The Prism

Live from New York! It's Workfare!

by Mark Cook

The pretext for introducing "workfare" in the New York City subway system is that the Transit Authority is so strapped for cash that it has no alternative.

Meanwhile, the Transit Authority is pouring millions (literally) into an all-important scheme to design and promote--yes, you guessed it--a new Transit Authority logo.

It is also spending over $100 million (this is no joke) to produce and promote a magnetic "fare card" system to replace subway tokens. The system is being pushed even though only 10% of the passengers use them despite years of promotion, one of the reasons being that the Transit Authority has not gotten around to installing turnstiles that can handle the cards in a great many stations.

Among other reasons for passenger resistance: a curious reluctance among visitors to the city to squander $5.00 for a card when they only plan to take a single $1.50 ride and cannot get the rest of their money back.

The desperately poor Transit Authority has also had enough money to increase the management workforce tenfold over the last few years, from 400 to 4,000.

What do all these new managers do? They seem to be trying to improve the work environment, at least for senior managers. When senior Transit Authority executives were photographed playing golf in the middle of a weekday afternoon, they solemnly explained that the golf outings were necessary to cement working relations among key staff.

According to Transit Authority workers themselves, many of the new managerial jobs are given to girlfriends and boyfriends of key personnel, the idea presumably being to further the effort to create a friendly work environment.

The new logo effort is apparently part of a political payoff, although it may simply be the fruit of the labors of all those new managers, who could have saved the Authority money by staying on the golf course.

The Debt Racket

Worse than all this is the immense loan-and-interest racket which has enriched the bondholders, along with the bankers and lawyers who negotiated the bond deals. The bond racket has bled the system dry over and over again for decades.

The real scandal of the New York City Transit Authority, as with other "publicly owned" railroads in the United States, is that they are not really public entities. Since its inception, the New York City Transit Authority has been involved in payoffs to private railroad interests to purchase bankrupt property for which no private capitalist would have paid a dime, and the continuation of the loan rackets that these same private entities initiated, using the subways as cash cows to be milked dry.

The loan scams were in fact the reason for the bankruptcy of the privately owned subways back in the 1930's. At that point, the subway owners became instant socialists, declared that the city had to have a subway system, and called on the city to "municipalize" the subways. The City of New York agreed to buy the bankrupt railroads, as well as pick up the debt service. The Metropolitan Transit Authority has been rolling over that ancient private debt ever since.

A similar situation exists with Amtrak, which has to pay a prince's ransom to private railroad corporations to use their rails. Among the private railroad companies that benefit is the Chessie System, whose dilapidated rails have been responsible in one way or another for most of the deadly Amtrak accidents over the past few years, almost all of which have occurred in the south, almost all involving Chessie System equipment.

In a vast camouflage effort, Amtrak is depicted as a public entity. In fact, it was brought into existence by the private railroads themselves, as a means of fobbing off passenger service on the government--the rail companies preferred to concentrate on freight, where they could make more money. Freight does not complain about late arrivals, unheated trains or filthy and flooded bathrooms.

Amtrak was a marvelous solution to the passenger problem, and the railroad owners can only kick themselves that they didn't think of it earlier. Up until its invention, the Interstate Commerce Commission had required the rail companies to use some of their earnings from freight to maintain their passenger service. Now, instead of paying money, the private corporations are allowed by the Amtrak deal to charge Amtrak for running passenger trains along the private companies' rails.

Public agencies' war on labor

The use of the government and public authorities like New York City's TA to introduce such brutal anti-labor tactics as sub-sub-minimum wage workfare is no accident. Supposedly public agencies can claim that they are forced to adopt such measures to prevent a tax increase.

In official statements and the big business media, subway passengers are pitted against unionized Transit Authority workers, suburbanites against city dwellers, upstate against downstate, and "taxpayers" against everyone.

A.J. Muste's idea, essentially that an injury to one is an injury to all, can be used to overcome this ancient divide and rule scheme. [See "'Workfare' and Prison Forced Labor: New Strategies to Reduce Wages".]

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