Last December, John Samuelsen was elected president of TWU Local 100, the union that represents 38,000 subway and bus workers in the New York City region. He assumed the leadership from former president Roger Toussaint at a troubled time for the transit system. With transit tax revenues in free fall and state lawmakers raiding MTA coffers to plug holes in the general budget, transit riders and transit jobs were under threat.
The package of cost-cutting measures approved by the MTA Board last month — including the elimination of two subway lines and dozens of bus routes, reduced service across the city, and laying off 500 station agents — didn’t signal the end of the crisis. The MTA is still facing a budget gap in the hundreds of millions of dollars that’s poised to grow even larger.
Streetsblog readers often ask about the role New York’s biggest transit union is playing in tough legislative fights over issues like road pricing and bus lane enforcement. Under Toussaint, the TWU was quiet in the campaigns to win transit funding in Albany by enacting congestion pricing or bridge tolls. Recently, Samuelsen has perhaps been most visible on the national scene, joining social justice and environmental advocates to push for increased federal funding for transit service.
Last week we got on the phone with Samuelsen to talk about what his union is up to at City Hall, Albany, and Capitol Hill, why you seldom see Local 100 teaming up with MTA management to lobby lawmakers, and what his membership thinks of congestion pricing and bridge tolls. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Ben Fried: The big transit story of the year is the service cuts that are on the table and which the MTA Board has voted to enact. Lets start by outlining how the TWU is responding to the cuts.
John Samuelsen: There are significant lobbying efforts going on in Albany with some bills in the mix that have the potential of stopping the whole thing. First of all let me backtrack. [MTA Chair Jay] Walder and the MTA were given a billion dollars in federal stimulus money in 2009. Out of that billion dollars they could have used roughly $100 million to pay down the service cuts and to use for the operating budget.
So Walder, who had that money in the bank, and probably still has that money in the bank, refused to use that $100 million, and instead enacted $93 million in cuts across the board, Long Island Railroad, Metro North, and New York City Transit, and MTA bus. So that’s the first thing I wanted to say, because that sets the tone for a lot of our reaction.
"There’s a recognition by the union that we don’t want to hurt middle or working class people that have to drive their cars into Manhattan, or small business owners. But there’s also a recognition on our part that that’s an excellent funding mechanism for mass transit, and that it’s green, it’s good for the economy."
And one thing we’ve done is we’re working on a bill in Albany that’s being carried by Joan Millman in the Assembly, and by Bill Perkins in the Senate, that will force the MTA to use 30 million of that available 100 million. It’s essentially the state legislature directing Jay Walder to use available funds that he has in order to stop the service cuts. That’s the first item in Albany.
The second item in Albany is the bill that’s being carried by Keith Wright in the Assembly that would put a two year moratorium on any kind of service cut that the MTA proposes that could have a potential negative impact on rider safety in the subway. And it’s being carried by Dilan in the Senate. Those are two items that we’re working on heavily now in Albany.
In addition, working with the transportation committees on both sides, and the authorities committees to come up with enough budgetary cash in order to give the MTA the savings equivalent that they would make from laying off the 500 or so station agents. Also bearing in mind that a lot of the statutory funding that is earmarked for the MTA was confiscated by the state and put into the general budget.
BF: Has the TWU conveyed concerns to the legislature about the way they confiscated those funds? Could you share your thoughts on how to ensure that transit taxes actually go towards transit?
JS: We certainly have conveyed to the legislature, the Senate transportation committee, as well as folks on the Assembly side, are working on getting that money back for the MTA, right now as we speak. And the union has explored and is still exploring the potential for acting against the New York State government for taking money that’s ours that we’d earmarked towards mass transit, and using it elsewhere.
BF: What form would that legal action take?
JS: We’re exploring the possibility of a lawsuit against the state for redirecting funds that are earmarked to the MTA, and putting them to use elsewhere.
BF: Has anyone mentioned the possibility of crafting legislation that would function as a lock box? The idea that surfaced a few years ago when congestion pricing was being debated, to legally set aside transit taxes in a way that current law does not.
JS: Yeah. I think the Senate transportation committee is exploring that, and that absolutely needs to be done. Because otherwise every time the state finds itself in a crisis, transit is going to take a hit in New York.
BF: We see the MTA and the city pushing for bus rapid transit as the avenue where they can expand access to transit and improve service the most. Can you tell me about the TWU’s views on Select Bus Service?
JS: You’re talking about bus rapid transit on Second Avenue, right, and Third Avenue, and Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn?
BF: Right. First and Second in Manhattan, and Nostrand in Brooklyn, yeah.
JS: Local 100’s in favor of better service for our New York City transit riders, and of course we’re in favor if more people start riding the buses, that’s more jobs for Local 100 members.
BF: Has the TWU taken a position on the bus lane enforcement camera legislation?
JS: We’re not against it as long as it doesn’t have a negative impact on our operators, and as long as it doesn’t give the MTA some back door reason to bring disciplinary action against bus operators.
BF: So as long as the cameras are strictly focused on the street, on the road?
JS: Yeah. Are you talking about a bus pulling into a bus stop and there’s a car parked in the bus stop, and the camera takes a picture of the plate, and the car with the plate gets a ticket in the mail? We don’t have a problem with that, particularly if it raises revenues for the MTA.
BF: How would you characterize the relationship between the TWU and transit advocates? I saw Reverend Jackson’s appearance a few weeks ago where the TWU was joining with advocates to call for a greater federal funding of operations.
"There has to be a paradigm shift in the way decision makers in this country think about funding mass transit. It’s an essential service along the lines of sanitation service, fire service, police service."
JS: We’ve joined not only with a bunch of other transit unions, but with wider advocacy groups, community groups, environmental groups. We’ve formed this coalition called Keep America Moving. The Rainbow PUSH Coalition and the Reverend Jackson are on board. And we find common ground with everybody, with the possible exception of some — of the New York MTA for instance.
There’s a recognition on the part of the riding public that mass transit is an essential service that needs to be properly funded by government, and that recognition also exists in the labor movement. There’s a recognition that transit services are green jobs, and are good for environment, that every bus that goes by, or every train that goes by takes 60 or 100 cars off the road. There’s a recognition by the labor movement, and by President Obama’s administration, as well as rider and environmental groups, that that’s the case.
So mass transit is the future, and the government has to start funding it as if it is the future. And there has to be a paradigm shift in the way decision makers in this country think about funding mass transit. It’s an essential service along the lines of sanitation service, fire service, police service.
BF: So along those lines, do you think there’s a role for road pricing in New York to fund transit service? Congestion pricing or bridge tolls, those sorts of things.
JS: Those issues are still under discussion at our executive level, and the local is still fleshing out its position on those issues.
BF: What sort of debate comes up at the local about whether these are good ideas?
JS: There’s a recognition by the union that we don’t want to hurt middle or working class people that have to drive their cars into Manhattan, or small business owners. But there’s also a recognition on our part that that’s an excellent funding mechanism for mass transit, and that it’s green, it’s good for the economy. And we’re down with that. So we’re still debating that amongst ourselves, what our exact position is going to be on that.
BF: In this budget session we’ve seen the hospital operators and the SEIU team up and ask for new revenue streams from the state, and we haven’t seen the MTA and the TWU team up that sort of way.
"The union has explored and is still exploring the potential for acting against the New York State government for taking money that’s ours that we’d earmarked towards mass transit, and using it elsewhere."
JS: I don’t quite have the answer on the MTA’s end, but I know I sent a letter directly to Jay Walder shortly after assuming office asking him to go to Washington and to lobby there for Local 100 members as well as the MTA to procure federal stimulus funding for operating expenses. He didn’t take me up on that offer. I know that we are pressuring right now, we are heavily lobbying the legislature to restore the money that was earmarked for our mass transit from the mortgage recording tax, and such other things.
BF: That’s an area where management and the union are not asking for the same thing together?
JS: I think we’re asking for the same thing, but due to the history of the relationship it wouldn’t be precise to say that we’re asking for it together. They have a diametrically opposed position to us on some of the financial issues, on some of the fiscal issues, and that’s a big problem. They actually refused to use the $100 million available from the billion dollars in stimulus money that they got in 2009 to pay down the operating budget. They just engaged in $93 million worth of cuts that would have been avoided had they used the $100 million available to them from the stimulus money they got in 2009.
BF: Have they told you why they won’t go that route?
JS: They haven’t really given me a precise answer as to why they won’t go that route. They’ve given me a specific answer, but I think the reason is they oppose the use of the stimulus money to pay down the operating budget. It has to do with the philosophical desire to get rid of the station agents. I don’t think they want the money to be dealt out. I don’t think they want the state or the federal government to hand them $20 million and say, “Keep all the station agents working.” I think that philosophically this new MTA leadership doesn’t believe what everybody else in New York City believes, which is that the station agents provide a vital role to the passengers of the New York City transit system. I think they just want to get rid of them, so they don’t want the dough.
BF: One of the problems that transit advocacy encounters is forming a coalition that’s strong enough. And the event with Reverend Jackson seems to hint at a potential broadening of the green jobs/transit advocacy coalition. Could you talk a little bit about how you see that coalition growing in the future?
JS: I think that the coalition is already at the point where we can make a difference in Washington, D.C. I think it’s the first time ever that there’s a wide array of organizations that have come under one umbrella to push for a permanent mass transit funding. I think it’s only going to grow and get stronger. And yes, I think we’re going to have the ability to really impact the way the decision makers in Washington think about mass transit.
BF: And in Albany, do you see that process happening at the state level?
JS: Well a year ago they passed a payroll mobility tax when they were facing the identical crisis that they’re facing now, except now it’s a little more severe. I think there’s more talk going on right now in Albany about the creation of new streams of dedicated funding, or increasing the existing streams of dedicated funding, so I think that’s going to happen too.
BF: What’s your trip to work like everyday? How do you get to work?
JS: If I take the train, I take the Q train from Brooklyn into Manhattan. If I have business in lower Manhattan I usually take the Q train to DeKalb and get on the R. I take it into lower Manhattan, or downtown Brooklyn. If I’m going to the Upper West Side where the union is, I drive. I ride the train a lot during the day, even if I drive to work.