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: 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.