Larry Hanley: Part-Time Labor Won’t Save American Transit

Streetsblog sat down last week with Larry Hanley, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union and member of the AFL-CIO executive council. Yesterday, we published the first part of our interview, focusing on movement-building around transit. Here, we had a vigorous discussion about union rules and Buy America provisions that are the subject of some debate among transit advocates.

Tanya Snyder: There are some union rules that some transit advocates say are harmful, like the mandatory eight-hour workday and the restriction on part-time work, when transit especially has such peaks and valleys – you’ve got a rush hour in the morning and a rush hour in the evening, and all this dead time in between.

ATU President Larry Hanley says diminishing worker protections is not the way to a stronger transit network. Photo: ##http://www.workdayminnesota.org/index.php?news_6_4796##Workday Minnesota##

Larry Hanley: In most urban transit, you have a large number of bus drivers who work what are known as swing shifts, where they work in the morning rush hour, they work in the evening rush hour, they handle the question of peak service, and they essentially do the work of two people. It’s not their fault that demand for service falls off in the middle of the day; it’s just the reality of the business.

In Staten Island, in my local, the percentage of people in Staten Island transit who operate swing shifts, I think it’s 62 or 63 percent of all the work is swing shifts. And these are people working – driving – eight or more hours on almost every shift. They have time off in the middle, but they’re putting in a full day. Their day starts at 6 o’clock in the morning and ends at 6 or 7 o’clock at night. So, these are long days with hardworking people.

I think it’s really a cheap shot. I’d like to have people go down and hang out at a bank or a brokerage house and see how much time the executives really put in at their desk. But anyway, that’s my class war argument.

TS: Was “class war” off the record?

LH: No, class war is on the record! I agree with Warren Buffet. There’s a class war going on and his class is winning.

And as for what to do with these workers in the middle of the day, Congress, pandering to a small group of private bus companies – and this is an absolute obscenity – restricts public agencies from doing charter bus work. And this is nothing but pandering to private bus companies who have an inordinate amount of political influence. So, all over the United States, there are probably 100,000 buses that lay idle on weekends, lay idle in the middle of the day, when they could be used productively in the communities. They could be providing charter service to people all over our cities and providing better-rounded schedules, so that a bus driver who works the morning shift could actually do some charter work and have a full eight-hour day.

They are literally scraping bodies off highways because we have bus drivers falling asleep at the wheel, because proponents of bad labor policy were successful in the 1980s in deregulating that industry.

The charter restriction is on the level of the bridge to nowhere in terms of how much of a crazy rule it is, that is really responsive to the needs of a handful of people and harmful to the systems all over the country.

TS: What about just hiring workers part-time to handle either the morning or evening rush?

LH: Many of these places already have part-time bus drivers. Now, there’s the broader economic argument: If we move our entire society to part time employment, how do you sustain families? How do you sustain a culture, when everybody’s working part-time and has to work three different jobs?

But when you get into an area like driving a bus you really ought to think for a minute about the safety of people forced, for economic reasons, to go out and have multiple jobs and run the risk of not being conscious when they’re driving a bus.

We’re seeing the impact of the de-professionalization of inter-city transit right now, where they are literally scraping bodies off highways all over the country, because we have bus drivers that are falling asleep at the wheel, because the folks who were proponents of bad labor policy were successful in the 1980s in deregulating that industry. And the consequence has been that bus drivers now in the over-the-road industry are paid somewhere around 30 or 40 percent of what they were paid in 1980. And they are falling asleep at the wheel, driving buses off highways. And these accidents are happening all over the place because the people who make those arguments about bus driving being a part-time job were successful. They won it. And now we have a transient work force. They’re not professional drivers.

If the goal is to race to the bottom, to get the cheapest products, which means the cheapest labor, we ought to be mindful that we’re ruining the lives of American kids.

TS: So if part-time work isn’t a good solution, would cross-utilization of workers be an answer – for example, having maintenance people who can’t work during rush hours do other sorts of customer service during those times?

LH: Well, that’s done in some places, but I don’t know of too many places where the maintenance people stand around waiting for the buses to come in off the street. Every bus system has a number of buses that are spares that allow them to have maintenance done 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s the way they work. So I think it would really be the rare exception to find maintenance workers who don’t have buses to work on.

TS: What about on rail tracks?

LH: I don’t know that much about rail. I’m a bus driver.

But you know, there are a lot of simplistic ideas and simple people that go out and try to push out the idea that somehow after running transit systems for well over 100 years the labor relations system has not sorted out all these issues, but they have. And periodically, you’ll find some story about some rule that comes from 100 years ago on the railroad that is glaringly inefficient today, and if you talk to the folks in rail unions you’ll find they’re willing to change a lot of those rules. But we don’t have that much with regard to that stuff.

TS: Some transit advocates are also critical of things like Buy America provisions because it costs transit agencies more money.

LH: This is the Wal-Mart question. This is whether or not we have a country at all anymore.

If the goal is to race to the bottom, to get the cheapest products, which means the cheapest labor, then we ought to be mindful that while we’re preserving the fiscal integrity of the MTA, we’re ruining the lives of American kids. We’re making it impossible for them to get a job. And if you look at the unemployment rates today, as staggering as they sound, it’s 9 percent overall, but for college educated kids it’s 4 percent. Which means that people who lack a college education no longer have a future in America. They just don’t.

We have forfeited our jobs. It’s not like somebody came here and took them away. We have allowed our wealthy to become citizens of the world while the poor remain loyal, patriotic citizens of the United States. And those citizens of the world have transferred our employment, transferred our futures, all around the world only for their own personal interest so they can make more money. So that now, we have people in China and India and all across the world competing with American kids. And at the same time we’ve invested their money, we’ve borrowed from their future, not to give them a better education but to give them the best fighter bomber we can make and the best drones to kill the Flintstones.

This is about a moral crisis in America. And then they have the gall to come back and make all these arguments about American people being inefficient or American people not working hard enough and why shouldn’t they all be part time. But the central issue is that we have allowed corporations like Wal-Mart to wring every ounce of hope out of young Americans’ lives.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The executive class is winning, but the political class is holding its own, since they also get money off the top (in taxes) that people have no choice but to pay instead.  Instead of bonuses and stock options, you get pension enhancements.  Those in the labor market where the customer can choose to go elsewhere are faring much worse.

    But I actually agree with Hanley on the two points at issue.

    It isn’t fair to the workers to demand that either workers make four commutes, two in the morning and two in the afternoon, or sit around for four hours unpaid, to cover the peaking problem.

    And the exclusion of public charter service pushed through by private companies is anti-consumer.  It is fair for the privates not to face subsidized competition, but such services could be run at cost.  I paid for the bus in taxes.  Why can’t I use my bus? 

    For example, the transit route from my house in Brooklyn to CitiField is so indirect — into and out of Manhattan — that I can get there faster on my bicycle.  But NYCT is not allowed to do something innovative, such as runs bus “specials” from the stadium point to point to a series of Brooklyn neighborhoods.

    I actually think having NYCT provide services like those — and special beach buses and wedding buses — would help the privates by expanding the market, which the private’s could compete in by offering fancier buses.

    The private’s using political power to prevent public agencies from providing charter service, however, is the flip side to the public unions fighting against private vans.

  • Danny G

    How does the labor cost of a subway system compare with a bus system?

  • Allowing bus drivers to work shifts shorter than 8 hours is not “class warfare”. Drivers could work a couple of full, 8-hours shifts, and a couple of 4-hour or 2-hour peak shifts, and still get 30 or 40 hours of work a week. In the medical field, many nurses, techs and physicians work swing shifts, 12 hour shirts, or overnight shifts, and no-one calls that class warfare.

    Allowing shorter shifts and part-time work would actually be better for many bus drivers with families. How many moms and dads would choose to work 6 am to 10 am, or 3 pm to 7 pm, and have the rest of the day off? If in fact no one wants those shifts, the transit companies can pay current workers overtime, and let them work 48 hours a week by adding on a pair of peak-hour shifts in addition to their current schedule. Wouldn’t some bus drivers take that opportunity?

  • Mike

    Interesting.  Every time I leave a Mets game I wonder why there aren’t shuttle buses – at least to Jamaica station.  Can you explain exactly why NYCT isn’t allowed to innovate?

  • Larry Littlefield

    If measured per rider, it depends on how many people are on the bus or train.  Also subway system costs include maintaining the right of way, which the city does for buses.

    Since I switched to an Apple computer at home I have been unable to upzip the national transit database at home and my employer blocks .exe files at work. 

    But last I checked (2007 data) the NYC Subway cost $155.20 to operate per revenue vehicle hour (subway car) and $1.30 per unlinked passenger trip. 

    NYC Transit buses cost $136.20 per revenue vehicle hour and $2.40 per unlinked passenger trip.

    And the MTA Bus Company cost $127.80 per revenue vehicle hour and $4.10 per unlinked passenger trip.

    Those costs include both wages and benefits, plus other costs like power and materials, and both those operating the vehicles and maintaining them, along with the track, stations, signals, management and administration, etc.

    Debts and capital expenditures (and at NYCT “reimbursible” operating expenditures that are called capital expenditures) not included.

  • Anonymous

    People are resistant to change.

    There are many ways to re-arrange the schedule to allow for sufficient staffing during peak hours without leaving so much idle capacity during non-peak hours.  It’s not a hard problem from a logistics standpoint, but rather from a political standpoint.

    Once people get used to working certain schedules, that just becomes “the way things are done.”

    Calling attempts to improve the status quo “class warfare” is demagoguery.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Congress, pandering to a small group of private bus companies – and this is an absolute obscenity – restricts public agencies from doing charter bus work. And this is nothing but pandering to private bus companies who have an inordinate amount of political influence.”

    How do you define a charter bus, is you have just bought yourself a Congress?  How about anything that doesn’t run on the same schedule to the same stops all the time?

    Now I’ve argued that loopholes could be explored — that what you have is a bus route — the BKQN2014 that runs on a certain schedule during certain days, such as the Citifield after the game or to Riis Park when the temperature exceeds 85 degrees and there is no rain.  But you’d end up in court. The wedding bus is definately out. 

  • C F

    The example of nurses is very different than bus drivers. A hospital needs to have nurses on staff 24 hours a day, so yes, it is relatively easy to mix 8 hour and peak shifts and still arrive at a 40 hour work week. Many transit systems do not run over night; many don’t run past 8pm. During the peak there’s a bus every 10 minutes; for the rest of the day it’s once an hour. 

    As for part-time shifts, nurses make better money than bus drivers. If you only work part-time, you will have to take another job to support your family. Part-time jobs don’t offer benefits, healthcare, retirement, even if you work two or three of them.  And transit companies have a fixed cost for hiring a new employee, so hiring a large part-time workforce costs more money than making folks work a swing shift. Transit companies also don’t want to pay overtime if they can avoid it; that raises labor costs. So to make ends meet, the majority of bus drivers need to work a day that spans 12 hours and get paid for 8; and sadly that day does cut into the time before and after school that you could be spending with your kids. 

  • Larry Hanley

    This all goes back to Congressman Jim Howard of New Jersey who passed legislation that bars publicly funded agencies from using public buses to meet public needs. The rules were made more restrictive over the years. Prior to the rule New Jersey Transit had money making services for example to Atlantic City. Last year the rule making knocked out stadium service in any parts of the US.

  • Three things:

    1. LMFAO at this part: “there are a lot of simplistic ideas and simple people that go out and try to push out the idea that somehow after running transit systems for well over 100 years the labor relations system has not sorted out all these issues, but they have.” Oh, you sorted the issues out alright!

    2. Also: “we have people in China and India and all across the world competing with American kids.” Last I checked, the world’s largest transit vehicle manufacturers were in places like Japan, France, Germany, Sweden, and Canada…hardly low-wage sweatshop economies.

    3. Glad that we can all acknowledge the real problem here: Walmart.

  • Kevin Love

    What wrong with split shifts?  I know lots of transit workers who work during the morning peak hours, go home, have lunch, have a nap, then go back to work during the afternoon peak hours. 

    Seems like a nice lifestyle to me.

  • Erikmar

    It’s not a question of “allowing” them to work short shifts, any more than it’s a question of “allowing” people to be underemployed or “allowing” them to work 2-3 jobs to make ends meet. The question is, what do the workers themselves say they want, and do the institutions have enough work schemes to accommodate as many worker preferences as possible. 
    In addition to Larry Hanley’s observation that the notion of the collective interest has all but disappeared from public discourse and debate (indeed, one could probably make a good argument that public – in the Habermasian or even Kantian sense of the term – has effectively disappeared), the notion that workplaces should be at least in part organized to serve the needs of those who staff them has all but disappeared. Instead, all we have is short term shareholder interest – in fact, corporations are legally obliged to maximize “profit – and things like effects on the local community, effects on those who work in the organization, and of course environmental damage, are treated as externalities.

  • Erikmar

    On (1): Please address the comment. If you think he’s wrong, say why.
    On (2): Context matters. He was talking about Walmart-style globalization, where capital is allowed to roam freely across nation-state borders, but where physical people, or labor, can’t, which means that wage differentials are created, maintained, and can be manipulated to generate greater profits. If you think this economic model has helped the bottom 80% of the population here, whose real wages have stagnated for 30+ years now while productivity has risen continuously, please make that case.
    On (3): Metonymy. I learned about it in public school; I wonder if that section made it past the funding cuts.

  • If you think he’s wrong, say why.

    I’m the author of the first link – those are the reasons I think he’s wrong.

    Anyway, you may call it metonymy or “context matters,” but I call it avoiding the question.

  • “I don’t know that much about rail. I’m a bus driver.”

    Perhaps he forgot, but he’s actually the president of the US and Canada’s largest transit union.

  • Erikmar

    I read your article and found it to be typical of its genre – placing blame where the overall effect is the smallest. First off, Larry addressed the 8 hour workday issue. For the other 4 points, there may be abuses here and there, but would you really argue that our primary transit problem, namely the over dependence on the private automobile, would be even slightly alleviated were unions to tow your line? Whatever public money is lost by these union “abuses” is imperceptible compared to the amount of money lost through the subsidies to the fossil fuel extraction industries, both through outright subsidy as well as through allowing corps to write off much of their r and d as business expenses. A tax not collected is equivalent to a tax collected and then paid out as a subsidy…
    Furthermore, our extensive public commitments to the urban amenities that favor use of the private auto, such as parking requirements, highways, road width inflation, etc. have no counterpart in the transit union sector. Finally, transit union abuses don’t contribute at all to the externalities such as public health problems (pollution-related, obesity), not to mention AGW, that our ideologically-driven commitment to a system dominated by the private auto generates as a matter of course. 
    Were the costs associated with those externalities and the costs associated with the subsidies added to the cost to each of us of owning a private car, transit unions could be paid twice the amount and work half as much, and public transit would probably still be more cost effective than the private alternative.
    If you want to address the problems of public transit, start with the big one: it’s on a financially uneven playing field against the private auto, and choosing to focus on inefficiencies due to unions is simply an evasion of the core issue.

  •  I read your article and found it to be typical of its genre…

    Why don’t we stick to the substance of my arguments and stay away from its “genre,” okay?

    For the other 4 points, there may be abuses here and there, but would you really argue that our primary transit problem, namely the over dependence on the private automobile, would be even slightly alleviated were unions to tow your line?

    American land use and transportation has plenty of problems, and I’m not arguing that transit union CBAs are the most important, but obviously I think it’s more important than you do. Certainly worth at least one post on Streetsblog and one article. You say there “may be abuses here and there,” and I say the problem is systemic.

    So how do we solve this – you say one thing, I say another? By presenting evidence. He didn’t refute my point about the eight-hour days – my points were largely about rail, which he pleaded ignorance on – and I still had four other points. All I can do is catalog the abuses that I see (as I’ve done) and extrapolate from there. Don’t agree with me? Fine – address the points themselves, rather than sweeping it under the rug by saying “abuses here and there” without making any attempt to back that up with facts. Also, I have to say, that “abuses here and there” line sounds very reminiscent of what corrupt police departments always say – “there are bad apples, but…” Sorry, but it just doesn’t comport with what I see.

  • One last thing:

     Finally, transit union abuses don’t contribute at all to the externalities such as public health problems (pollution-related, obesity), not to mention AGW, that our ideologically-driven commitment to a system dominated by the private auto generates as a matter of course.

    In as far as abuses make transit more costly and lower the amount that can be provided, then yes, actually they do contribute to all those things.

  • Erikmar

    OK, so if we agree that union “abuses”, to the extent that they exist, and even if they’re not abuses but are systemic inefficiencies, are not the largest problem and as such, they’re worth one article, then please point me to the surely thousands that you’ve written that would address what must be several orders of magnitude the larger problem, namely the subsidies favoring the private auto. 
    To me, it’s more of a question of priorities and the political effect that critique is likely to engender. So, for example, we can point to all the horrible things that iran does in Iraq, supplying weapons and the rest, but that’s extremely disingenuous when the reporting comes from a paper that supported the outright invasion and provided the ideological cover during the buildup to that invasion. International aggression is orders of magnitude worse than trafficking in explosives, and for a paper or public forum to concentrate on the evils of the junior partner while remaining silent on the senior one reveals commitment more to ideology than to problem solving.
    I don’t begrudge transit workers their sick days or overtime, and I don’t mind that my tax dollars are used “inefficiently” to make a life like theirs better; I do mind, though, when my tax dollars are used to reinforce the already excessive concentrations of wealth and power in the fossil fuel industry, especially given all of the associated problems that come along as inextricable parts of the same ride.  

  • …then please point me to the surely thousands that you’ve written that would address what must be several orders of magnitude the larger problem, namely the subsidies favoring the private auto

    Voilà! Okay, maybe not thousands, but hundreds!

  • Atularry

    Transit efficiencies should be focused on moving more people, faster, with more reliability and less carbon output.

    The ideological attacks on bus driver pay are a waste of time if efficiency is your true interest.

    It’s all a land use and funding question. If we really invested in the service, provided us lanes and bus rapid transit, we could get people out of their cars, clean the environment and save money and commute times for both transit riders and auto users.

    All of the sideshow attacks on union rules are distractions and not worthy of our focus. I know this sounds self serving, but having spent a lot of time at many bargaining tables, I know that general economic realities work out CBA inefficiencies.

    Nobody is getting rich driving a bus. Those of us who might be angry at unfair distribution of wealth ought to look a little higher up the food chain than bus drivers. Time for qualitative easing. Take it easy on your skilled hard working bus driver.

  • What about my criticism makes it “ideological”? Every concept has some ideology attached to it – if you criticize military spending, someone can claim you’re an ideological pacifist. If you call for more military spending, someone can claim you’re an ideological neocon.

    So what about my criticisms – which are based on real claims of bad things happening, not a priori anti-union logic – make them “ideological”?

  • Bus Operator Jim

    I love split shifts.  I can be my best behind that wheel for a few hours at a time.  I’ve have had that ten hour crap shift and believe me, before the end of that shift I was not a safe as I should have been.  It is a good life to provide a safe, courteous, and refreshing environment for the riding public.  I am grateful and I’m a union man!

  • Bus Operator Jim

    I have personally met Larry Hanley and he believes in taking care of the people who operate buses and the people who ride on them.  He’s a standup guy and people ought to listen to what he’s really saying.  Thank You.

  • tinyurl.com/4skyaqr 

  • Erikmar

    Right, although to make it really comparable, you’d have to personalize it to the degree you’ve done in the bus driver union piece, where it’s clear who the boogeymen are. So, in the case of government policies that both directly and indirectly (by providing the financial framework) subsidize private-auto-centric development, you’d need to ask why those policies have come to dominate the landscape (so to speak) and who exactly benefits. Once you ask those questions, you’re no longer looking at bus drivers, union or not, or probably even at the huge majority of non-managerial workers. You’re looking at what LH calls class war, where one side is winning, thanks, in no small part, to the ideological support of “free market” advocates.

  • Danny

    a) Transit, being provided by the government and therefore not involving profits, has a direct cost-to-output relationship. Higher costs mean lower transit miles, and lower costs mean higher transit miles. 
    b) Less transit means more pollution, more global warming, more congestion, and less sustainable development
    c) Unions, as well as Buy America provisions, increase the cost of capital improvements and operations. 

    Therefore Transit Unions and the Buy-America provisions that they support are the enemies of us all. Without them, we would have more transit, less pollution, less global warming, less congestion, and more sustainable development. 

    We, as citizens of the United States, would be better off without them. The sooner they are replaced by real people or computers the better. 

  • Mjh55404

    Wow you are so wrong on this. Many operators like the split shifts because they often go to school or run their own business during the day. Yes this schedule is bad for parents….this is exactly the point….nearly the entire schedule that 50% of the operators have is bad for parents.  This is one of the sacrafices people make to serve the public.

    Transit already functions on overtime…. we are not like a hosital.  transit operators would love to work rotations of 3/4 12 hours shifts. Part time employees come and go faster than agencies can train them. King County Transit in Seattle recently decided it was more cost effective to transition part time operators to full time hours than to continue to train, terminate and watch part time operators leave for full time work.  They were unable to fill vacancies for 20$ an hour starting because it is not worth driving to work for 2.5 – 3 hours of work and being laid off for holidays and breaks in the university schedule.

    TriMet in Portland is does not even have a closing date for its part time operator positions.

    Hospitals scrape by on short staffing. Transit does not….. when we miss a “run” due to staffing we often have to return funding for the lost service hours the agency was given subsidy for…this is in addition to loss revenue from the farebox….  then buses get overload and pass customers up causing even more problems. Full time operators already working 9 hour split shifts cannot work overtime past their shifts without then being “illeagal” to work without rest early the next day.

    Transit has long provided service from 5am-9pm on core routes with two 8-10hours shifts….9pm-5am on owl routes and during the bulk of the rush hour 6am-10am and 2pm-6pm. This essential service is disasterous when managed poorly. 

    Once upon a time when the economy was booming and agencies had spare inventory buses to operate on limited trips to areas to promote ridership you would see buses used for only 3-4 hours a day… 1-2 in am and pm. This meant you need a driver to cover that service on a “part time basis” over both rush periods….back then no one would take these jobs for 20$ an hour limited/ or no benefits.  Those days are long gone…the funding is not there and agencies are no longer keeping inventory to service routes for 3-4 hours a day.

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