Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Three Mediators and the Blind Mayor

Tonight, in addition to enjoying a sense of relief, I am hoping that my fellow New Yorkers are asking themselves a lot of questions. There are plenty to be asked.

Who are these three fellows who have succeeded where two of the most powerful and deeply-connected Republican leaders of our nation have failed? How have they brought relative quiet to a storm that has raged this week and cost us everything from mild annoyance to economic disruption to physical and psychological suffering (not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars per day to the general city economy, according to the otherwise clueless Mayor of this town)? Why weren't these three mediators brought in weeks or months ago to forestall this disturbance to our city's life, instead of being hauled in to sort out this mess on Tuesday, after the workers had walked off the job in disgust and desperation?

Those are just a few questions to pose as starting points; I'll bet you can think of lots more that haven't occurred to me. Now all we have for answers so far is that these three gentlemen—Richard Curreri of the State Public Employment Relations Board, and his colleagues Martin F. Scheinman and Alan R. Viani—are old pros at the business of reconciling seemingly irreconcilable parties and their differences. It also appears as if their absence from a scene that desperately called upon their talents was nothing more than the result of a truly malignant indifference on the part of a Governor who is too self-absorbed in his presidential aspirations to be bothered with attending to his current job.

We could have a lively debate about other factors in this entire situation. Many believe that the union was basically intimidated into mediation by the possibility of massive fines and even imprisonment for its leadership. I doubt that this is so: I spent many years working in the construction industry here in New York (I was even a member of a union myself for a few years), and I know that these fellows are not easily intimidated. In fact, attempts at intimidation usually make them more aggressive and intractable. As for fines, a big union like the TWU always has a war chest for such emergencies; such funds are quietly gathered during conflict-free years via membership fees and payroll checkoffs, invested, and then used to defray fines, penalties, lost wages, and other expenses during a strike. Mayor Bloomberg may, in his empty rhetoric, wish to have us believe that we are dealing here with 35,000 mindless, unschooled thugs; but I know better. These people are sharp, organized, better prepared for confrontation than many military forces or advocacy groups, and always very well funded. To attempt to intimidate such people with...well, thuggish talk, legal attacks, and other corporate bullying tactics is the mark of an amateur in the game of labor relations; and Mayor Bloomberg has displayed his rookie-league rawness in this respect time and again over the past few days.

That point made, I would add my personal opinion that the TWU made several critical mistakes throughout this negotiation and during this brief strike. They would have been far better served, I think, by allowing the holiday season to pass without incident, while calling unilaterally for mediation in as public a way as possible. Then, after the first of the year, they could, if necessary, have walked out, in either a full-blown strike such as the one we've seen these past three days or in a targeted partial action affecting key lines and services that would disrupt, but not cripple, the whole. So my quibble with them is more about strategy than with substance: these folks were protecting their income stream, just as Mayor Bloomberg has no doubt done for himself and his many companies over the years during which he amassed his billions of dollars of net worth. For the Mayor to insult and criminalize people who were attempting the same kind of economic self-preservation and advancement as he has modeled himself in his business career is, to put it charitably, disingenuous.

So let us leave them there, as we salute Mssrs. Curreri, Scheinman, and Viani—the three mediators who helped to bring this matter toward a resolution that everyone can live with. Note, by the way, a crucial tactic that these men employed in creating this atmosphere of dialog between the competing parties; for this is an insight that Bloomberg and Pataki entirely missed, in their rhetorical bloodlust for the demonization and criminalization of 35,000 workers. The mediators announced that coming talks would be held in private, with a news blackout—no warring press conferences, no competing statements or press releases. In other words, the mediators are adopting exactly the approach that I recommended the other day for Bloomberg and Pataki—shut the doors, turn off the microphones, and have the meals slid under the door until there is accord, and signatures on an agreement.

One of the marks of a good leader is the ability of self-knowledge: perceiving where you can make a positive difference in the affairs of those you are governing, and even more important, knowing where you lack the necessary skills or influence to affect constructive change. Both Pataki and Bloomberg have shown me that they are terribly weak in this crucial area of self-knowledge. A good leader would have sensed his own incapacity to manage this conflict alone; but he would also have seen the need for avoiding a public brawl of words and legal assault. He would have called on the professionals—the likes of Curreri, Scheinman, and Viani—to help him, long before this disagreement became a standoff; long before anyone would have been tempted to brand 35,000 hard-working people as "thugs" (as the Mayor did) or "rats" (as one local newspaper's headline did).

But Bloomberg and Pataki chose the way of power, the way of hatred, the way of inner violence. That was their choice; and now we have to make ours. I would recommend that tomorrow morning, before you step onto that train or bus that will take you to work again, you look the motorman, driver, or conductor in the eye, smile, and say, "it's good to see you again—welcome back." Or would you rather be driven to work by a common criminal, a brutish thug? The choice, once again, is yours to make, in your attitudes and in your actions.

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