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New York MTA wages war on the poor and working class

By Jake Holtzman

NYPD officer in the subway station. (FightBack!News/Getty Images)

New York, NY – For working New Yorkers, taking the subway is an essential part of their day-to-day life. Having a car in New York is incredibly difficult and expensive, which means unless you are rich enough to take a cab to work every day, the subway is basically the only viable option. So for the many New Yorkers with working-class jobs that do not allow them to show up late without risk of getting fired, it is very important that the subway runs smoothly and remains affordable.

However, the reality is that New York’s Metro Transit Authority (MTA) struggles to maintain a dilapidated subway system that faces constant delays. Only about 25% of stations are fully accessible, and the MTA estimates it will be $426 billion in debt by 2023. How does the MTA propose to solve these problems? Their ‘solution’ is to ruthlessly police the poor and the homeless in a new crackdown on fare evasion, and to further exploit transit workers, putting more money into the pockets of MTA officials and higher ups.

The MTA announced in late 2019 that they will hire 500 new cops to patrol the subway stations and stop people from evading the subway fare. This comes as part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s push for so-called ‘quality of life policing.’ In other words, Cuomo and the MTA want to police the poor and the homeless out of the subways, which will in their minds improve the ‘quality of life’ for those who can afford the subway fare.

Since the MTA announcement of crackdown, New Yorkers have released videos of officers using excessive force against people for evading the fare, or even just for selling churros in the subway station. The MTA claims the new policing effort against fare evasion will save them $200 million over the next four years. This is a ridiculous claim on multiple fronts. For one thing, people aren’t all of a sudden going to roll over and pay if they literally cannot afford the subway fare. Secondly, the expansion of police forces will cost $249 million over the next four years – much more than the MTA plans to save.

All of this shows how out of touch with reality the MTA leadership and Governor Cuomo are. Rather than pushing for, say, increased taxes on the rich to help fund the transit system, their logic says, let’s squeeze more money out of poor and working people, despite the fact that New York is one of the richest cities in the world. Clearly, Cuomo and the MTA do not value the lives of the poor, and are only motivated by ways to save and make more money.

The MTA is also attempting to save money off the backs of working people through the exploitation of transit workers. In May 2019, when the transit workers’ contract was up for renewal, the MTA made an insulting first offer that would have resulted in major concessions on the part of transit workers. The MTA’s stubbornness in pushing their agenda forced the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 to go through six months of contract negotiations to fight for workers’ rights. While the TWU Local 100 was able to secure wage increases and other wins for workers in the new contract that got approved in January 2020, the MTA forced through increases in workers’ healthcare costs, adding higher charges for emergency room visits and brand-name prescription drugs.

The MTA is also now pushing for workers to act as a kind of secondary police force in helping to stop fare evasion – something that is not in transit workers’ job training, and that puts them at risk of potentially dangerous and violent situations. The MTA boasts that it will save millions of dollars as a result of their new contract and budget plan. If the employer is saving so much money, this means that they plan to find whatever ways they can to further undermine the rights and wellbeing of transit workers.

Most resistance to the MTA’s new attacks on poor and working people has come in the form of demonstrations against the crackdown on fare evasion and the hiring of 500 new cops. Forces on the ground have mobilized around these issues, and two well-attended actions were held in late 2019, with a third held at the end of January.

In spite of this mass pushback and disapproval, Governor Cuomo and the MTA have chosen to spend the city’s money on hiring more cops rather than actually paying transit workers living wages and fixing the broken down subway system. This decision is an attack on poor and working people on many levels. First, the cops are literally attacking poor people who cannot afford the subway fare by brutally harassing them with excessive force. Second, the neglect to actually fix the broken down subway system is an attack on poor and working people who need to get to work on time to avoid facing unemployment, which could of course, for some, lead to homelessness. Third, the MTA’s incompetence is also an attack on transit workers.

When transit workers are forced to fix urgent problems with the subways that happen on a daily basis, their lives and health are put directly in danger as they work in the subway tunnels while subway service continues to operate. So by not setting aside greater resources to actually pay transit workers a living wage, give them sufficient healthcare benefits, and fix problems more proactively, the MTA is directly attacking the health and wellbeing of transit workers, which of course, in turn, results in a less functional subway system that continues to put poor and working people at risk of losing their jobs.

Bearing all of this in mind, when Cuomo and the MTA decide not to invest the resources (resources which they clearly have if they can afford to hire so many cops) in fixing a broken subway system, they are not just causing an inconvenience for people – they are actually putting poor and working people’s lives directly in danger.

The situation with New York’s subway system is yet another example of how capitalism time and again fails working people. The problem is, Cuomo and the MTA only see the subway system through the eyes of the bosses and the rich. If New York’s leaders and those in charge of the MTA acted from a working-class perspective, they would understand why the transit system is broken; they would understand that the system will remain broken until it actually pays transit workers living wages, and puts resources into ensuring that poor and working people can get to their jobs on time, rather than attacking them over a $2.75 subway fare. But such sensible thinking will never come out of a capitalist system because capitalism is all about more profit for the employers, no matter how much that means exploiting workers and neglecting the needs of the working class and poor.

Only under socialism can we imagine a system where transit workers get a living wage along with the healthcare and other benefits they need; where the transit authorities prioritize fixing broken subway equipment and infrastructure because they actually value the lives of working people who rely on the subway to get to work; and where there is no need for cops in the subway stations because there is no need for a constantly increasing subway fare in the first place. Only under socialism can we have a transit system that truly works for all and reflects the needs of poor and working people.

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