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Public Transportation Tue Oct 13 2009

CTA Meets With Transit Union Leadership

Chicago Union News and WBEZ are reporting that the unions representing transit workers may be drawing a line in the sand with the CTA when it comes to the planned "very ugly" cuts.

This is another example of the trouble the labor movement has. The private sector has carved out a legal regime that makes it easy and painless to bust unions and squash workers' rights to organize in the workplace. Because we don't allow our government to violate a worker's right to organize, it is much easier to organize in the public sector. As a result, we end up with high unionization rates in the public sector and low union density in the private sector. Since public employees get paid by all of us, it is easy to stir up resentment against public sector workers--why should they have it so good? Why should they get defined benefit pensions?

Rather than try to pull everybody up to the decent living standards that public sector workers get, conservatives advocate for dragging everybody else down to the lower living standards. Private sector jobs not covered by collective bargaining agreements, the argument goes, have their value determined "rationally" by the market, whereas union contracts "artificially" inflate wages and benefits. This is of course absurd; collective bargaining agreements are entered into voluntarily, just like any contract, and if using your size and bargaining strength to improve the deal you get is "artificial" then a certain big blue discount super retailer from Bentonville, Arkansas should be the archenemy of conservatives and libertarians everywhere.

Don't be surprised if CTA employees' refusal to give up what they've earned over years--decades--of work ends up being blamed for the fare hikes or service cuts. These workers are very convenient scapegoats. Easier to beat up on people earning the median income than force the powerful to pay their fair share, or make tough decisions.

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Lee / October 13, 2009 7:17 PM

"collective bargaining agreements are entered into voluntarily, just like any contract"

I don't see how this is totally true. Do all workers enter the union voluntarily? Do they have a right to self-organize and create a competing union if they're not satisfied with union leadership's bargaining? Can unemployed prospective workers suffering in a recession volunteer to do the jobs for this year's wage without the 3.5% raise if the union isn't willing to work within the taxpayers' means? I ask these questions as a very liberal individual who doesn't know as much about unions as he'd like. But if the answer to these questions is "no," then it really appears that the union has just become another form of oppression.

While I think our public officials should ultimately be held accountable for a public agency and the powerful should pay a greater share for our public infrastructure, I do think the union has to take some responsibility for the health of the agency. Workers are a huge part of an organization, and if they claim to want more ownership in it and want to share more in its successes, then they have to be prepared to share in its burdens as well. Is it really reasonable to expect that raise during this recession?

If they're not willing to share in that kind of responsibility, then I don't see why they should be granted any special rights to prevent unemployed workers from competing for their jobs and saving taxpayers money. Remember that most unemployed people are making less than the "median income."

Ramsin / October 13, 2009 7:59 PM


All the members of a collective bargaining unit are bound by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, sure: otherwise it would be meaningless. To draw an analogy, a member of a corporate sales force is bound by the policies of his employer; he can't undercut other salesmen, or undermine the firm in order to maximize his own income.

At the same time, if you're in a collective bargaining unit you can typically get a dues rebate and pay only an "agency fee" that is less than dues and covers the basic services you are still getting from the union (grievance representation, contract enforcement, etc.)

The union has a duty to represent its members. If the CTA is asking for pension "holidays" that threaten their membership, they have a duty to fight as hard as possible to protect them.

You're right that the employees need to consider the health of the agency--what they don't need to accept is that harmful givebacks is the only solution.

Anyway, just getting cheaper labor is rarely a solution. Firing all the teachers, for example, who have 30 years experience and replacing them with fresh-out-of-college kids would save the schools lots of money on the books, but does it serve the students better? Does it save money in the long run? I went to public school and all my best teachers had decades of experience. Only in the fevered imaginations of anti-union ideologues are all those with years of experience lazy and worthless.

Is hiring from the ranks of the unemployed to replace union workers with high seniority a solution, since you're just replacing one unemployed person with another, the only difference that the public is getting a less experienced worker, and that that worker is making less money?

Lee / October 13, 2009 10:57 PM

Ramsin -- Thanks for the response. You make some good points, but I'm still having a hard time seeing your perspective, though I would like to better understand it.

I agree employees shouldn't accept givebacks as the only solution. But I think it's foolish and harmful to the public and the employees for the union to come to the table without an open mind, not willing to discuss reasonably, which is what it sounds like so far. The wage increases will also be hard for the public (myself included) to swallow, considering how many taxpayers are currently experiencing significant furloughs and wage cuts (myself included), with a poor outlook for raises anytime in the near future. I get the concern over pensions and that slippery slope, but the 3.5% raises send red flags up for me of a disconnect from our current economic reality, and it makes me question whether this is a balanced negotiation.

I agree we don't want to lose senior people or trade one unemployed person for another. But it's part of getting more done and keeping more people employed within the available resources and current economic realities. If qualified employees were willing to forgo the raises, more people could be employed for the same cost. Consider the math with the 3.5% raise: providing that wage increase for every 29 similarly-paid employees is equal to the entire wage of one employee.

As far as other solutions? Operational efficiency should be the primary one, but labor is a huge piece of the operating costs. It seems as though the CTA has been getting more efficient, but I'm sure there's still some room for other improvements. Service cuts and fare increases are already on the table as part of the solution and I think it's fair for riders to pay a little more, but the service cuts and size of fare hikes could shrink the CTA over the long-term, which will be bad for both employees and the public. Then there's the public funding process, which still needs work, but legislators are tired of working on after the past couple years.

I tend to think the best long-term solution would be better land-use planning to allow us to use our scare infrastructure dollars more wisely. We don't need more transit -- we just need to live closer together and closer to our transit. Look at this chart and consider why Chicago has more track miles than every city but New York, but we still have some of the lowest ridership. I think this is our biggest problem:

Ramsin / October 13, 2009 11:29 PM


First of all, that is a really cool graph. GOOD Magazine rules.

As to your other points, they're very thoughtful and I appreciate you posting them here.

The one thing neither of us know, which touches on your first point, is whether there is another operational solution besides labor givebacks. While I agree that just going to the taxpayer (you and I) isn't really fair, that doesn't mean that there isn't some other solution. Since the union's obligation is to the membership, if there is any other solution it's their duty to pursue it--but I think we both concede that there is missing information there.

As for your second point, it's true that a 3.5% pay cut (which may just be a deferred raise) could equal one new employee for ever 29--but they aren't talking about hiring any new employees. It'd be a pay cut plus additional workload (thus poorer service) since it is couple with layoffs.

On your last point, we agree fully. Chicago needs to look at its city plan and zoning ordinance and we need to really think about how we can plan this city better to make internal circulation more logical and efficient.

Chex / October 30, 2009 7:44 PM

I’ve been working for the Cta for 25 years and in that 25 years we have given up just about everything to Cta management that they asked for in every contract. Our own past presidents of Local 308 have sold us out for their own benefits. How many Local presidents get Cta management jobs after being voted out of being a Local 308 President. Just about all of them. This was a Cta ran union. You don’t know the have of the real deal that has been going on with the brothers and sisters of this union Our raises have gone to health care, union dues, and now were paying for the retirees health care. It’s not our fault that the Cta can’t manage the responsibilities they are assigned to. We have no say so in that. Were looking for more customers more trains and buses to provide more service but the management has other addenda’s in mind. If I were president I would not open up that contract even if meant 1,275 job losses.

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