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For the first time since 1980, the New York City public transit system is completely shut down due to a strike. Transport Workers Union head Roger Toussaint made the announcement shortly after 3:00AM local time. In addition, many commuter railroads shuttling passengers in from the suburbs may be shut down, as sympathetic union workers refuse to cross picket lines.
I moved to New York in late 1979, a few months before the last transit strike occurred. Because most New York City residents don’t have cars, the preferred method of transportation for strike-stranded city-dwellers was walking. Each weekday, my father picked me up from school on 77th Street and York Avenue and we walked to his office in Times Square, a distance of 3 1/2 miles. We then walked the same distance back home at night. Perhaps that laid the foundation for my love of New York City, the perfect city for walking.
The 1980 strike lasted 11 days, and although it was a major inconvenience, at least it occurred during the spring. New York is in the dead of winter now, 24 degrees Fahrenheit as I type. Walking to work in this weather will not be nearly as kind, and it won’t be possible at all for many. I’m just thankful that my commute to work doesn’t require me to leave the apartment. Most people don’t have it so easy.
This strike has the potential to do far more damage to the city, both economically and psychologically. If it lasts as long as the previous one, many families—possibly including mine—will be separated for Christmas. Businesses depending on last-minute shoppers for year-end profitability will be devastated. New Year’s Eve plans will be scuttled. People unable to get to work will lose out on income, and those who have no choice but to show up will be forced to use taxis—if they can find one—and may be hours late to work. (There are approximately 10,000 taxis in NYC, and not all of them are on duty at any given time. The NYC subway system transports 7.5 million riders a day. Do the math!) And those lucky enough to find a cab will also find themselves quite a bit poorer after spending what could be $50 a day or more just to commute.
So, we should all give a big Christmas thank you to the Transport Workers Union, who in calling the strike, have become the Grinches for many New Yorkers. We should also reassess the wisdom of allowing our governments and transportation systems to be held hostage by unions.
I do not understand why unions aren’t considered illegal cartels. If I wanted to become a subway train driver, I could not do so without first joining the union, whether I wanted to pay the union dues or not. What’s the difference between that and being forced to pay protection money to the mafia? In either case, the mob or the union “protects” me (or my job), whether I want the protection or not.
Similarly, if a group of merchants got together to decide that they’re going to sell gasoline at $10 a gallon, it would be considered illegal collusion, and the merchants would be prosecuted. So why can individuals band together to fix prices for labor? They are in effect merchants of their work, and they’re colluding, via the union, to subvert the free market and set artificially high prices for what they are selling. And they are now effectively extorting the entire City of New York in order to ensure the perpetuation of their monopoly on the transit labor market.
It’s too bad that neither Mayor Bloomberg nor Governor Pataki have the power or the backbone to do what President Reagan did when PATCO—the (former) air traffic controllers union—went on strike. If the transit workers don’t want to show up and drive the trains, then the MTA should be free to hire people who do.