Transit Strike: Fire Them All

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In our society, lawlessness can take many forms. Sometimes, the person extorting money from you isn’t a man with a gun, but a person with a neatly-pressed suit and a PR agency explaining why what he’s doing is right and just. Roger Toussaint and the members of the Transport Workers Union are currently extorting from the City of New York, with the ongoing threat of damage to the tune of $420 million per day.

A system of laws is designed to protect us from all sorts of criminals. The strike is illegal, and designed to extort a pay raise of 8% per year for the next three years out of the citizens of NYC. Note that the strikers currently earn between $47,000 and $55,000 a year — before overtime — to drive buses and subways. The drivers are already earning far more than the median income of those who rely on public transportation to get to work — and now they are demanding a huge increase, and resorting to illegal action to get it.

The Torah has what to say about this as well. There are economic laws in the Torah about laborers and property owners. The overriding principle is one of fairness. A person is not allowed to ignore his or her obligations in order to get what he or she wants.

There are apparently 30 applicants for every new opening at the MTA. Those applicants are currently riding those buses and subways to get to their current, lower-paying jobs. The people hurt most by this strike are not those who get to work by car, limousine, or Internet connection. They are the very people currently making far less than the guy (or gal) who drives the MTA vehicles that get them to work, who would gladly take their jobs if given the opportunity — and do them just as well.

There is a law of economics at work here as well, called supply and demand. There’s simply no justifying a $55,000 salary, much less a $69,000 salary — as it will be three years from now, were the city to cave in — in order to drive a bus. If you want a $69,000 salary, you go to college or start a business. You don’t sit behind the wheel of a bus and then extort the citizens of New York to get an unreasonable wage for the work performed.

In 1981, an illegal strike was called by the Air Traffic Controllers’ union, PATCO. They, too, tried to extort money, and predicted that if they were replaced, a disastrous wave of plane crashes would sweep the country.

They underestimated the resolve of Ronald Reagan. For the sake of all the taxpayers of NYC, I hope Michael Bloomberg proves to be made of the same stuff.

UPDATE: Suitably Flip reports that the hearing ongoing at this hour relates to criminal contempt, meaning that by law Toussaint could be jailed until the strike ends. Sounds like a plan. The transit workers union local was foolish enough to have open comments on their strike blog — though the friendly remarks from their fellow New Yorkers have now all been deleted, it was too late — Michelle Malkin has some good ones (she also prints the claim that the average transit workers’ salary is $62,500, nearly 2.5 times that of a starting cop with the NYPD). Seems like not too many people are taking the union side on this one.

UPDATE II: Mark Tapscott makes an argument similar to mine (without the Torah references, of course), with links to Ronald Reagan’s statement and an historical overview of that case.

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20 Responses

  1. Nachum Lamm says:

    Ten percent sounds much better to me than how much I actually pay in taxes.

    Also note that it’s mentioned by Shmuel in the context of: “You want a king? He’s going to take ten percent of your money!

    I would like to see whether there was enforcement of ma’aser laws. Most evidence points to “no,” I’d think.

  2. DovBear says:

    It’s clear from Tanach that a halakhic state imposes (or should impose) very few financial burdens, enforced by the state, on the people

    The obligation to tithe and to bring sacrifices and to leave your field fallow every 7 years are significant burdens, imposed by the Torah state.

  3. Nachum Lamm says:

    I think you’re all missing the point here: The Nevi’im and Halakha may tell us how to act in economic terms, but that doesn’t equal a welfare state, socialism, or anything like that. It’s clear from Tanach that a halakhic state imposes (or should impose) very few financial burdens, enforced by the state, on the people. Even the biggest free marketer can believe in imposing religious obligations on himself. That doesn’t mean we can read any sort of social legislation (least of all unions) into the words of Tanach or the Gemara.

  4. Alan Scott says:

    The specific examples I was thinking of from Yeshayah were ones, such as in “Hoy magiei bayit bevayit”, where the wealthy were using perfectly ‘legal’ economic means to get what they wanted – more houses and more fields – yet the end result of all of this buying and selling and ‘fair market prices’ was the disenfranchisement of everyone else. Yeshayah describes the fine capitalists investing and buying “until there is no land left, and only you dwell upon the land”. Note that if there had been something halachically wrong with the business dealings themselves, the Navi would presumably have listed it, along with all the other averot he lists. But it’s not a question of individual obligations (mine mine and yours yours, like midat sedom) – it’s a question of the overall character of Jewish economics. According to the Torah and Neviim, individual free-market “rights” are to be sacrificed — as part of the comprehensive **Nation-wide** Land-management and Economic system that also included Yovelim and Shmitot Kesafim — when the exercise of those “rights” victimizes the poor and allows the vulnerable to be used for profit. That doesn’t look like capitalism to me.

  5. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Yaakov Menken: The Torah obviously imposes Halachic restrictions upon what we can do, but that is upon us as individuals.

    Ori: Is it? Today, those restrictions only apply to individuals. But in a Torah society wouldn’t a Beit Din enforce those restrictions? For example, if I were to sell a $5 book for $25, wouldn’t the buyer be able to claim “ona’a” and retract the deal?

    Alan Scott: much of Yeshayah is screeds against the wealthy, who can be heard trying to defend their anti-social and anti-Torah behavior under the laissez-faire philosophy of “it’s my money”

    Does Yeshayah mind the laissez-faire philosophy, or did he mind that the rich used their power to obtain what was not rightfully there? See, for example, Isaiah 10:1-2:
    א הוי החקקים, חקקי-און; ומכתבים עמל, כתבו. ב להטות מדין, דלים, ולגזל, משפט עניי עמי–להיות אלמנות שללם, ואת-יתומים יבזו.

  6. Yaakov Menken says:

    Concerning DovBear, I saw nothing there that needed to be edited — true, that sort of obnoxious remark isn’t usually welcome, but I felt it was better to leave it intact (not least of all because I can mention pot & kettle). He decided that his vision of what people should earn is more valid than what employers actually pay. For some reason, employers think managers should earn more than drivers — even at UPS, where many of the managers used to be drivers.

    Lumpy, I think we can manage to find a middle ground between $8.95 and $40/hour, which is more than web designers earn for their time unless they are consulting. Aren’t they also worthy of a living wage?

    The Torah obviously imposes Halachic restrictions upon what we can do, but that is upon us as individuals. The society still operated in a capitalist fashion, without arbitrary imposition of salary standards. Certainly extortion was never smiled upon.

  7. Alan Scott says:

    Free-market capitalism is found in the Torah and Gemara?

    Maybe as an enemy of G-dliness.

    Judaism abhors a “free market”. Remember: All debts go unpaid every seventh year. The only individuals who may be charged interest are foreign (nochri) merchants. Every 50 years sees a Massive Land-redistribution. Competition is curtailed to protect the livelihood of those who enter an industry first (the common “you can’t open a second kosher pizza store in this town/on this street” psak). Etc etc.

    The Neviim are even more stringent in their opposition: much of Yeshayah is screeds against the wealthy, who can be heard trying to defend their anti-social and anti-Torah behavior under the laissez-faire philosophy of “it’s my money”. Real estate consolidaters are excoriated for pushing land values up so high that the poor can no longer afford to live. Amos calls the rich women of Israel “Bashan cows” for their greedy, consumerist, and yes *capitalistic* attitude towards economics in the sanctified nation. For more examples, just open any page in Neviim Acharonim or Parshat Mishpatim. The Torah does not abide Western capitalism, especially not the version of our American economics which does not respect the rights or dignity of laborers, workers, and the poor.

  8. DovBear says:

    DovBear can engage in whatever vision he may have of what salaries should be,

    Um, you’re the one who started with the visionizing, with your pompous proclamations about what a bus driver should be earning.

    And of course you’ll edit this,

  9. DovBear says:

    DovBear can engage in whatever vision he may have of what salaries should be, but free-market capitalism (as found in Tanach and the Gemara)

    Free market capitalism is not found in the Tanach or Gemarah. Jewish law strictly regulates most industries. The very fact that a Jewish butcher may not sell pig meat – no matter what the demand for it might be -belies the idea that Jewish law is pro-free-market. And there are countless other examples of Jewish law interfering with the interplay of supply and demand.

  10. Lumpy Rutherford says:

    If you want a $69,000 salary, you go to college or start a business

    Or you become a transit worker. Not everyone is cut out for college (which, BTW, does not guarantee a high salary) and not everyone can be an entrepreneur. Would you prefer to have your train piloted by someone being paid $8.25 an hour?

    It’s only my opinion, but this “let them eat cake” attitude doesn’t seem to jibe with Judaism.

  11. Yaakov Menken says:

    The strike doesn’t merely “appear to be” illegal — it is.

    I did not claim, as Larry would have it, that their wage is a matter of a particular Torah philosophy. This hardly means the Torah doesn’t expect, and in fact require, that we keep our word and not engage in extortion.

    DovBear can engage in whatever vision he may have of what salaries should be, but free-market capitalism (as found in Tanach and the Gemara) has consistently proven itself superior to communism or socialism. Artificial determinations of what people should earn don’t hold up in the real world. His claim that the MTA’s offer would not have met inflation is also false in real numbers, and if indeed the last contract did not keep up (which I doubt), the system has yet to recover from the previous, successful extortion attempt in 1980. They are currently overpaid by any objective standard.

    Even were DB’s salary statements accurate (and that is contested), they still are nonsensical. A police officer must volunteer to put himself in harm’s way on an ongoing basis, meet rigorous physical and intellectual standards, and go through months of training before he starts on the force. A bus driver must present a valid driver’s license.

  12. Larry says:

    In an environment where worker protections (economic and other) are being increasingly eroded, with the active assistance of this Administration, and the gap between those on top and those below them continues to grow at an exponential and at times obscene pace, we should not be joining those who would pit workers against each other and begrudge them the right to a living wage for them and their families. Does the halacha really indicate that a bus driver’s efforts are to be valued less than those of a college graduate? Does it indicate that his or her family is more deserving of undergoing economic stress? And on what halachic basis can we opine that $55,000 is simply beyond the pale for this class of NY residents?

    The attempt to paint right wing political decisions with a halachic veneer is becoming a widespread and quite dangerous phenomenon. It is a danger we would be well advised to avoid

  13. DovBear says:

    Actually, I would say that a bus or train driver, or a dispatcher or maintenance worker, all of whom are directly responsible for the safety of thousands of passengers each day, are far more deserving of higher salaries than most college-educated paper pushers, particularly managers, most of whom don’t add much value to their organizations.

  14. Yehudah Prero says:

    As an attorney who works for the City of New York, and for better or for worse is a card carrying Teamster (as are all NYC agency attorneys), I’d like to offer something factual. Starting salary for a recent-grad city agency attorney is $44,891.00. Also, employees of the City of New York (for the most part) must live in the city proper. Paying back law school loans and trying to live in the five boros is no easy proposition on that salary. Yet, there are benefits of being a “municipal” employee. It is that balance that draws people to “municipal” jobs. What the TWU is asking for, as far as this public servant goes, is just too much. (I wonder how much sympathy we would get if all city attorneys decided to strike in violation of the Taylor law…)

  15. dovbear says:

    The strike itself appears to be illegal, but the union’s greivances are real: Their old deal did not keep up with inflation and the new offer would have set them further behind. Meanwhile, the transit authority sits on a billion-dollar surplus that provides discounts to riders but cannot accommodate a decent wage increase or a fair pension.

    $55,000 may seem like a lot of money in flyover country, in NYC its just enough to put you squarely in the middle class – exactly where a hardworking, honest bus driver belongs.

  16. DovBear says:

    When there are 30 applicants for every opening, you know the salary is above what supply and demand would support.

    “Supply and demand” would also support eliminating the min. wage in some industries. It’s that kind of thinking that leads to poverty and its attendant ills.

    Sure, I’d love to see the bus driver make a cool million, but that’s irresponsible use of the public coffers. It makes no sense that a first-year cop or college-educated professional is making a fraction of a bus driver’s salary.

    That’s a false comparison. A “first year cop” and the “average transit worker” is not apples to apples. An average cop, in fact does better than an average transit worker. You say the average transit worker makes $62,000. The NYPD website says: “NYPD Police Officers will earn $75,000, on average, after 5 1/2 years of service.”

    Starting salary for most transit workers is about $33000 a year, barely enough to pay for housing and food in a city that has among the highest living costs in the world. Cops start ar about $34,000

    Also, what college-educated professional is making a “fraction” of a bus driver’s salary? Especially in NY, where STARTING SALARIES for college educated professionals (CEP) are in the low 50s and the “average” CEP is making much, much more than $62,500. In NY skilled secretaries -with no college education- can make 80K.

    I agree it might seen strange for a CEP to make a “fraction” of what a bus driver earns, but that’s not the case. Not in NY, anyway.

  17. Ori Pomerantz says:

    DovBear: Why do you presume it wasn’t this law of economics that produced the high-seemig salary in the first place?

    Ori: Because it’s a legal monopoly. If anybody were allowed to start his or her own bus company in New York, and to dig new subways, it wouldn’t be.

  18. Yaakov Menken says:

    DB,

    When there are 30 applicants for every opening, you know the salary is above what supply and demand would support. This is, in fact, what collective bargaining is designed to accomplish. As a result, you can get a college-educated programmer for less than a bus driver. Sure, I’d love to see the bus driver make a cool million, but that’s irresponsible use of the public coffers. It makes no sense that a first-year cop or college-educated professional is making a fraction of a bus driver’s salary.

  19. Toby Katz says:

    It’s a blessing so small a proportion of the American workforce is unionized.

    In France the unions have been known to paralyze the whole country. They can get whatever they want but the ultmiate result is a stagnant economy and permanent high rates of unemployment. In the extreme you then end up with thousands of Arabs rioting in the streets.

  20. DovBear says:

    There is a law of economics at work here as well, called supply and demand. There’s simply no justifying a $55,000 salary, much less a $69,000 salary—as it will be three years from now, were the city to cave in—in order to drive a bus. If you want a $69,000 salary, you go to college or start a business. You don’t sit behind the wheel of a bus and then extort the citizens of New York to get an unreasonable wage for the work performed.

    Why do you presume it wasn’t this law of economics that produced the high-seemig salary in the first place?

    Anyway, in NY $69,000 isn’t very much money, and you sound a little petty begrudging them their pay.