Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Well, this SUCKS!

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I really thought the transit strike wouldn't happen. Oops. When I went to bed it hadn't happened yet, but we live near an elevated line, and when I woke up early I was immediately aware that the distant rumble that I hardly ever notice normally wasn't there. When we left the house we saw a train on the tracks down our block, squarely between stops. Since I'm sure they didn't leave passengers there like that, I figure the transit workers must have moved the trains there purely for dramatic effect, which I sort of love.

Fortunately, we live fairly near the last Long Island Rail Road stop before Manhattan (one of the handful in Queens), and they're not on strike, so Boy and I walked about a mile in the beautiful winter morning, portable breakfast in hand (sausage egg and cheese and coffee for him, bagel and Diet Coke for me), unconcerned that we'd be late for work since everyone else would be too. We are pragmatic New Yorkers and everything was fine.

Then we saw the line. It wrapped around two square blocks. This line, we were told, was to buy tickets. People who had tickets or passes were allowed right in, but since we were in the city proper and actually at a subway stop as well, folks prepared for the commuter rail were few and far between.

We spent three hours on line.

In typical NYC-in-crisis fashion, it was friendly, orderly, and civil. It was also COLD. Walking was fine, but standing still, often in the shade, my toes literally went numb. Still, there was a "what can you do?" attitude among everyone, and fortunately I had Boy to keep me company.

Three hours later (did I mention it was three hours?) we were led upstairs to the station, where there were two short lines at the ticket booth and two more at the vending machines. (They had set up two out-house type booths on the street too.) The station was nearly empty, and while I appreciated the cautious crowd control I couldn't help thinking they had been a little too cautious. Of course, since nearly everyone ahead of us on the vending machine line seemed utterly baffled by how to use the very simple interface, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.

We got our tickets just as a train was pulling in. It was blessedly warm, and not very crowded. We got seats and zipped towards Manhattan in speed and comfort.

Now, this is me, and this is Judgment Call, so you know there has to be a twist to this story. They didn't take our tickets on the train. You know, it's a commuter train where the conductor walks through and takes your ticket along the way. I've never really understood how that system can be effective, since they're bound to miss some people, but it's been that way for decades. Normally I'd be all "Hey, free ticket!" but WE WAITED THREE HOURS IN SUB-FREEZING TEMPERATURES FOR TICKETS WE DIDN'T EVEN NEED!!!

Aaaaanyway. I walked 16 blocks – a perfectly casual walk for me – from Penn Station to rehearsal, where I spent a fairly normal afternoon in a theater closed off from the outside world. Then I walked down to another theater for my evening show, which apparently must go on (but hey, that means I get paid). I'll stay in Manhattan tonight, which means more walking but at least that's predictable and often even enjoyable. I haven't thought beyond tomorrow, hoping this all just ends.

I've been finding it really hard to support the workers in all this. Aside from the fact that this strike is illegal for damn good reason (when my union goes on strike it doesn't affect the entire city's economy and well-being!), the more I learn the more I find myself siding with the MTA – which is unusual because they're a notoriously poorly-run agency with highly shifty practices and a huge surplus. But I'm appalled that transit workers are paid more than cops, fire fighters and teachers. It's a thankless and important job, yes, but no one's shooting at them. And while many positions are highly skilled, just as many are not. Then there's the retirement age, which the union wanted lowered to 50. They've given that one up but I can't believe they even asked. And since my contract was just up and I got a measly 1.4% raise, I'm finding the demand for 8% for people who make more than I do awfully hard to swallow.

Of course it is the labor union's job to protect its members. But I believe that that protection includes the responsibility to negotiate fairly and realistically, so that you can actually get a contract done. Protection does not include putting your members on a strike in which they will be docked two days' pay for each day off work – and without the support of their parent union.

On the other hand, the sticking point right now is over pension. The MTA wants some sort of tiered scheme (I don't really understand this) that would somehow grandfather in older workers, but hurt newer ones. The TWU says it won't sell out its new members, and this seems to me like exactly the right response. It's certainly what I'd want my union (which, incidentally, supports the TWU) to say if they had a spine. The TWU claims the MTA has known since day one that this pension plan was a dealbreaker, so why did they let it get this far? The TWU president is accusing the MTA and the mayor of basically provoking a strike.

Sigh. It's complicated, it's late, and I walked a lot today. Time to sign off, I think. I leave you with some pictures I took of the line at the LIRR today. They're not great 'cause I took them with the RAZR's crappy little camera (the one above was with my real camera, but then that went in my backpack and it wasn't worth the hassle to dig it out again), but I'm glad I took them. Piece of NYC history and all that. Good night and good luck!

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