Thursday, January 19, 2006

'05 NYC Transit Strike:
Why Our Leaders Don't Lead

It's mid-January 2006 and the New York City transit strike appears to be a fading memory...or so it would seem. This short-lived contretemps was about much more than a bunch of subway and bus drivers who decided to have a little fun at our expense. The whole sordid mess has to be put into context.

The bad blood started flowing in early 2004. Governor Pataki pocket vetoed the bill to enact a pension agreement between the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the Transit Workers Union (TWU). Before adjourning in 2003, both houses passed the law unanimously. The Democrat-led Assembly voted 148-0 and the Republican-controlled Senate voted 62-0. The governor cited vague technical problems with the bill as an excuse to bury it.

In 2005, the Legislature passed 46 bills increasing pensions for various state employee groups. Another bill, boosting pensions for TWU members, was adopted by a combined vote of 198-1. Despite this overwhelming support by the Legislature, Pataki vetoed the bill citing the same spooky excuses from the previous year. There's reason to believe the negotiations between the state and the TWU were race-tinged. The teachers, fire fighters and police unions had little conflict in settling contracts with the state. Their memberships happen to be predominately white. However, the TWU membership consists mostly of people of color. It's very difficult to believe the governor vetoed the bills for some legalistic or altruistic reason. If this were so, why didn't he state his reasons more clearly?

Just before the contract deadline, the MTA, led by billionaire real estate magnate, Peter Kalikow, attempted to Bogart the proceedings. At the last minute, he demanded pension givebacks to go along with severely restrained wage and benefit increases. Roger Toussaint, president of TWU Local 100, felt he was pressured to strike because the state bargained in bad faith. Despite the heated atmosphere, the parties understood the gravity of the matter before them. The stakes were much too high. And failure wasn't a reasonable option. All they needed was a little help.

When there's money in the bank, agreements are easy to complete. The MTA had a projected billion dollar surplus. Therefore, it came down to how the funds were going to be allocated. When there's no money in the bank, both sides expect to engage in political warfare. But, this wasn't the case in this instance. The negotiators simply needed a little shove to settle minor differences and save face. Sadly, the catalyst needed to seal the deal never materialized, sealing the fate of Gotham commuters. The media blamed the strike on Roger Toussaint and the TWU. The evidence places the blame elsewhere. The NY transit strike was a classic failure of executive leadership. In other words, responsibility for the colossal collapse belongs to the governor and mayor.

Part of an executive's duties is to seal deals. It was sufficient for the governor to give the MTA and TWU enough time to hash out the major details. But when it was obvious the two sides needed a boost to finish the agreement, it was the duty of the governor to finish the deal. Instead of participating in the talks on the eve of the deadline, Pataki was in New Hampshire schmoozing with Republican VIPs. He was vetting potential donors to his improbable campaign for the White House in 2008. This meeting was considered more important than saving the Big Apple from a crippling strike. And this pretender governor wants to be president? This joke isn't very funny.

Mayor Bloomberg is as guilty as Pataki. It's his job to protect the citizens of this city from disasters, both natural and man-made. New York is the financial center of the world. A strike here effects the commercial interests of the entire planet. Since the mayor had no direct control over the talks, it was his duty to assist the governor in sealing the deal. It was his responsibility to convince the principles of the critical nature of their decisions. He should've been there to outline the heavy consequences: If a strike ensued, everyone would lose. Instead, he refused to commit the full authority of his office because he had no personal dog in the fight. When a billionaire buys an office, he's under no political obligation to anyone. Bloomberg had no dog in the MTA/WTU fight because he owed neither side politically for his position. Therefore, he felt above and beyond the fray. Bloomberg runs the mayor's office like a private executive rather than a public servant. Compared to Bloomberg, there were much better mayors in medieval Europe.

Of course, this wasn't the first time the mayor failed to deliver for the city of New York. The Big Apple was competing for the Olympics. Initially, everyone was enthusiastic. Then, interest waned. Finally, Paris got the Games. The train yards, south of Jacob Javits Convention Center, were selected for a new stadium. An entire community was to be built around it. Early interest grew, then slowly faded away. Two years ago, plans for a new World Trade Center were ready for development. Strong interest gradually slowed, then disappeared. Blueprints for a new Nets stadium in downtown Brooklyn were met with excitement. What happened to these brilliant plans? No one seems to know. The mayor's prissy attitude prevented these projects from coming to life because he refused to get personally involved. When the going gets tough, this mayor gets lost.

Our impostor president, George W. Bush, fits neatly into the phony dilettante category. Someone has to answer the question: If George Bush was a poor student, rare reader, seldom traveler and loser businessman, then why is this man America's chief executive? Bush isn't in the White House due to his political skills or the will of the electorate. He's allowed to play in the Oval Office because Big Money, Supreme Court partisans and name recognition said so.

These three examples clearly illustrate the woeful state of executive leadership in America. Money has corrupted our politics to such an extent it would be fair to say our democracy is dead. We're being led by incompetent leaders who bear no consequences for their inept leadership. If our ship of state continues in this ruinous direction, it won't be long before we tumble into the abyss of expired empires. When millionaire and billionaire popinjays run the nation, the ash heap of history can't be far away.

Franklin L. Johnson


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