Workers of the World Unite? A Big No to Congestion Pricing

The debate over New York State’s plan to raise $1 billion by levying a $15 congestion charge on cars coming into mid-town Manhattan has been framed as a cross border controversy between MTA CEO Janno Lieber and Gov. Phil Murphy, who opposes the revenue raiser and has sued in federal court to derail it.

Rep. Josh Gotttheimer  (D-NJ) has also staked out a prominent position west of the Hudson describing the MTA as “a hot mess desperate of cash.”

But with the turn of the year, it appears a growing coalition of New York City’s unions are now adamantly opposing the MTA’s plan with several union leaders sounding some of the same themes as their New Jersey union counterparts who have been urging Trenton reinstate the state’s Corporate Business Tax Surcharge to close NJ Transit’s $1 billion deficit and stave of the planned 15 percent fare hike.

It’s morphing from a border battle to a class weighted one between the planner class and the blue collar workforce that physically run the City of New York even south of 60th Street where fires break out and toilets need to be cleaned by humans that need cars to do the shift work intellectuals and C-suite types know little about.

Yes, we want to all save the planet from the perils of fossil fuel pollution, but we still have to run the physical plant.

Rather than turn essential workers commute into Manhattan into a luxury item, New York labor leaders are suggesting Albany instead start collecting the state’s Stock Transfer Tax that it has been rebating back to Wall Street since the early 1980s, returning $400 billion over the last four decades to investors

The obscure .10 per $100 stock transaction tax has been on New York State’s books since before WWI and was enacted by a Republican Governor. After New York City’s financial crisis in the 1970s’ Wall Street persuaded Albany to rebate back the tax which it has done since 1981. A similar transaction levy has been on the books in London sine the 1690s and is used by dozens of other jurisdictions around the world.

“We’re fixated with using tolls and fees as a stick against the working class and the poor but just fine with tax exemptions for corporates as a carrot where even the crumbs don’t trickle down,” wrote Bhairavi Desai, president of the Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents over 20,000 drivers. “The MTA could raise funds through closing the stock transfer tax loophole and control congestion by still limiting trucks to specific hours and restricting private vehicles to specific days based on plate IDs for example.  That feels more equitable than a tax on motorists while the wealthy are left with millions to invest in more yachts.”

“You wouldn’t need congestion pricing if you just took that Stock Transfer Tax money,” said Chris Silvera, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 808, which represents Metro North workers and building service workers in multiple locations including Stuyvesant Town. Silvera likened the MTA’s reliance on borrowing that can cause it to lose as much as 20 percent of its revenue just to pay debt service, to the economics of a third world nation.

“You know what this reminds of is how the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank treat developing countries in terms of loans and how much of their GDP is going towards just paying back IMF loans,” Silvera said.

The idea of shifting the cost of maintaining the region’s transit network more on to the shoulders of the world’s wealthiest corporations and off of workers resonates with CWA of New Jersey’s Fran Ehret, who represents 80,000 state and public sector workers.

“It’s a wonderful point,” Ehret said during a phone interview. “I think it’s a great idea for them to raise that issue and it immediately made me think of the CBT and we all know we are not doing enough to tax people and corporations that have the money and they are constantly finding ways to take it out of the working class with things like congestion pricing.”

Ehret says she’s not inherently opposed to tolls, noting her own career working for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and her tenure as president of the Turnpike Workers Union Local 194.

Ray Jensen is the assistant director of UAW’s Region 9, which represents 50,000 workers in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

“Congestion pricing is just ridiculous—it’s always the working class people that end up paying—like President Fain was saying there’s what works for the billionaire class and it doesn’t work for the working class,” Jensen said. “We should not keep paying the billionaires share by paying more just to go to work. It’s insane.”

Kevin Brown is the New Jersey State Director of 32 BJ SEIU which represent 13,0000 member union with building services workers in the commercial, residential and airport sectors  many of whom rely on mass transit to get to work. Brown supports extending NJ’s CBT, which was a 2.5 percent surcharge on corporation making in excess of $1 million in profits to support NJ Transit.

Brown notes that elected leaders would be more successful if they engaged labor unions in big policy decisions like congestion pricing before they roll them out.

“Many of the political leaders, including Gov. Hochul, should dialogue with us more before implementing big policy changes,” Brown said. “Also, congestion pricing adds another cost of living increase among many our members are facing.”

The interstate beef over congestion pricing took on economic class overtones last month when a federal lawsuit opposing congestion pricing was filed by New York City’s powerful United Federation of Teachers Union, Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella, and three civil rights organizations. They were joined by 18 elected officials representing Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens, along with Suffolk, Orange, Dutchess, Rockland, Sullivan, Delaware, Otsego, as well as Ulster County. The filing alleges the MTA’s plan was “a regressive and discriminatory pricing scheme that violates Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.”

UFT President Michael Mulgrew blasted the MTA plan observing that as it was “now constituted, it will only succeed in moving traffic and pollution from one part of the city to another, even as it increases the economic burden on working- and middle-class communities.”

“As we have said time and time again, congestion pricing is a detriment to those that will be affected by this toll, environmentally and financially, and for people of all walks of life from across the five boroughs and beyond,” Fossella said. “We appreciate the support from elected officials and interested groups, as this fight cannot be won by any one of us alone.”

In July, Murphy filed a federal lawsuit raising similar issues that argued federal regulators who approved the MTA’s plan had relied on a “fundamentally flawed and improperly truncated decision-making process” that neglected to study how the diversion of traffic from Manhattan, as a consequence of the congestion charge, would impact the surrounding New Jersey communities environmentally.

Now, a growing coalition of New York City’s unions are lining up behind the UFT speaking out against  the MTA’s plans to impose the  congestion pricing fee. Late last month, the UFT’s lawsuit won the backing of New York City’s powerful Municipal Labor Committee that represents most of New York City’s 310,000 municipal civil servants.

Harry Nespoli, chair of the Municipal Labor Committee and president of the Teamsters Local 831, told InsiderNJ the MTA’s plan to raise  charge $15 per car and $24 to $36 per truck this spring would  “destroy” the household finances of the city’s essential and emergency service workers that are required to commute into Manhattan south of 60th Street. “We need people thinking the right way. We need people to step back and take a look at this,” Nespoli said.

Nespoli added that over three quarters of the 102 unions represented at the last  MLC meeting voted to sign onto the UFT’s lawsuit opposing the MTA’s proposal. The MLC leader expressed support for resuming the collection of the Stock Transaction Tax that has cost Albany $400 billion since the levy was rebated back to investors forty years ago. “Let’s do it and start waking everybody up,” Nespoli said.

Uniformed Firefighter Association President Andy Ansbro told InsiderNJ his members should be exempted because the FDNY relies on them having access to their personal vehicles to be able to shift to different fire houses in the same shift as required.

“Every day dozens of firefighters who start off in one firehouse during their tour of duty and then be sent to another firehouse in order to compete their tour—nobody knows where they will be going until they show up for work and they figure out where the shortages are so the member’s car has always been considered an extension of the department,” Ansbro said. “So, this would put our members in the position of having to pay additional money while they are using their car for the City of New York.”

Ansbro added that relying on mass transit would be impractical because of the 70 to 80 pounds of gear firefighters need to carry with them when they are shifted around during their tour.

Back in November, John Samuelsen, international president of Transport Workers Union withdrew in protest from the Traffic Mobility Review Board, which was tasked with implementing the MTA’s congestion pricing. Samuelsen wrote  in a resignation letter  the MTA had “failed to meet the moment”  by not making ‘transit more frequent, available, and affordable to attract drivers to the transit system right now – before the first toll is even collected.”

“I don’t want to have my name on the report because I am concerned it will become a rubber stamp of the overall congestion pricing ethic,” Samuelsen told THE CITY newspaper at the time. “And the overall congestion pricing ethic is flawed because they have refused to put new service out.”

In an interview with InsiderNJ,  Samuelsen said that while he wouldn’t want to see Wall Street firms leave on account of a resumption of the Stock Transfer Tax, “we desperately need the revenue for social services on the streets of New York and we are in dire need of public investment for our subway and bus system. It’s utterly ridiculous we keep rebating back billions to these super wealthy Wall Street banks and investment firms and if you walk down Broadway right outside their doors we have homeless people and veterans sleeping on cardboard boxes—what a juxtaposition.”


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