Workers Vanguard No. 972

21 January 2011


A Transit Worker’s Inside Story

January 14, 2011

To WV,

I wanted to give you some anecdotes about the city’s now notorious non-action during the holiday blizzard. Here are my impressions on what happened. Most of the information that was reported in the press seems to be true. Transit did not enact its highest-level plan to tackle the storm until the day the storm hit. As a result, necessary equipment that would be used to tackle the storm, like its diesel work trains and its specialized snow-thrower trains, were either idle or stuck in train yards under several inches of wind-whipped snow. Unacceptable levels of snow and ice accumulated on the tracks, with disastrous results. Trains stalled in open areas or on elevated tracks unable to move, some with passengers unable to leave. The HVAC systems on the passenger trains, unable to produce enough heat to counteract the freezing cold and fierce winds, left much to be desired. In one reported case, a woman had to be hospitalized for exposure.

Part of the problem was also the question of personnel. Because the storm hit overnight, most of the morning shift woke up to find that there was no way to get to work. Had Transit enacted the appropriate plans, funds would have been authorized to pay overtime for workers to come in earlier, or stay later. I work the morning shift, and remember the chaos at my work location the morning after the storm. Nobody’s relief was showing up, so most workers who were there had been on the clock since some time the day before, mostly pulling doubles, but even a triple was reported. At the same time, the entire midnight cleaning crew was still there because they had no way of getting home. Some of them wanted to clock back in and help out, but the boss would refuse, saying that the overtime wasn’t authorized. Some of my workmates decided to walk to work from wherever it was they lived. All morning, people would be trickling in hours late, huffing and shivering after their long march from some far corner of the borough.

None of the recovery effort was centralized or coordinated. Rescue trains were sent out on orders of local supervision. The “Rail Control Center,” which is the centralized authority for the subway system, was not responding to radio transmissions from train crews for many hours. This is particularly distressing since oversight is imperative when you have rescue trains that regularly move opposite the normal direction of travel. Without coordination, there is less protection against a head-on collision or other disaster. From the top down, it seemed as though the Transit Authority was initially absolutely paralyzed by its inability to handle the situation. The only agency body that seemed alert and ready to handle the situation was the office of labor relations, which metes out discipline. In the aftermath of the storm the union issued a flier reminding workers that there are contractual protections against having your pay docked because you were late during a snow emergency. There are people being charged with being absent without leave even though they tried their best to get to work but weren’t able to make it for whatever reason.

I remember discussing the blizzard with other workers. Some said they would rather go through the experience of the 2007 Blackout. Some speculated that the TA’s problematic response was due to the new administration under Chairman Walder. This new administration couldn’t deal with the crisis, they argued, because they weren’t “operations people.” That is to say, they don’t have their jobs because of their ability to organize and execute a subway system on the scale of New York. Walder’s function, quite publicly, is to wrest concessions from the union.

A Transit Worker