Several hundred transit workers, students and angry New Yorkers gathered outside the Fashion Institute of Technology on Thursday March 4, to protest proposed cuts to the MTA’s budget. This was the last of three public hearings over the course of the week. Hearings had been held in Brooklyn and the Bronx the previous evenings.
Facing a $378 million dollar deficit, the MTA has said it needs to make cuts throughout the system. The cost cutting measures will include layoffs, service reductions and the phasing out of free Metrocards for students and reduced fare cards for seniors and the disabled. The student Metrocards would but cut in half in 2011 and phased out completely in 2012.
The student Metrocard issue has been especially contentious considering the recession. Educators, parents groups, civil rights organizations and city politicians including Mayor Bloomberg have all come out against the provision.
In a planned rally spanning from 26th to 27th street along 7th avenue speakers from the TWU Local 100, the union representing MTA employees as well as other labor and community groups addressed the crowd. Police set up barricades, making three pens for the demonstrators.
“It’s all our fight,” said Brian Clark from TWU Local 100, the union representing transit workers “this is a fight for the whole city, not just us.”
AFL-CIO president Dennis Hughes called the proposed lay offs of up to 1,000 transit workers along with service cuts “an outrage.” He promised the crowd that this wouldn’t be the last time they would come together to protest the cuts. “This is the beginning of a very long fight” he said to roaring applause.
Workers and union officials were quick to point out station agents are “the first line of defense” against crime and terrorism. “In a post 9/11 world – how dare we?” asked TWU Secretary Treasurer Israel Rivera. A majority of the anger amongst labor and students was directed towards MTA chief Jay Walder. Rivera’s message to Walder was simple: “What you’re doing, it’s incomprehensible!”
Station agents used to sell tokens, which were phased out with the advent of the Metrocard in 1993. Electronic kiosks have since replaced many station agents. Another phase out, the workers argue, would leave stations completely unsupervised and less safe. “Remember the 70s? It wasn’t a trip, it was an adventure!” said Kevin Harrington, a TWU Vice President. “Mr. Walder wants to bring back that experience.”
Workers said that there were plenty of places to cut costs before laying off employees and phasing out the student cards. “It’s wicked. It’s wicked and mad. We see fraud and abuse every day!” Said Stan C., a station agent, who did not want his last name used. “You don’t cut it off at the tail; you don’t get rid of the agents and the maintenance workers.” He was proudly wearing his red station agent jacket over a TWU T-shirt the union had passed out to members and protestors in solidarity.
Angel Giboyeaux, the union’s Administrative VP said school children would be “forced to become criminals” if faced with the decision of hopping a turnstile or not going to school.
There was a large contingent of high school students present. Some were organized in groups and some were even supervised by their teachers. The students carried hand painted signs reading what has become a student mantra: “No Transportation, No Education!”
A group of teenagers wore signs around their necks which gave different hypothetical situations students would face if they have to pay for their own transportation. One read “It took me so long to walk to school I got picked up for truancy.”
Many high schoolers said their entire education was on the line. “With no Metrocard, [I’m] not going to stay…” said sixteen year old Donald Jean-Pierre, a student from Queens. “I’m going to drop out.”
Approximately 50 students from Hunter College - where there had just been a student walk out in protest of tuition and fee hikes for higher education marched into the demonstration and joined their younger counterparts.
Many of the transit workers present had children in public schools. “I’ll definitely be affected by these cuts,” said Richard Jasmine, a bus driver from Flatbush. “It would be terrible as a parent and a driver.”
The venue for the hearing inside quickly reached capacity. At the scene, police approximated 700 people in attendance. A group of students, activists and civil society were turned away. Police guarded the doors.
A spokesperson for the MTA told the crowd that they were abiding by “school rules” and that “full is full,” before retreating into the building and locking the door behind him.
One voice from the crowd yelled back at him “why should I pay for a Metrocard to for an inadequate education?”
Inside, the crowd was angry and unsympathetic to Walder’s explanations for the cuts. “If you ask me now, do I know how to close that new $378 million gap - the frank answer is, ‘No, I don’t,’ ”
City Council member Ydonis Rodriguez (D – Washington Heights) told the student demonstrators stuck outside “Gotta keep fighting!” as he walked out of the hearing.
Students again began chanting “No Transportation, No Education!” The crowd was angry but dissipated over the next half hour.
There were tense moments between police and demonstrators, such as an incident where they broke out of a metal pen police had set up around them. Otherwise, the demonstration was loud but peaceful. Police refused to comment on whether there were any arrests. At a hearing in Brooklyn the previous night, four protestors were arrested.
For the majority of the citizens who came to the hearing, the cuts were mind boggling. “When I was a youngster, we had a bus pass. We just showed it to the driver.” Said Louis Maione, a transit worker from Queens. He brought his son along, a high school student. “Now it’s a big dollar issue? You’re just moving weight.”