The Agenda

A Quick Note on Union Work Rules

In 2009, Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute wrote an insightful article for City Journal on how union work rules impact the cost and quality of public services:


At the MTA, the 2.8 percent of the workforce that earns more than $100,000 a year—a rough proxy for white-collar workers—consumes just 5.8 percent of the payroll. So the MTA isn’t that top-heavy, compared with, say, the New York City workforce, where the 7 percent of workers earning $100,000 or more a year consume 22 percent of the payroll. Finding savings in unionized labor doesn’t mean paying skilled employees substandard wages. It just means treating the MTA’s labor force as a means to an end—paying what you need to attract good people who do their jobs competently.

Track workers are one obvious opportunity for smart cost-cutting. The MTA employs 1,865 of them on the city’s subways. According to, a project of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, each gets paid an average of nearly $59,000 (not including benefits or health care), for a total of $109 million in 2008. But as graduate students at Milano, the New School’s urban-policy program, found recently in research for the Manhattan Institute, New York doesn’t spend its resources efficiently here. Following union rules, the MTA schedules “nine hours of a track worker’s 40-hour week” during peak rush-hour times for trains. But MTA safety rules keep workers off the tracks during rush hours. In other words, the MTA schedules workers “when no work can take place.” Riders and taxpayers are paying people to do nothing. Worse, because union rules mandate eight-hour shifts and a normal eight-hour shift will almost always overlap with a rush hour, workers often wind up completing their tasks during overtime, for which they’re paid lots more. Overtime accounted for about 12 percent of the total spent on track workers last year, the Empire Center data show.

The MTA has experimented recently with how to reduce these costs, conducting a pilot program with the union to schedule workers on a four-day week—including two 12-hour days on the weekend, when scheduled trains are fewer, bringing up the number of hours in which workers can actually do work. The MTA could achieve savings, too, by going to two 12-hour days and three four- and five-hour days, since this kind of “off-peak week” wouldn’t overlap with rush hours and would completely eliminate unproductive paid work hours. But it would require “the abolishment of the eight-hour shift, an important bargaining agreement for the TWU,” the Milano students noted. Because the MTA spends so much on these labor costs and because the costs are so inefficient, such improvements could eventually save riders and taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year. [Emphasis added]

The TWU clashed with the last MTA chief Jay Walder on a number of related issues, as Pete Donohue of the Daily News reported last year:


Some bus depots have pool tables in crew rooms for drivers to use on their so-called swing shift, a period of time when drivers receive half-pay but aren’t behind the wheel.

A typical bus driver’s schedule can span 12 hours: driving a route for four hours during the morning rush and another four hours in the evening rush, the peak travel periods when service is most needed.

During the middle four hours – say, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. – drivers don’t have any work-related duties but are still on the clock.

Transport Workers Union Local 100 President John Samuelsen bristled at Walder’s comments.

“Our bus operators are away from their families 13, 14 hours a day and are compensated for it,” Samuelsen said.

This seems like a relatively easy problem to solve. Perhaps workers can be released from their duties during those middle four hours, and can be allowed to spend time with family and friends as necessary. Granted, spouses and children might be otherwise occupied, but we don’t generally expect employers to compensate workers for all of the time that is spent away from one’s family. 

“The MTA has agreed to these terms for 50 years – and it’s fair. Jay Walder is doing the exact thing the MTA has accused the union of doing in the past: trying to negotiate a contract in the newspaper.”

Walder’s gripes, though, extend beyond the break room. He also is miffed that when a driver who is behind the wheel eight hours a day calls in sick, he gets paid for the full 12-hour “run,” including the swing span.

And MTA management often can’t assign a bus driver from one borough to work part of the day in another borough, Walder complained.

A Staten Island express bus route driver, for example, can’t be put on a local Manhattan route after the morning rush hour, because contracts with two different unions carve up turf and duties.

“We should have a well-paid and well-compensated workforce … but the quid pro quo of that is we should have a productive workforce,” Walder said.

The TWU has been a crucial part of the #OccupyWallStreet movement. I strongly believe that we need to regulate financial services. I also believe that staffing levels should reflect the actual needs of transit agencies, and not the whims of union leaders who have an obvious interest in maintaining as large a constituency as possible.