NYC Transit Strike

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New York City residents are eagerly monitoring negotiations between
the union representing the city's monopolist transit workers and
the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the monopolist overseers pretending
to play the role of "management." If no agreement is reached
by Friday at 12:01 AM New York City will become an even more unnavigable
metropolis as buses and subways grind to a halt. As always in union
negotiations, money is the main issue with the monopolists making
unreasonable demands. "Management" has offered a 5% raise
over the next two years while the union has demanded 24% over the
next three years. Evel Knievel couldn't bridge that chasm even if
his parachute properly functioned unlike his Snake River Canyon
attempt. So, despite New York's Taylor Law which effectively outlaws
transit monopolists from striking, New Yorkers are warming up their
legs and looking for places to sleep closer to their offices as
the deadline nears.

A strike during the Advent Season (sorry, the phantasmagoria
we now call "The Holiday Shopping Season") will wreak
havoc on merchants who do a brisk business during this time as well
as the city which grabs an 8.375% involuntary surcharge euphemistically
known as a "sales tax." On the bright side, one can point
to a slowdown in retail sales and the resultant starving of the
municipal Moloch as one silver lining. Unfortunately for working
New Yorkers, the transit strike will exact such a toll that Moloch's
unsated appetite will be insufficient consolation. Yesterday the
city estimated, in a submission to the court presiding over the
"negotiations," that businesses stand to lose between
$440 million and $660 million per day. Furthermore, the city will
incur approximately $10 million per day in additional expenses for
police and emergency services personnel to herd New York's transportation-less,
bovine pedestrians.

Tears are hard to shed for the impoverished transportation
lords. At present, monopolist NYC Transit train operators have a
starting salary of $52,644. Police officers and firefighters currently
start at $25,100 while sanitation workers start at $26,000. Although
all these positions employ unionized monopolists, one has to wonder
why it is that police officers and firefighters, who lay their lives
on the line daily, start at less than half the wage of a subway
driver. Also perplexing is the fact that sanitation workers get
more than New York's Finest and Bravest. However, in the global
headquarters of monopolies, unions, and government job spoils systems,
the Big Apple, perhaps nothing should surprise us and, to be blunt,
highlighting the difference might only serve to enrage those earning
less while incurring far greater risks. Sadly, in the end it will
only be the overburdened New York taxpayers who foot the difference
to raise the salaries of the police and firemen.

Those of us who take a historical look at the New York City
transit system's predicament can only feel exasperated. After taking
over the subway system from private operators in the mid twentieth
century, New York City then proceeded to do everything in its power
to maintain the "nickel fare" despite inflation, the increasing
bargaining and extortionate powers of the municipal unions, and
a deteriorating infrastructure. As the fare rose from a nickel to
the current $2, the MTA, with the help of the city, enforced its
monopolist's grip on the local transportation market. For years
the city prohibited private operators from running commuter van
services, falsely claiming that the vans were dangerous and accusing
drivers of cherry picking the "best passengers" (???)
from the monopoly's routes. Unmentioned was the fact that the vans,
largely found in immigrant and working class outer borough neighborhoods
provided cheaper, faster and more reliable transportation than the
monopolist's subways and buses. In a feeble concession to the free
market, the monopolists finally agreed to allow the vans to operate
but only after compliance with burdensome inspection and driver
qualification regulations. Consumers voting with their feet rarely
matter to monopolists and, in New York City's case, the result was
merely an increase in the transit fare to make up the revenue shortfall,
as the quality of service never entered the equation.

One can only stare in disbelief at the inefficiency of the
city's transportation system. In last November's elections legislators
called for, and unfortunately received, billions of dollars to extend
the Second Avenue subway line. This line presently exists as an
empty, unused subway tunnel. With the recent funding mandate, a
newly christened make-work project will extend the dormant tunnel
another 50 blocks south over the next decade. Despite its astronomical
cost, the city and the transit monopolists never entertained any
free market solutions like expanded private van service to fill
the need. Even in Brazil, where skeptics boast "It's the country
of the future…and always will be!" a saner element rules in
the transportation market. Residents of Rio de Janeiro who live
in the hillside shantytowns known as favelas make frequent
use of private van service to commute into the downtown area. For
less than the cost of the public bus system, Rio's poorest residents
ride around in the city in so many Volkswagen Minibuses that visitors
think they are witnessing a restaging of Woodstock. And since the
favelas are commonly built on the Rio's steepest hillsides,
private operators with motorcycles ferry pedestrians up and down
the hill for the hardest leg of their trips. The remarkable thing
is that all this transpires without some meddling government bureaucrat
orchestrating it and that it happens in a country with an avowedly
socialist President. I would suggest that New York City's Politburo
take note but I fear it would only assist them in crushing any free
market entrepreneurs.

Of course, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his minions are diligently
preparing for the strike with noxious government stopgap measures.
Despite creating a net worth in the billions of dollars by successfully
navigating our nominally free market in media, Bloomberg persists
in socialist solutions to the upcoming headache. To cut down on
congestion, the city will not allow any cars with fewer than four
passengers south of 96th Street in Manhattan during the
strike. A better solution might be to allow anyone who wants to
drive a car to do so with however many passengers he wants while
charging premium fares to those hauling fewer passengers. In this
manner, those who most value the use of their private car will pay
for the privilege while those who do not see the same value on their
time can hoof it. None of these actions by the city should surprise
us as New York assiduously outlaws ticket scalping and maintains
rent regulations which even the most redistributionist of economists
deplore. As a final solution Bloomberg has recommended that commuters
find a place close to the office to camp out during the strike.
Since the Mayor opts not to occupy the city's official mayoral residence
at Gracie Mansion it will only be a matter of time before he offers
that up for commuters with no means of getting home. Bet your last
dollar that any such offer will not be properly auctioned off to
the highest bidder as that would make too much economic sense.

Cynical observers of Friday's potential nightmare might hope
for two outcomes. First, since the time necessary to train someone
to drive a bus, sweep a subway car, or make change in a token booth
is not significant, a replay of Reagan's bust up of the Patco strike
would most likely be feasible in theory. In reality, New York is
so heavily unionized that such a scenario would probably lead to
widespread rioting. Plus, the nominally Republican plutocrat Mayor
would be unlikely to challenge such a large part of the city's voter
base, unionized workers, after spending a mind boggling $73 million
on his campaign, or $103 per vote, in the November election. Alternatively,
New Yorkers could vote with their feet (they might be using them
Friday whether they want to or not) and demand more private sector
transportation options. While this avenue is equally unlikely as
the city's largest single interest group — New York City residents
being horribly inconvenienced by the transit strike — is more diffuse
and unorganized than the union whose machinations seem almost Prussian
in their threatening precision. I guess those of us who like to
hedge our bets will just hope for good weather as the only good
possible outcome.

 

December
15, 2005

Mark
G. Brennan [send him email]
writes from New York City.

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