Workers Save Lives

03/25/2015 05:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015
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Labor unions, particularly those for public sector workers, have become such a popular punching bag that their membership might as well wear Everlast tags. They are such a common scapegoat that they might as well have horns. (A few right wingers probably think they already do.) At this point, it wouldn't surprise me if the Koch brothers bought off a researcher to conclude that labor unions killed the dinosaurs, followed by FOX News devoting hours of coverage to it. If the trend continues, union-bashing may overtake baseball as the national pastime.

And lately, there has been some particularly harsh rhetoric equating unions with murderers. At a conservative conference last month, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker likened labor unions to ISIS. This past December, Rudy Giuliani delivered a crazy comment less publicized than some of his other recent ones when he said the teachers union bears some responsibility for police brutality. His reasoning was that the union's resistance to rightwing education "reform" somehow leads people to a life of crime, at which point they might be more likely to be on the receiving end of police brutality. And there must be some sort of collective unconscious among teachers union bashers, because Eva Moskowitz independently reached a similar conclusion this month, equating black children in the current education system to the victims of police brutality.

These statements are so insane that I don't even want to dignify them with rebuttals, but in the name of educating the public I will. For starters, all the discourse on Wisconsin's municipal worker unions seemed to gloss over two major facts. Namely, multiple analyses found that the state's budget shortfall was mostly due to expenses unrelated to obligations to government workers; and that the workers had already agreed to multiple concessions. Now I'll be the first to tell you that my knowledge of foreign politics is lacking, but I'm pretty sure ISIS has not agreed to many concessions, nor is it in reality not responsible for the various atrocities.

And this equating of the teachers union with police brutality is another logic-defying remark, because the rhetoric on education in this country isn't based on facts. There is little evidence that the anti-union reforms the right gushes over have any success: charter schools do not inherently perform better than traditional public schools, as I discussed before; nor is there evidence that either merit pay or school vouchers improve educational outcomes. And before pointing the finger at the UFT, Giuliani might want to consider all that he's done to perpetuate police brutality, given his kneejerk defense of most incidents during his mayoralty.

But I doubt the facts will change anyone's opinion. After all, why should a little thing like facts get in the way of union-bashing?

However, harsh anti-union rhetoric is one thing, but worse is when folks actively try to ruin the lives of workers. One recent example is the implementation of Vision Zero in New York City.

The Vision Zero plan has very good intentions - to end the city's astonishingly high numbers of motor vehicle-related deaths and injuries to pedestrians. In 2013 alone, there were over 16,000 pedestrians and cyclists injured by motor vehicles, and 180 killed. The package of reforms includes lowering the city's speed limit, increasing the number of speed cameras, and redesigning streets. Another hallmark of Vision Zero is the passage of city code Section 19-190, commonly called the "Right of Way" or "Failure to Yield" law, under which failure to yield to a pedestrian went from a traffic infraction to a criminal misdemeanor.

And indeed, so far the statistics for Vision Zero's first year look positive: pedestrian fatalities for 2014 dropped to 132, the lowest number since the city began keeping records 100 years ago.

However, there has been a major discrepancy between the intention of the law and its application. Because instead of being used to punish and prevent reckless driving, the law has become a means of scapegoating non-reckless bus drivers. So far, they have been arrested at a staggeringly disproportionate rate under the new law: of the 22 arrests for failure to yield under the new law, six have been MTA bus drivers. That amounts to 27% of arrests.

But are 27% of traffic fatalities caused by MTA bus drivers? That's not what the numbers show: of the 132 fatalities last year, only eight involved an MTA bus, which amounts to 6%. And of those eight, one was the result of a woman crawling under a bus to retrieve her cellphone. If we exclude that incident, the percentage drops to 5%, meaning that MTA bus drivers are being arrested at a rate more than five times that of bus fatalities for which their culpability is even feasible.

Indeed, an incident this past December demonstrates that non-reckless bus drivers are being unfairly arrested. Bus driver Reginald Prescott was arrested and charged under the Failure to Yield law when he fatally struck an elderly woman. Prescott was making a turn just as the woman was beginning to cross. Investigators found that he was driving at a speed of under 5 mph. Add in the fact that he was not intoxicated or texting while driving, and see how implausible it is that he was driving recklessly.

The conduct of law enforcement also demonstrates that the city's bus drivers are being demonized. There's the case last month of MTA bus driver Francisco de Jesus, who had almost three decades of experience and a good driving record. He struck and injured a fifteen year-old girl while making a left turn. De Jesus said he looked, but understandably did not see an adolescent girl out of the corner of his eye while perched up behind the wheel. He was so traumatized by the incident that he was hospitalized. Nevertheless, none of this stopped the authorities from taking de Jesus out of the hospital, handcuffing him, and putting him in a jail cell. Their one concession, after heated negotiations with a union rep, was to take de Jesus in an unmarked car.

Compare these to the case of Kristin Rodriguez, an unlicensed driver who last September ran over and killed a woman with his minivan while making a turn. He was not charged under the Right of Way law, but instead received a summons for failure to yield and charged with third degree aggravated unlicensed operation. Rodriguez's punishment was a $400 fine. Another example is the driver who fatally struck Moshe Kanofsky this past December. The driver was not arrested, let alone subjected to a perp walk. Instead, he received a ticket for "imprudent speeding."

But other recent incidents even more strongly suggest the specific scapegoating of MTA bus drivers under Vision Zero, because even non-MTA bus drivers seem to be getting more latitude. Last October, a Roosevelt Island Operating Corp. (RIOC) bus struck Swedish model Anna Maria Mostrom while she was riding her bicycle. The collision left her brain dead and she died not long after. An investigation found that the collision was the bus driver's fault for failing to yield. So what charges did this non-MTA bus driver face? None: no arrest, no perp walk, no ticket. Nothing.

This January, a Nassau Inter-County Express (NICE) bus in Queens fatally struck a woman in a crosswalk while making a right turn. Reportedly, the driver ignored warnings from shouting passengers before hitting the woman. The woman was knocked under the bus but still alive, and was loudly screaming. Yet the driver was apparently still oblivious, because he continued to drive until she was run over and killed by the bus's rear tires. What punishment did he face? Once again, nothing.

And last month, a private charter bus struck and killed a man in a crosswalk while making a right turn. What was the driver's punishment? I think you know where this is going: nothing.

You also might have noticed that I'm not giving the names of these non-MTA bus drivers. That's not by choice, but because the authorities are apparently so concerned for the welfare of these drivers that their names were not released.

This makes one wonder what exactly was different in these cases that warranted no arrests. Other than the fact that these bus drivers were not MTA employees. Some of these drivers are actually members of unions other than TWU Local 100: RIOC drivers are represented by IBT Local 210, and NICE drivers are represented by TWU Local 252. So even being a member of a less-vilified TWU chapter may entitle a driver to less scrutiny.

Currently, the Failure to Yield law gives the authorities total leeway in deciding whether to charge drivers. Thus, we are left with the serious question of what criteria and intentions officers on the scene employ when choosing whom to charge under the law. Although there is no clear indication as to why TWU 100 seems to be targeted, it is interesting to note that for the past several years this particular TWU chapter has been at the forefront of criticizing some of New York City's policing practices.

But despite these trends in arrests, the fact of the matter is that MTA bus drivers are some of the most trained and scrutinized on New York City's roads. Drivers have ongoing training and drug testing, something other drivers do not. They also drive knowing that at any time there may be a passenger on the bus who is an undercover monitor from the MTA. And it's not just an idle threat: 371 drivers were cited for violations during a period of a few weeks in 2013. (One driver lost six hours pay because he took one hand off the wheel to wave at another bus operator.) Any driver involved in a collision is immediately taken off duty while an investigation occurs.

And folks who have actually driven city buses can tell you just how difficult the job is. Not surprisingly, those who know what it's like to navigate a bus have much more sympathy for drivers than some news outlets and anti-motor vehicle bloggers. That includes MTA chairman Tom Prendergast, who has the distinction of briefly having driven a bus. He said,

I drove a bus for 30 days. The two hazards you're most faced with are right turns and left turns. I fully appreciate the difficulties bus operators have with respect to turning buses at crowded intersections.

Councilman I. Daneek Miller, who was a bus driver for almost two decades, had similar sentiments:

Running such a system on our busy streets is no small feat. It demands the often grueling labor and attention of thousands of bus operators...Bus operators often work long hours, drive 40- and 60-foot vehicles with built-in blind spots, and provide service on crowded streets with sharp turns and a tight schedule to meet.

So as bus drivers can attest, turning a corner onto a crosswalk is an inherently high stakes maneuver, and it is absurd to use Rockefeller Law-style punishment to scapegoat cautious bus drivers who fall into the trap.

Given that, members of the City Council have proposed a bill to exempt transit workers from the Right of Way law. However, such a bill would be redundant: not only was the targeting of bus driver clearly not the intent of the law, but in fact the law clearly specifies that transit workers are exempt from it. As my friend Corey Bearak pointed out, the text states, "This section shall not apply to persons, teams, motor vehicles, and other equipment working on behalf of the city of New York, the state of New York or the federal government." But just as facts don't get in the way of union scapegoating, neither does the law.

So instead of scapegoating, we should make systemic changes to lower the risk that a fatality might happen. One proposed change is to move crosswalks away from intersections so that pedestrians crossing are not right in front of drivers making difficult turns. This would also stand to reduce collisions by civilian drivers making turns. Another good idea being floated is to reduce the number of turns on bus routes, so that there are fewer opportunities for this perilous situation to turn deadly. Still another idea being suggested is to install rear wheel side guards that prevent people from being crushed under the rear wheels, which was a factor in three MTA bus deaths last year.

And with all the vilification of transit workers, there is far less coverage of the transit workers who actually save lives. The only notable exception is the New York Daily News, which despite being consistently anti-union ironically holds an annual "Hometown Heroes in Transit" award ceremony. One honoree was George Smith, a bus driver who courageously got his passengers off the bus after a gunman fired upon someone, then drove the bus to a police station. Nevertheless, online coverage of the incident in WNBC news, DNAinfo, the New York Post, WCBS news, and PIX11 news, among others, made only passing references to Smith. The Daily News was the only outlet at the time to identify him by name. (The Post used the incident as an excuse to praise Stop-and-Frisk.)

Another honoree was Jonathan Cassell, who in December rescued a passenger being pummeled by someone. Cassell, concerned that both individuals might fall onto the tracks, pulled the attacker off the victim despite having a history of back pain. In a quick Google search, I did not find any coverage that month outside of a Daily News article. But there was plenty of coverage on "manspreading."

And transit workers are far from the only union workers saving lives. There are of course the numerous police officers, firefighters, and other rescue workers saving lives around the world each day. And as I discussed in my last column, the "Black Lives Matter" movement I take part in is pro-police, not "anti-cop" as some would like you to believe.

But beyond the usual folks you associate with saving lives are many other union workers doing it, such as in the wake Superstorm Sandy. For example, hospital workers at NYU Langone Medical Center evacuated 260 patients when they lost power during the storm. The elevators were down, so workers carried patients down as many as 17 flights of stairs. There were 20 newborns who were carried down nine flights of stairs; four were connected to breathing tubes, and nurses had to squeeze bags to manually deliver oxygen the whole time.

However, following the storm the news coverage on labor unions was mostly negative. Major coverage was devoted to reports that an Alabama utility firm trying to help in New Jersey was turned away for being non-union. The claim would later prove to be totally false.

Even when union workers are not literally saving lives, they are still enriching lives. Consider the fact that a major study concluded that union workers are "more satisfied with their lives" than their non-union counterparts. It certainly stands to reason that anyone will be happier having an advocate who will help ensure better wages, working conditions, and benefits. Another study found that simply living in a country with a higher percentage of union workers is enough to make people happier, no doubt because the better working conditions and labor laws the unions advocate for will inevitably have a positive impact on all workers.

And workers often sacrifice their lives in the line of service. That includes the vilified transit workers, like MTA bus driver William Pena, who was killed on the job when a drunk driver crashed into his bus. Or Louis Moore, a Subway signal maintainer who was accidentally struck and killed by a train when he fell onto the tracks. But naturally, these folks earn scant news coverage.

Even more egregious is the scant news coverage is devoted to all the far more prosaic deaths of workers on the job. In 2013 alone, there were 4,405 workers killed on the job. To put that in perspective, that is only slightly fewer than the number of all American military fatalities in Iraq since 2003. And although the media focuses its attention on courageous deaths by law enforcement and first responders, nevertheless the highest death rates occur in industries far more mundane: for 2013, the industries with the ten highest worker death rates were construction, electrical work, agricultural work, driving, mining machine operation, sanitation, roofing, the air industry, fishing, and logging. Yet while we justifiably declare that "Blue Lives Matter," no one is saying "Blue Collar Lives Matter." Because we are much less likely to pay attentions deaths not of the dramatic nature you might see in a movie or television show.

In fact, mainly the opposite is occurring today, as big corporations work hard to fight and peel back work safety regulations because it might cost them money. And the consequences have been deadly: in Texas, where conservative darling Rick Perry has given big business carte blanche when it comes to regulation, workers are 12% more likely to die on the job than the rest of the country.

And at the national level, there's the example of OSHA pushing for years to halve the amount of silica dust emissions to which workers can be exposed. It is estimated that this would prevent the deaths from respiratory illness of 700 workers a year, but big business keeps griping that it would be expensive and hurt the economy. However, when complaining about cost it seems they're not considering the money they would have to shell out down the line to pay settlements when the workers and their families file class action lawsuits. But heck, the big corporations probably figure they'll just buy off politicians to pass laws to limit their liability.

Nevertheless, I will admit that greater regulation to protect workers might cost jobs and lower profit margins. After all, it could be a big blow to the healthcare and mortuary industries if they have a dropoff in clientele.

Yet worker safety is not given the attention it deserves, compared to union bashing. While anti-union folks and even popular culture gleefully point out high profile murders perpetrated by unions from back when there was a much greater mob influence (who hasn't heard a Jimmy Hoffa joke?), workplace deaths from unsafe conditions aren't regarded as murder. Instead, those are a side effect of "increasing efficiency" and "getting big government off your back."

It seems to take far more dramatic events - and much higher death tolls - for unsafe working conditions to earn coverage. Things like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and more recently the Bangladeshi garment factory fire have entered to popular consciousness, but it shouldn't have to take mass immolation for anyone to bat an eye.

And in addition to hazardous working conditions, workers regularly are literally murdered by corporations (allegedly) in other parts of the world when they try to unionize. The Bangladeshi garment fire earned plenty of coverage, but a year earlier there was not much for the murder of Aminul Islam, a Bangladeshi labor organizer of garment workers. Two years earlier, he was among several labor organizers who were arrested and tortured by police.

Murdering of labor leaders is a phenomenon hardly limited to Bangladesh. There are also the high numbers of labor organizer deaths in Latin American countries, especially Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras, in industries such as agriculture. Household brand names like Coca-Cola and Nestle have been accused of involvement in the murders of trade unionists that might hurt their profit margins. (Of course, let me qualify that these are all allegations not fully verified, because I can't afford to be sued.)

Heck, it can even happen in America, like when my own father was tortured for trying to organize farm workers on Long Island. (He had burn marks to remember it by.)

So stop equating union workers with murderers and blaming them for all of society's ills. That includes an end to abusing the new Failure to Yield law as an excuse to demonize TWU 100 workers, and making real reform instead. There appears to be hope on the horizon, given that Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson put Reginald Prescott's trial on hold and will likely drop the charges, whereas some politically ambitious prosecutors would be punitive to get press coverage.

Nevertheless, this is only a drop in the bucket of what we need to do to protect America's workers. Other things must include aggressively educating the public to combat the misinformation used to demonize labor unions in the media and political rhetoric; pushing reforms using an evidence-based approach instead of a union-scapegoating one; bringing attention to the epidemics of workplace deaths in America, and the murders of activists in other countries (allegedly) for daring to organize workers; and publicizing all the good work and sacrifices of union workers.

But let's face it: the mainstream media and our politicians are not going to be so easily persuaded, so it will take all of us working hard to bring attention to it directly to the public until the people in power and the media are forced to acknowledge it. And as I said above, we must work hard so that mass deaths are not the threshold for someone in the mainstream to take notice. The assault on workers has ramped up in these last few years, and there is no better time than now to stop it dead in its tracks.