The MTA as a Worker

Jack C. (JC), Interviewer: What do you do in the MTA? How long have you been there?

AM: I am a Signal Maintainer for New York City Transit (NYCT), which is the division of the MTA that handles the subways and most of the busses. Largely, this means performing maintenance and troubleshooting activities on wayside equipment—railroad switches, signal heads, and stop machines (those little yellow levers that go up and down to activate the emergency brakes when a train goes somewhere it shouldn't), or working on some of the specialized equipment that controls or powers these things.

JC: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the job?

AM: My favorite part of the job is really, well, the job. Even when it's dirty and gross and cold and hard work, it's really interesting work. There's a ton of variability because you have this complex system of electrical, mechanical, and pneumatic devices that all rely on each other, with layered-on updates from three different generations of technology (four now) and there are just SO MANY ways it can break. And figuring out what's happening and how to repair it—it's really amazing.

Least favorite is mostly the management. The managers themselves are mostly fine, but the MTA is so badly mismanaged and understaffed that we have problems that shouldn't exist. The web of rules and regulations means that I could be standing on a platform and see a failure occur that I know exactly how to fix, and at the barest minimum it's going to be 30 minutes before I can even get on the trackway to begin addressing it.

JC: Everyone complains about the subways: delays, service changes, and lack of maintenance. What's the story from the worker side? I imagine you're all as overworked and underpaid as any private-sector worker.

AM: We've been understaffed by about 200 signal maintainers for a very long time. Overtime is the norm, and unplanned mandatory overtime is more or less the standard response to equipment failure. There is a constant push to keep maintenance numbers up that doesn't do a very good job of considering what is actually possible. Last year the MTA put out this six point plan to improve service. One of the bullet points touts "a new, intense preventive maintenance program that targets components most prone to fail." What this meant internally was that they cut the testing interval from 30 to 15 days on a lot of equipment—effectively doubling the workload. There’s a lot of pressure on supervisors and workers to do something that isn't really possible.

It's really frustrating—we are spread extremely thin and we have to deal with management priorities that don't always reflect best practice, and with supporting large expensive contracts that will have a dubious impact on service reliability. And all this stuff prevents us from getting to do our jobs. We are a skilled workforce that very much wants to do a good job, and the administrative obstacles to that are really bad for morale.

JC: What are the top three things that could be done to have the greatest positive impact on the subways (and the MTA in general)? Whose purview are these efforts under?

AM: 1) Resolve the debt crisis. The MTA has been under-budgeted for ages and forced to float bonds to pay for its costs, and debt maintenance is now an enormous part of the MTA's yearly budget: $2.57 billion in the 2018  budget—about 16%. And with budget shortfalls anticipated even with fare hikes, this number is only going to rise.

2) A complete change in the way that MTA management interacts with private contractors. There are rules limiting the award of consecutive contracts to a single company if other qualified companies are available, which is ostensibly a good anti-corruption measure. But we have sometimes had situations where there are only two qualified contractors for a kind of work. In particular, part of Signal Modernization is moving from old electromechanical relay controlled interlockings (picture entire rooms full of electromagnetic switches clacking up and down, pretending to be a computer) to solid state relay-controlled interlockings (that room now fits in one or two server cabinets).

The first interlocking to be modernized this way was Bergen Street. The work was done by a company called Thales. Their installation on NYC transit never really worked right. Until very recently, the only other qualified Solid State Interlocking contractor transit could use was Siemens. So Thales kept getting more contracts, and installed more equipment that really doesn't work well, and they're going to continue to get enormous contracts, because we can't legally just hire Siemens every time.

Contract oversight is kind of a joke. In just about every department it is a common and accepted career path for individuals to go up as high as they can in MTA management, take their pension with lifelong health benefits at 55, and then go work for the same contractors they oversaw and worked with, for very large salaries. I know at least one manager that retired on a Friday and on Monday semi-illegally brought his new employers into the facility he used to manage to take photos and study installations, already on their payroll. It's basically known to many of these managers that as long as they help everything go smoothly for the contractors, they have a very lucrative job waiting for them in their retirement. No one wants to deal with it and as the MTA relies more and more on contractors (which I think is also bad, just in general) it's only going to become a more significant problem.

3) There needs to be a complete overhaul of the track safety rules. I'm all for track safety—I don't want to get hurt out there and I don't want anyone else to either. But safety rules need to have a clear safety-related benefit, they need to be easy to implement, and they need to be made in consideration of the work that has to be performed. Track Safety and in particular Track Flagging rules are none of those things—they are a complicated patchwork of rules that attempt to cover every possible corner case and track layout and work area. They lead to situations where you need four or five times as many people looking out for trains as actually doing the work. And they contain silly but labor-intensive activities that no one actually believes offer any safety benefit.

Even with all these rules accidents still occur. It's a dangerous job by its nature. But the rules are strangling the work, in part because they're not really a coherent safety program. Every time something bad happens, they just add a rule to address that specific situation, and that's how we have this ludicrous mess of a rulebook. I think you need to basically start fresh, with a comprehensive safety program that gives us the ability to do our jobs with safety rules that actually make sense for the activities they're meant to protect.

JC: Okay, let's talk Amazon. The City and State just gave massive tax breaks to the world's richest man and company to open another headquarters here in Queens. One argument about Amazon coming to NYC has been that this influx of capital could or should be used to help fully fund the MTA. How do workers feel about this?

AM: I don't think too many people care about it from that perspective. You can get people a bit riled up about billions of dollars in incentives but, there's definitely a sense of helplessness around it. Like, yes we all know the 7 is extremely overcrowded already and that even with CBTC there aren't going to be significant expansions of capacity. And sticking another 100,000 people in LIC is a terrible idea, especially if (when) the L shutdown drags on the G train, which will also be utterly slammed. But it feels far away and like: “well, they're bringing jobs,” and “job creators” is a hell of a way to convince everyone to talk about capitalists.

JC: Are you in a union? What's your experience been with union leadership? Other members?

AM: I am in TWU Local 100. The leadership is mostly all right, though I find them frustrating sometimes. I don't have any doubt that they want to do well by their membership. Stand United—the political slate/party/whatever you wanna call it that currently controls pretty much every part of the union (hooray for slate voting) very much thinks that the best way to do well by the membership is to cultivate good relationships with management and the governor, so you get these really embarrassing fawning press releases about Cuomo or whatever and it's obnoxious. The contracts they've secured for us have never been amazing but they've been all right, and they just won the recent election by about a 2:1 margin over the nearest competition.

Members run the gamut—we're a gigantic union in a more or less union shop. I mean, okay Janus killed that, we aren't a closed shop, (ie, a shop where only union members are hired and a worker must remain a union member while employed) but opt-outs so far are nearly nonexistent. Mostly, even the people who complain about the union and say how much they hate it don't actually want to leave, whether because of inertia, or because of how central the union is to navigating the MTA's arcane bureaucracy surrounding not only disciplinary measures, but also retirement benefits, training, and anything else. The membership tends to be a bit older and more conservative than I would like,in part because of hiring freezes and such.

I don't constantly spout politics at work but I do it plenty, and if I go explicitly socialist at people I tend to get some push-back; but if I stick to criticizing the way money and power are distributed in society, mostly people are on board. Signals in particular is an extremely male-dominated department, and sometimes people have pretty gross opinions on sexuality, gender, and especially on transgender people. I've at least gotten most people to stop making jokes every time a medical form asks for “male” or “female,” at least in my little section, so, small (depressing) victories?

And in today’s late-capitalist hell, “mostly liking the job” is the most that many of us can hope for. No job is perfect, and neither is the MTA, but next time you see a train delay, think of hard-working comrades like Andrew tirelessly toiling on your behalf to get that train back up and running.