Underground Woman: My Four Years as a New York City Subway Conductor

Why does the Chicago Public Library have five copies of H Roger Grant’s history of the demise of the Erie Lackawanna? And why are all five copies in the HWLC (main library)? I have no idea, but they really were all on the shelf when I looked. I borrowed only one, browsed around a bit, and found Marian Swerdlow’s book referenced above (1998, Temple University Press). Swerdlow was (and apparently remains) a labor activist, and was among the first women to work operating jobs for the NYCTA. Not an elegant or well-edited book, but very absorbing for anyone interested in the subject. Because Swerdlow’s transit career ended more than 20 years ago, some of the information– but probably not much– is doubtless out of date.

Based on the book, it seems that subway jobs offer good pay and benefits, especially compared to what many employees could get in the nongovernmental sectors. But the workers are still dissatisfied because they aren’t treated with respect. The jobs are more dangerous than they need to be. Some of the rules are senseless and enforcement is arbitrary. Written up and required to attend a disciplinary hearing, Swerdlow is promptly acquitted– but still docked for the time attending the hearing. There aren’t– or at least weren’t– any doors on the stalls in the toilets!

Compared to what I know of Chicago, utilization of labor seems much less efficient in New York. There are no split shifts. And in her narrative, there always seem to be lots of staff hanging around in the terminals, at full pay, doing nothing. There seems to be lots of overtime, but she doesn’t like it because it disrupts workers’ lives.

A senior motorman seeks promotion to dispatcher, a job that seems to involve superintending a terminal or major junction. He gets the promotion, and finds his income cut in half (presumably because he’s no longer getting overtime, or perhaps he gets a training wage? It isn’t clear).

The union is no help at all, mainly concerned with protecting their own staff jobs. And there are many conflicting interests among the union membership; a contract provision that favors one such group can have a bad effect on another. It doesn’t help that none of the employees ever get to see a copy of the actual contract.

It’s never clear is why “management” doesn’t figure out what the problem is, and work with the union to develop some “win-win” changes. For instance, there’s a crazy rule that conductors must stick their heads out the window for three car-lengths after closing their doors, to “observe” that no one’s been caught in the doors. The problem in New York is that conductors are hit by people on the platform. In one case in Queens a couple of years ago, I recall a conductor neglected to pull his head in quickly enought, and was decapitated.

Apparently the thinking is that, if you throw enough money at them, you don’t have to respect your workers. What’s the lesson for Chicago’s continuing transit “crises?”

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