Tuesday, December 20, 2005

On Strike!

I was just talking to my brother Steve, who lives in New York City, about the transit workers' strike. He was saying how great it was to see so many people out bicycling and rollerblading to work, but that it was also a big pain in the ass. He did not support the transit workers, by any means. After telling me the basic outlines of the union demands, he made a convincing argument that it was an unfair stike by greedy workers. I have not heard the whole situation and I'm not making a judgement, but for the moment lets assume that yes, NYC transit workers are greedy.

So what? Did greed become a shameful thing in America all of a sudden? If so, is it bad to be a greedy rich person, or is it only bad to be a greedy blue collar person? We are so accustomed to huge gains in wealth and capital for the already rich, and so accustomed to the working person working longer hours for less pay and threatened with layoff, that we have lost all perspective. The investment manager being rewarded with 50 million dollars for a years work is fêted, but the transit worker demanding better wages is villified. There is no fundamental reason why some should be paid one thousand times what others are paid - and this is a very large part of the problems this country faces. Steve tells me that NYC cops start out at $25,000/year. That seems amazingly low. I wonder what grade school teachers get?

Many transit jobs are highly specialized, such as maintaining rail cars and underground track. I know that rail freight company Burlington Northern is struggling to keep its track in shape, and trains are running at capacity. Rail workers are hard to find right now. If new workers are hard to find and train, then that would give the current union employees lots of bargaining power. Since the NYC transit system cannot be moved offshore to China, then NYC will simply have to settle at a disadvantage. Transit workers may well gain higher pay, better benefits, and status. In this country status always comes with money.

But will the NYC transit union get away with their stike, and successfully improve workers' contracts? Unions have had very little real power in decades, and stikes rarely pay off. If the tables do turn, and blue collar unions come back into an age of power, then I don't see any reason to expect them not to be "greedy", I would expect them to try to get as much as they can, since that has been the American way for generations.

P.S. I should add that stikes are, by definition, symptoms of a disfunctional economy. Strikes crippled Boeing in the 1990s (not that Boeing deserves any sympathy). Strikes rarely produce economic benefits for societies. But for what its worth, it is better to have strikes than riots, which is what we'll be getting next if things don't get more equitable.