Hands On The Driving Wheel
“I don’t look at Veolia as an adversary in this whole thing,” says Cole. “I look at Edward Mangano as the adversary. I think his policy is bad….This is going to cause major changes.” Cole volunteers that he holds the current operator in high regard. “I still think the MTA did more for this operation than anybody has done that I’ve seen.” And he liked the Long Island Bus’s former president Helena Williams, now head of the Long Island Rail Road. “Helena did great,” Cole insists.
But now he’s weighing his present options.
“Bus drivers in the city make close to $30 an hour,” he says. “We’re about $27 an hour. I think a bus driver earns every dime. We get some characters, believe me. Police arrest them, then they get back on the bus and we ride them. And by the way, I take personal offense to Mr. Edward Mangano. He publicly stated that no bus driver is worth $28 an hour. I would love him to do my job for one day and then tell me that again.”
Just the night before, Cole said, two intoxicated men were cursing him because “they wanted off where there wasn’t a bus stop in Hillside! They wanted to get out the back door in the middle of a lane. I couldn’t do that.” He told them to sit up front and he’d let them off. When they finally left the bus, Cole recounted, “One of my regulars came up and said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ve got your back in case you need it!’”
He may feel less confident that he can depend on the Mangano administration to do the same. Veolia’s way into Nassau County was paved by former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato’s consulting firm, Park Strategies, which is still under contract to the bus company although the terms have not been disclosed. When asked by the Long Island Press for specifics, a spokeswoman declined further comment. What has been reported is that Park Strategies Vice President Robert McBride, who held a fundraiser at his Hicksville home for Mangano on Jan. 27, has been Veolia’s point man. He told Newsday in April that the bus contract bid “had closed” by that time in January, and that he never raised the contract issue with the county executive. He was unavailable for comment.
“My take is very simple,” says Legis. John Ciotti, Nassau deputy presiding officer (R-Valley Stream). “My legislative district probably has the highest concentration of people who utilize the buses either to get to school or to work….If fares increase and routes are cut, I could not vote for [a new contract]. We will vet out the contract. A lot of the details we’re not aware of yet, but we will be shortly.”
Democrats in the county legislature accuse the majority of displaying “reckless disregard” for the legislative process.
“Peter Schmitt is happily saying that when we get the contract, we’ll have a hearing,” says Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick). “But at that point, it’s a ‘take it or leave it.’ You either vote for the Veolia contract, or there is no bus. Tell me what would be more of a rubber stamp than this legislature?”
Denenberg was particularly annoyed that the county executive kept elected officials—at least those in the minority—in the dark about how Veolia won the bid, noting how long it’s taken the Mangano administration to release any details of the contract with Veolia. “You don’t pick a contractor and then negotiate the deal! That’s a back-ass way [to do it],” he exclaims. “You say what you want as you deal. And then you go to the best bidder. … Here [they] say, ‘Hey, who’s interested?’
And surprise: D’Amato’s client is the one we’re going with!”
Interestingly, a provision of federal transportation law dating from the 1960s, colloquially called “13C,” is having a direct affect on how the county proceeds with its obligation to the union workers of Long Island Bus because it has taken federal dollars to purchase bus equipment and infrastructure. Under 13C, pensions have to be comparable, wages and benefits have to be maintained, or the difference paid between the current terms and those going forward. “So Nassau is really on the hook for a lot,” says TWU spokesman Jamie Horowitz. “Because they have these obligations with the feds they can’t dramatically reduce their labor costs,” Horowitz says. “They just can’t do it, not for half a dozen years. Year seven, yes.
Right now, no. So where else do they make their savings? Veolia is saying they can run things in a more efficient manner and consolidate routes, and all that, but that becomes a political nightmare when you start telling people that their bus is not going to show up.”
Some bus workers interviewed for this story told the Long Island Press they have some faith that 13C will bail them out of a bad deal. But bus operator Robert Cole is less sanguine about it. “I can’t hang my hat on that,” he says.
Negotiations over a new contract are set to begin with Local 252 and Veolia starting on Oct. 27. Relations between the local and the company have begun on good terms. “We now have a contract with Veolia that they will recognize the union, negotiate with the union, and hire the people in seniority order, and basically not mess around with people’s qualifications,” says Rich Edelman, a Washington-based attorney working for the TWU and an expert on transportation privatization. “That’s something significant to have at the get-go.”
They can’t say the same about the union’s dealings with the county executive’s office as it hammered out the details of its contract with Veolia behind closed doors. Said one veteran union official who asked not to be named: “Mangano has been a little bit hard to figure out because his rhetoric has been all over the map… This is the most fucked up thing I’ve ever been involved with.”
One factor that could prove portentous in future labor relations is that once the Long Island Bus union members become a private company’s employees they cease to be covered by the state’s Taylor Law, which prohibits public employees from striking. As for the moment, that’s of no concern, according to Edelman.
“What the union is most concerned about is protecting the rights of its members to continue working at the service where they work and to have the union negotiate the terms and conditions of employment for them as it always has,” says Edelman. “One way or the other, we will do everything we can to do that. The bilateral agreement with Veolia is a piece of that, but the county will have its own obligations, too. And we intend to enforce them all.”
The Amalgamated Transit Union has 46 contracts with Veolia in the United States, and their special counsel, Robert Molofsky, knows them well. “Their whole business model is to underbid existing providers or assert that they can save money by taking over the service,” says Molofsky. “But they can only do that by undermining the living standards, the wages and the [pension and health-care] benefits of the employees.”
Molofsky doesn’t paint a rosy future about the prospects of privatization.
“The county will find that it’s not going to save money, and that Veolia will not be able to fulfill its promise,” he predicts. “In the short run, if there are any savings, it’s because of the changes in wages and in the health and pension benefits.”
“We have done extensive studies to demonstrate the false hope and costly promises that have been offered by these private companies seeking to take over services at the expense of the work force,” says Molofsky, citing studies the union has done with Columbia University Professor Elliott Sclar, director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development and author of “You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For: The economics of privatization,” which Cornell Press published in 2000.
“Normally transportation doesn’t make a profit anywhere in the world,” Sclar says. “The real gain from a good urban transport system is that the economy does really well.” He scoffed at Presiding Officer Schmitt’s assertion that the buses he sees are mostly empty. “The point is that you need all those people to make the whole economy work, even if you don’t see them in your day-to-day life. So, you’ve got people who are making policy who are generalizing from their very personal experience about this, and it’s only when the problem begins to creep up on them, that they get nervous.”
He insisted his analysis wasn’t biased. “I have nothing against Veolia—they’re a pretty good company,” Sclar adds, noting that it started out “as a water company.” [And it’s supposedly being considered as a possible bidder for Nassau’s sewage treatment plants, but that’s another subject for another time.]
“The last place to chase after money now is the public budget,” Sclar says. “The fantasy behind this—and everything nowadays—is that the workers are getting overpaid, and that the only people in this country who aren’t getting paid too much are corporate executives!”
Sclar says the dynamic driving a company like Veolia is to keep “wages as low as possible and provide the minimal level of service you can provide and stay within the terms of the contract. In a lot of places, these things haven’t worked out very well…. If you’re trying to have low costs with your drivers, you’re essentially turning over vehicles worth about a quarter of a million dollars full of live people to people you’re trying to pay as little as possible to….”