Saturday, December 27, 2008

Struggle Begins Over Mass Transit in New York and Beyond: NYT Editorial and Letter From a Protester

Struggle begins over mass transit

Riders resist cuts, layoffs, fare hikes

Published Dec 22, 2008 8:58 PM

Layoffs and cutbacks are skyrocketing. It might seem like all you can do is hunker down and try to weather the storm.

But the storm is also revealing areas of struggle where workers have more power than they might think. One of these areas is mass transit.

Every major mass transit system in the country is in crisis, with many imposing fare hikes and service cuts. The worst case is probably New York, where the transit authority plans to raise fares, cut bus lines, close stations and lay off workers. A new bridge toll is also being considered.

However, in St. Louis the base fare is to be raised from $2 to $2.25 in January. The same is true in Sacramento, Calif. In Boston a toll fare will jump from $3.50 to $7.

What many riders may not know is that mass transit has always served as a cash cow for the banks, which loan money to cities so they can then sit back and collect interest payments for decades.

In the 1990s the banks found a way to extract even more money. They “bought” trains and buses and rented them back to the transit agencies. The sale was for tax-reporting purposes only. They didn’t need and never intended to use the items.

The whole thing was arranged to benefit the banks, which used the trains’ depreciation to reduce the profits they had to report. And while part of the money from the sale went to the transit agency—with executives taking their six-figure salaries—the other part went into a fund designed to ensure that banks would receive regular “rent” payments from the transit agencies forever.

To further protect their interests, the banks required the deal to be backed by a guarantor. If that guarantor ever lost its credit rating, the transit agency would owe huge, hundred-million-dollar penalties.

This is exactly what has happened. The guarantor in many cities was AIG—the insurance company that was going belly up a few months ago until it received a government bailout now valued at $152 billion. It lost its credit rating and can no longer guarantee transit loans, so suddenly all these loans have come due, leaving mass transit authorities in crisis.

The lavishly compensated transit heads knowingly arranged deals that could never be paid for if something went wrong. Yet no media pundits have lectured them for “taking out loans they couldn’t afford.”

The media won’t take the rich to task. But it should also be noted that, for the present at least, they have adopted a respectful tone to the resistance against fare hikes and transit service cuts.

Resistance with a shoe

In New York on Dec. 17, Bail Out the People Movement activists confronted transit executives at the monthly board meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The MTA allows a teensy platform at these meetings—what it calls a “Public Comments” section.

This televised sliver of participation—called for 9:30 a.m. when most subway riders are at work—takes place in a fifth-floor area that seats about 40. When it fills up, the public is put into a third-floor “overflow room.” Security guards stand near the podium and roam the hallways.

After people sign in to speak, they must wait until a handful of politicians, who don’t have to sign in, get to talk before them.

Confronting this tightly organized and undemocratic system, Stephen Millies, a railroad worker who arrived with BOPM activists an hour and a half early in order to speak, took inspiration from Muntadar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at George W. Bush.

When it was finally his turn, Millies gave an eloquent denunciation of the fare hikes. Referring to the MTA’s executive director, he then asked, “Where’s Elliot Sander?” And reached down for his shoe.

As security guards grabbed him, he said, “You made $300,000 last year. This shoe is for you!”

The media coverage was huge.

Millies received a summons for disorderly conduct—not a heavy charge. And the widespread media coverage has been respectful, allowing him space to explain the class politics of his actions. The Daily News headline the next day was “MTA Foe Has Sole of Iraqi.”

Why didn’t the media demonize him, the way it usually does strikers or anti-war activists? The answer may have a lot to do with the mood of the masses, who are beginning to awaken. The Republic Doors and Windows workers who sat-in in Chicago just won against the banks, and students in New York took over the New School for several days.

It’s the same story in Buffalo, N.Y., when the transit authority held a meeting in early December to announce fare hikes. Local International Action Center activists mobilized the community to attend. After the people gave the executives a piece of their mind, the agency partially retreated on the increases.

Transit Executive Director Lawrence Meckler was asked by one rider to confirm that his salary was over $100,000 a year. He did, adding defensively that he earned every penny.

“Derisive laughter and catcalls followed his comment,” the Buffalo News reported, “and Meckler then had to call for a return to decorum.”

When it comes to mass transit, the ruling class is fearful. Subways and buses involve millions of workers of all nationalities. There’s a huge potential for classwide unity.

The seeming neutrality of the media may change when the ruling class realizes it’s too late to keep the workers from fighting back. At the moment, however, the powers that be are on the defensive—something workers should take advantage of as we confront layoffs, cutbacks and fare hikes.
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December 25, 2008


Aim That Shoe at Albany

The news from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was so bad last week that one person was arrested for trying to throw a shoe at the agency’s chairman. The copycat incident, after President Bush ducked two airborne shoes in Iraq a few days earlier, involved an angry New York commuter protesting proposed fare increases and cuts in service.

We don’t think throwing shoes is the answer, of course, but even if it were, the protester was aiming his oxfords in the wrong direction. The real power to rescue the system lies with the New York State Legislature and Gov. David Paterson.

As its new “doomsday” budget makes clear, the authority will require all sorts of drastic measures just to stay even. Without help from Albany, there will be fewer trains and buses, and a few subway lines and bus routes will be canceled altogether.

Most riders already can see more dirt and debris in stations and on the floors of trains and buses — the result of a shrinking maintenance budget. Even worse, all this diminished service could cost more. Some estimates are $2.50 for a single ride, up from $2, and $104 for a 30-day unlimited MetroCard, an increase of $23 per month.

Governor Paterson and the Legislature must do whatever they can to keep the system from regressing to the slow and shabby days of the 1970s. A sensible course has been suggested by a commission led by Richard Ravitch, a former chairman of the transportation authority. The commission proposes raising revenues for public transit by installing tolls on Harlem River and East River bridges that do not already have tolls and levying a modest payroll tax for businesses, unions and governments in the New York City area.

Not surprisingly, the idea of new tolls has provoked a huge outcry from Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, and most city politicians have retreated from the idea.

What this means, of course, is that the people who take their cars to work are winning out against the millions who take public transit. This is as unfair as it is environmentally unsound. Moreover, unless drivers pay their fair share, employers are likely to resist a new payroll tax proposed to help shore up the system.

New tolls and taxes are unpleasant. But longer waits and longer commutes and dirtier trains and much higher fares for millions of people who depend on public transit are more so. The remedy now depends on Albany.

To the Editor:

I'm the protester referred to in the Dec. 25 editorial "Aim That Shoe at Albany." I was arrested at the Dec. 17 MTA hearing when I attempted to show (not throw) my shoe.

Pitting motorists against transit riders doesn't help anybody. Tolls and fares are both transportation taxes, which like sales taxes, fall heaviest on the poor. Harlem River and East River bridge tolls are a terrible idea. These proposed tolls are a warmed-over version of Mayor Bloomberg's
"congestion pricing plan," which failed to win public support.

Fares and tolls can be rolled back by tackling the MTA's huge debt. The MTA will pay over $1.8 billion in "average annual debt service" until 2032. Just as we need a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions, we need a freeze on the MTA's interest payments.

Steve A. Millies,
Bail Out the People Movement
Queens, Dec. 26, 2008

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Inspect away Congestion! The city should toughen inspections for medical, psychiatric and vehicle reasons to cut down the number of congestion. This way, we will also get the voters against congestion pricing, who live in Bayside and Staten Island, to move away. Free health care means psychiatric care for all those angry talk radio white males!