Wednesday, March 17, 2004
The roads must roll
You might ask, "How dare those workers strike, knowing the inconvenience it could create??"
Well, the cause of the strike is simple enough to explain. The key (official) players are the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, and the Amalgamated Transit Union. Acting under Pawlenty's direction, the MTA decided to submit, as their final offer, a contract proposal that featured a whopping 1% raise, an increase in employee premiums for family health insurance, and, get this, a plan to phase out health insurance benefits for retired workers. [source]
That's right. The MTA's final offer includes a plan to renege on benefits that have already been earned. It's as if you were to pay into your 401k for 25 years and then have the bank tell you that they've changed their policy and will be reallocating the money to meet other lending needs.
The union balked. Maybe I'm biased, but I'm not willing to describe this one as a greedy union using its vast power to distort the market.
It looks like a bad time to be a pensioner. Suppose this strike drags on for months, the way the California grocery strike did. Every day that goes by, the workers on the picket line will have to ask themselves whether they're willing to forgo a paycheck in order to save somebody else's benefits. There's going to come a time when the answer will be 'no.'
So Pawlenty and the MTA have cooked up some pretty strong kung-fu. Unless the union has got Wong Fei Hong waiting in the wings, we may be looking at a beat down.
It gets worse.
Governor Pawlenty, it turns out, is beholden to an organization called the Minnesota Taxpayers League. These charming folks are from the Grover Norquist school of backroom bathtub accounting. Their hope is that the strike will drag on long enough for all mass transit customers to find alternative ways to get around. Once this is accomplished, the riderless MTA can be drowned in their basin of choice.
By the way:
The University of Minnesota estimated the annual metrowide -- not statewide -- spending on roads by all levels of government at $4.2 billion in 1998. That's 14 times the amount spent on transit, or about 96 percent of all government money spent on metro transportation. And it fails to count the private costs of driving -- money spent on cars, fuel, insurance, parking and maintenance, or the external costs of pollution, congestion and loss of productivity. [link]
Anyhow, the Taxpayers League has been doing their darndest to get stories into the press about how convenient it is not to have the roads congested with all of those bulky buses. They've even been releasing a new transit fact every day. Tuesday's was, "Transit will never serve US cities well because we don’t like living cheek by jowl."
(Another fact cited in Tuesday's Taxpayers League press release is that, "The most dense U.S. city is Los Angeles." If that sounds wrong to you, then you're right. This analysis from the Census Bureau shows that in 1990 L.A. ranked 8th in population density among the 20 most populous U.S. cities.)
Propaganda is as propaganda does, I suppose, and the Taxpayers League wouldn't be much to worry about if all they did was write press releases and stare longingly at the bathwater. But check out the plan their man Pawlenty came up with on Friday:
We will be making grants totaling $100,000 per week to nonprofit social-service agencies for additional transportation services they provide to transit-dependent people. The money comes from dollars that Metro Transit is saving while the buses aren't operating. If we find that the needs are greater than we expected, we'll expand the program. [link]
There's a part of me that wants to object to this proposal just because it's clearly part of an effort to bust the union. But I'm fair minded enough to acknowledge that the MTA has a right to continue to attempt to provide services during the strike, so I'll let that go.
The real problem is that the proposal transforms public transportation into something provided as a charity rather than as a city service. Take a minute and ask yourself this: what non-profit organizations in my neighborhood own and operate buses? If your answer was reasonably close to, "Why, I believe the Seventh Day Adventists have a bus or two," then your neighborhood is a lot like mine.
Faith-based busing for the poor!