only chance the MTA has to tackle its costs before 2015. It’s budgeted $300 million a year in savings, money it needs so it can (sort of) afford to make capital investments.

These are where the savings are: Labor is 70 percent of the budget. So it’s important to get it right.

Luckily, the MTA is in a good position.

* There’s a precedent: Gov. Cuomo got the state’s two largest unions to agree to three years’ worth of wage freezes.

* There’s union savvy: TWU chief John Samuelson is smart enough to know that for the union to strike would be a disaster for his members.

A walk-out like that of December 2005 would be illegal. Last time around, as punishment, the union lost its right to automatically collect dues from workers’ paychecks, which crippled union finances. A repeat offense so soon makes it less likely the courts would restore those privileges after just a couple of years, as they did last time. And public support is hardly assured.

Yet the MTA might still snatch defeat from the closing doors of victory.

How? By agreeing with the TWU to disagree, and sending the whole thing to an independent “arbitration” panel. That’s how the last contract came to pass — which allowed for 11.4 percent raises over three years, even though inflation has been less than half that.

The MTA may think it can do better this time. Last month, arbitrators ruled in favor of a one-year, retroactive wage freeze for a small TWU local at Long Island Bus. The arbitrators even noted “the MTA has significant financial problems today” that justify the freeze.

But that’s no reliable guide to even the near future. Arbitrators can easily disregard other arbitrators’ opinions. That tiny union’s 700 workers had far less political power than do Local 100’s 38,000 — especially since, with the new year, the MTA is no longer running Long Island bus service.

Going to arbitration offers nothing but risk for the MTA — and only upside for the union.

It would get Samuelson out of having to explain to his members that they’re not getting raises unless they come with big productivity givebacks, and that they’re not getting health-care “improvements,” as he wants.

So responsible elected officials should be publicly pushing for a good, negotiated contract — after all, the pols represent the public.

But state senators yesterday talked about everything but.

Rather than ask how the MTA plans to stick up for taxpayers and riders, senators mused about everything from East River bridge tolls (which the MTA has nothing to do with) to the agency’s plan for its surplus (it doesn’t have a long-term surplus) to . . . rats with sclerosis.

Lhota gamely noted that the subways’ rats are “not even indigenous to New York” because “they came over by the boats.”

Getting real, to his credit, he worked in a mention of how important a good contract is — noting that there are three parties to the talks: “management, the union and our riders.”

But nobody seemed interested. Instead, we got sclerotic rats bearing phantom surpluses.

The message: Most lawmakers don’t want any talk, let alone action, that might upset an important union.

If the MTA does roll over, we’ll know that that’s Cuomo’s policy, too.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post

This piece originally appeared in New York Post