NEW YORK -- With the deadline looming for a transit strike in New York City, labor and management negotiators said yesterday that they were divided over not only wage demands but also two important noneconomic issues: disciplinary procedures and work rule changes.
The city's 33,000 subway and bus workers, who are threatening to walk out Wednesday, are demanding changes in disciplinary procedures, complaining that New York City Transit takes a guilty-until-proved-innocent approach and often suspends workers for minor infractions.
But transit officials are also pursuing one of their longtime priorities, demanding that the transit union agree to more flexible work rules. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees the city transit agency, hopes the rule changes will increase productivity.
Probably the best news to come out of this week's bargaining was that Willie James, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, said he thought that progress had been made on the noneconomic issues. Nonetheless, he said a substantial gap remained on those issues and on monetary matters.
"There's been some movement on discipline, but it's still a major issue," he said in an interview on Thursday night, before a full day of negotiations yesterday. "Overall, things still don't look good at this juncture."
Though state law bars transit workers from striking, James has threatened a walkout if no agreement is reached by 12: 01 a.m. Wednesday, when the contract expires.
In an interview yesterday during a break in negotiations, Gary Dellaverson, New York City Transit's chief negotiator, was more upbeat. "If the union has a will to avoid a confrontation, there's a way," he said, adding that headway had been made in the negotiations. He said the agency had moved closer to the union on the discipline issue, while the union had made progress, in his view, on job-classification and reorganization issues.
"If that momentum is maintained," Dellaverson said, "I have every expectation it will carry over to the thornier issues that separate us."
Workers have complained to James about being suspended without hearings and being forced to prove their innocence in disciplinary proceedings. They say the suspensions came for minor infractions, such as having three buttons open on a uniform shirt during a scorching summer day or wearing prohibited clothing, such as hooded sweat shirts, during the winter.
They have also complained about the progressive system of discipline, in which penalties increase for each successive infraction, rising from a warning to a suspension and ultimately to dismissal. The workers want the record wiped clean when a worker goes a year or two without an infraction.
"The MTA has a far harsher system of discipline than do most city agencies or even the private sector," said Josh Freeman, a labor relations expert at Queens College. "It's become a smoldering issue."
Transit officials say a strict disciplinary system is needed to fight carelessness, drug use and poor attitudes.
Work rules are not as emotional an issue, but the union is resisting management's efforts to loosen job classifications so that, for example, mechanics who fix bus engines can also do chassis or body work. Transit officials say more flexible work rules would increase productivity and save money by having each person do more.
Dellaverson said the workers would benefit from having more skills, though many of them seem to disagree, fearing that allowing more flexible work rules could result in layoffs. He said the two sides were negotiating job security language that would be tied to any new work rules.
James said he did not fully understand management's push for changes in the work rules, because, he said, productivity has soared in recent years. He said daily ridership had jumped 16 percent, to 3.5 million passengers a day, since 1997.
What that means, he said, is that bus drivers and subway workers are working harder to handle the extra passengers.
"They owe this union," he said. "Ridership is up, and every member is producing more."
But Marc V. Shaw, executive director of the MTA, challenged that logic, asking whether James would agree to lower wages if ridership fell.