Category: Labor

Public Transit Unions

In this post, I would like to explain an observation: public transit workers are unionized even in countries where few workers belong to a union, such as the US and the UK. Attempts by management to win concessions from the unions have often led to prolonged strikes, for example the 108-day strike by SEPTA workers in 1983. This is not just the public sector: the private railroads in the US are unionized, and in 1964 the Florida East Coast Railway had a year-long strike. Nor is this because the public operators and private railroads have a unionized legacy: many private bus shuttles used by Bay Area tech firms to get workers from San Francisco to Silicon Valley offices have unionized drivers, including Facebook and Google, even though the tech industry as a whole is predominantly non-union. Public transportation workers, especially on-board crew, are in a position of strength, and I would like to explain why.

First, let us recount how unions work. At their heart is collective bargaining: the union negotiates wages and benefits for the entire membership. An individual worker who is paid too little can quit, which is unlikely to cause the employer much concern; a union can launch a strike, thereby getting higher wages and better work conditions than each individual worker could obtain alone.

In order to be able to collectively bargain, there needs to be a collective in the first place, which means two separate things:

  1. Politically, there needs to be a sense of solidarity among the workers. The workers need to see each other as comrades, or as colleagues, and not as competitors. They need to feel like the union represents their interest. This is unlikely to happen in industries where there is substantial competition for promotions to managerial roles, but easier in industries with clear separation between line workers and managers. It is also unlikely to happen in industries with rapid turnover of employees.
  2. Economically, there needs to be a reasonable way to set a uniform wage scale. This means that the work done by the various employees in each category must be interchangeable, or close enough to it that wages can be made equal. In turn, this requires that the job not have a strong sense of merit, in which some workers are persistently much more productive than others. Productivity differences should be related to seniority, or easily worked into wage agreements (for examples, sales agents can collectively bargain for a uniform commission structure). It’s fine if there is differentiation into several job categories, but then it’s best if this differentiation is rigid, so that workers in each group do not often have to do the job of workers in other groups.

Conversely, if the union goes on strike, management has tools to fight back, including the lockout, or more commonly hiring strikebreakers. To deter management from doing so, the union can exercise peer pressure on people not to scab (condition 1 above), but it also union needs to also fulfill a third condition:

  1. The job must be skilled enough that it is hard for the employer to hire and train strikebreakers quickly. On a nationwide basis this makes unionization easier in a tight labor market, hence socialist support for monetary policy that prioritizes full employment over price stability. But on a per-industry basis, this condition requires some difficult pipeline that workers must go through: a degree, long training, apprenticeship, or bespoke familiarity with the project at hand.

Conditions 2 and 3 are in tension, since skilled jobs are more likely to involve workers with different levels of productivity. For example, retail workers fulfill condition 2, but are easy to replace if they go on strike and the labor market is not tight. In contrast, programmers easily fulfill condition 3, in the sense that if the entire development team on a project quits, it will be difficult for the company to find a new one and get it up to speed, but because there is a wide range of productivity levels, it makes little sense for programmers to all be paid the same. Silicon Valley’s business culture, in which developing a product fast is more important than establishing a business culture, and turnover is encouraged, also makes it hard to establish meaningful solidarity among software developers.

In the intersection between these three conditions lie a set of job descriptions in which there is a strong sense of professionalism, to meet condition 3, but a weak sense of merit, to meet condition 2. These jobs are typically static in the sense of not changing too much over the years, which makes it ideal for a person to do the same thing for their entire life, learning to adopt new technologies gradually as they are introduced but not having to change their entire skillset. Often, the industries these jobs are in are static as well, whence they are more easily done by the public sector, or by large conglomerates that have been around for generations, such as the private US railroads.

Commercial drivers – of buses, trucks, trains, planes – are a major example of people who satisfy all three conditions. One racecar driver can be better than the next by being faster, but in the commercial sector, speeds are determined by the equipment, the schedule, and the safety standards. A train driver can be better than another on the margins, by responding more quickly to an obstacle on the tracks, or paying attention to the posted schedule better, but both of these aspects depend more on external factors, such as the signal system, than on driver skill. Train schedule padding, accounting for suboptimal driver behavior such as beginning to brake too early but also for propagating delays and passengers who take too long to board or alight, consists of a few percent of total travel time: in its peer review of California High-Speed Rail, JR East proposes 3-5% (PDF-p. 10); and a Swedish study for high-speed rail mentions a 0.9-2.3% discrepancy in energy consumption based on driver behavior (PDF-p. 12) and a total schedule pad equal to about 7% of travel time (PDF-p. 24). The productivity difference, or in other words individual merit, is too small to challenge the logic of a uniform wage scale.

Instead of individual merit, commercial drivers have professionalism. A train driver is expected to fulfill certain criteria to ensure safety first and punctuality second, which requires considerable study of the route of the train, the signal systems, the dispatching codes, the correct way to respond to various unforeseen circumstances. Unlike individual car drivers, commercial drivers are not permitted to take small risks in other to go faster, and learning how to pilot a vehicle safely takes some time; all of this is true manifold if the vehicle in question is a plane, leading to arduous certification requirements. In this setting, even in an environment of absolute control by management, there’s little reason to have different payscales – at most, management can penalize workers who make mistakes.

For the same reasons that train drivers have standards of professionalism, it is easy for them to form a cultural group with internal solidarity. They have their own knowledge set and jargon, as anyone who has tried reading threads on railfan forums knows. The transportation industry changes slowly enough, in terms of both travel demand and technological progress, that most train drivers can expect to work for the same company for decades. Even bus drivers, in an industry that’s less dependent on physical plant, can expect to move between bus operators.

The other major category of public transportation workers, maintenance workers, is not as clear-cut. There is certainly a difference in merit – some people just fix things faster than others. But at the same time, the importance of safety is such that giving financial incentive to working faster can lead to shoddy work. Instead, there are extensive regulations, developed by national safety authorities as well as internally by rail operators, specifying which tasks need to be performed and at what intervals.

Unlike train drivers, maintenance workers aren’t interchangeable – they have more specific job titles. But these job titles often lend themselves to easy categorization, such as electricians and welders. Those have their own standards, and the potential for major accidents encourages uniformity of credentials and of wages, while the complexity of the machinery these workers operate ensures that they must be skilled. This leads to the same presence of professionalism without differential individual merit seen in the case of train drivers, and ensures all three conditions facilitating unionization are present.

In a healthy company, technology progresses as fast as it can given the requirements of the industry, and the union rules are reasonable. Wages and benefits are higher with collective bargaining than without almost by definition, but they cannot be massively higher – those are skilled workers, who are not easily replaceable. In environments where the rules are unreasonable – perhaps the certification requirements are more onerous than necessary, perhaps labor-saving technologies are not used, perhaps the work rules are not suitable for a modern operation – management cannot easily force the union’s hand. Even when three people do the job of one, as in the case of US commuter rail operations with conductors and assistant conductors, labor is in a position of power, and reform-minded managers cannot easily hire strikebreakers.

Train Operator Labor Efficiency

Last summer, I brought up a metric of railroad labor efficiency: annual revenue hours per train driver. Higher numbers mean that train drivers spend a larger proportion of their work schedule driving a revenue train rather than deadheading, driving a non-revenue train, or waiting for their next assignment. As an example, I am told on social media that the LIRR schedules generous crew turnaround times, because the trains aren’t reliably punctual, and by union rules, train drivers get overtime if because their train is late they miss the next shift. Of note, all countries in this post have roughly the same average working hours (and the US has by a small margin the highest), except for France, which means that significant differences in revenue hours per driver are about efficiency rather than overall working hours.

I want to clarify that even when union work rules reduce productivity, low productivity does not equal laziness. Low-frequency lines require longer turnaround times, unless they’re extremely punctual. Peakier lines require more use of split shifts, which require giving workers more time to commute in and out.

The database is smaller than in my posts about construction costs, because it is much harder to find information about how many train operators a subway system or commuter railroad employs than to find information about construction costs. It is often also nontrivial to find information about revenue hours, but those can be estimated from schedules given enough grunt work.

In Helsinki, there is a single subway trunk splitting into two branches, each running one train every 10 minutes all day, every day: see schedules here and here. This works out to 65,000 train-hours a year. There are 75 train drivers according to a 2010 factsheet. 65,000/75 = 867 hours per driver. This is the highest number on this list, and of note, this is on a system without any supplemental peak service, allowing relatively painless scheduling.

In Toronto, there were 80,846,000 revenue car-km on the subway in 2014 (an additional line, the Scarborough Rapid Transit, is driverless). Nearly all subway trains in Toronto have six cars; the Sheppard Line runs four-car trains, but is about 10% of the total route-length and runs lower frequency than the other lines. So this is around 13.5 million revenue train-km. According to both Toronto’s schedule of first and last trains per station and this chart of travel times, average train speed is around 32 km/h between the two main lines, and a bit higher on Sheppard, giving about 420,000 annual service hours. In 2009, there were 393,000 hours. Toronto runs two-person train operation, with an operator (driver) and a guard (conductor); this article from 2014 claims 612 operators and guards, this article from 2009 claims 500 operators alone. 420,000/500 = 840, and, using statistics from 2009, we get 393,000/500 = 786; if the article from 2014 misrepresents things and there are 612 drivers in total, then 420,000/612 = 686. If I had to pick a headline figure, I’d use 786 hours per driver, using the 2009 numbers. Update: the Scarborough RT is not driverless, even though the system could be run driverless; from the same data sources as for the subway, it had 23,000 operating hours in 2014, which adds a few percent to the operating hours per driver statistic.

In London, unlike in North America, the statistics are reported in train-km and not car-km. There are 76.2 million train-km a year, and average train speed is 33 km/h, according to a TfL factsheet; see also PDF-p. 7 of the 2013-4 annual report. In 2012, the last year for which there is actual rather than predicted data, there were 3,193 train drivers, and according to the annual report there were 76 million train-km. 76,000,000/33 = 2,300,000 revenue-hours; 2,300,000/3,193 = 721 hours per driver.

In Tokyo, there used to be publicly available information about the number of employees in each category, at least on Toei, the smaller and less efficient of the city’s two subway systems. As of about 2011, Toei had 700 hours per driver: from Hyperdia‘s schedules, I computed about 390,000 revenue train-hours per year, and as I recall there were 560 drivers, excluding conductors (half of Toei’s lines have conductors, half don’t).

In New York, we can get revenue car-hour statistics from the National Transit Database, which is current as of 2013; the subway is on PDF-p. 13, Metro-North is on PDF-p. 15, and the LIRR is on PDF-p. 18. We can also get payroll numbers from SeeThroughNY. The subway gets 19,000,000 revenue hours per year; most trains have ten cars, but a substantial minority have eight, and a smaller minority have eleven, so figure 2,000,000 train-hours. There were 3,221 train operators on revenue vehicles in 2013, and another 373 at yards. This is 556 hours per driver if the comparable international figure is all drivers, or 621 if it is just revenue vehicle drivers. The LIRR gets 2,100,000 annual revenue car-hours, and usually runs trains of 8 to 12 cars; figure around 210,000. There were 467 engineers on the LIRR in 2013; this is 450 hours per driver. Metro-North gets 1,950,000 annual revenue car-hours, and usually runs 8-car trains; figure about 240,000. It had 413 locomotive engineers in 2013; this is 591 hours per driver.

In Paris, the RER A has 523 train drivers (“conducteurs”). The linked article attacks the short working hours, on average just 2:50 per workday. The timetable is complex, but after adding the travel time for each train, I arrived at a figure of 230,000 train-hours a year. 230,000/523 = 440 hours per driver. There’s a fudge factor, in that the article is from 2009 whereas the timetable is current, but the RER A is at capacity, so it’s unlikely there have been large changes. Note also that in France, workers get six weeks of paid vacation a year, and a full-time workweek is 35 hours rather than 40; adjusting for national working hours makes this equivalent to 534 hours in the US, about the same as the New York subway.

Netroots Nation and How the 99% Talk Hurts Consensus

For the first time since 2006, I went to Netroots Nation, as it’s held in Providence. There was one panel about public transportation, entitled “Saving Public Transportation,” whose speakers included Larry Hanley, who dominated the discussion; a moderator; and three political activists: including a local union leader, a Sierra Club representative, and a state legislative candidate who Greater City is supporting. The discussion focused on preserving bus operations rather than on expansion – in fact Hanley made the point that agencies expand capital while cutting back service because the federal government only pays for capital rather than operating funds.

Since the panel was entirely political, and dealt mostly with funding issues, when it was time for questions I asked about the saddling of transit agencies with highway debt; I specifically mentioned Massachusetts’ putting Big Dig mitigation debt on the MBTA. I wanted to see if the panelists would say anything about mode shifting or about the relative power of highways and transit.

Instead, Hanley, who took the question, ignored what I said about highway debt, and instead answered about refinancing debt at lower interest rates, as issue his union is harping about. In reality, according to his union’s own figures, the MBTA could save $26 million a year by refinancing debt; for comparison, its deficit this year, which it plugged with service cuts and a large fare hike, was $163 million, and its total debt payments in 2006 were $351 million, of which $117 million came from the Big Dig. Although the parts of this debt that are not from the Big Dig come from true transit projects, those were voted on by the state legislature, rather than by the MBTA; transit’s low position in the transportation funding food chain is thus responsible for 13.5 times as much money as could be extracted from the banks.

So at first pass, Hanley was pivoting to an issue he was more comfortable talking about, which happens to involve a fraction of the amount of money in question. But at second pass, something more insidious happened. Instead of answering a question about transportation priorities and getting state governments to assume debt they’d unfairly loaded onto transit agencies, which would require clashing with other departments with their own agendas, Hanley preferred to shift blame onto banks. He did not include figures during the panel and so I could not know he was talking about such a small amount of money; his explanation for focusing on the banks is that the MTA renegotiated deals with contractors to get lower prices, so it should do the same with the banks.

And after thinking about this, I realized how it shows exactly how despite appearances, the “We are the 99%” slogan is the exact opposite of any sort of democratic consensus. It silences any notion that there are different interests among the 99%. The auto workers and Providence’s carless residents are both members of the 99%; they have diametrically different interests when it comes to transportation. But in the Grand Struggle, the 99% must be united, and thus the leaders shift any discussion to the common enemy, no matter the relative proportions of the amounts of money in question.

After Scott Walker’s win, Matt Yglesias wrote that different industries have clashing interests just as much as labor and business do. But even within the framework of fighting big business’s influence, two of the most influential opposing interest groups, the union movement and small business, have different interests and are hostile to each other. Dean Baker wrote in The Conservative Nanny State that small businesses are being coddled because they pay lower wages and benefits on average; in general, the American union movement has not organized small businesses and supports the businesses it has already organized, and is hostile toward new companies, which are usually non-union. Small business in turn is hostile toward regulations on wages, starting a business, and so on.

The 99% framing papers over all of that. The voices that dominate the protests believe themselves to be the true representatives of 99% of the population, and by implication their own issues to be the most important. Other issues are subsidiary, or outright distractions from the primary needs. Any movement that claims to represent everyone is not consensual but nationalistic, and just as nationalism requires the elites to declare a certain archetype to be Real Americans (or Britons, or French) and everyone else to be one of many negative stereotypes, so does this 99% framing require movement leaders to coopt or downplay other groups’ issues.

Consensus comes from clashing points of view. The Swiss Socialists are farther left than what is considered serious liberal opinion in the US, and the Swiss People’s Party is about as far right as the Tea Party; they and the centrist parties are more or less in a grand coalition. The consensus comes from the realization that no single faction will ever dominate, and thus the best it can do is distill how it can advance its stated goals (poverty reduction, smaller government, greater national cohesion, etc., depending on the party). The Occupy protesters have very high supermajority requirements at their general assemblies, but they do not have this clash, this diversity in either viewpoints or demographics. They have procedural near-unanimity but not actual consensus governance, leading to a system that excludes most interest groups that comprise the 99%; unsurprisingly, the movement has severe problems with race, since its center is white and thinks it speaks for everyone.

Of course, within the union movement something similar is happening, with the dominant group being the older members. This is what New York-area transit commenter Larry Littlefield calls Generation Greed, spanning people of all political classes.

The end result is that no matter how much rhetoric is thrown around about new politics, forward-looking progressives, and so on, what ends up is a repetition of an old hierarchy, one with Real Working People and with fake ones. It has to; when it has no capability of dealing with tensions between transit users and other groups, or between whites and blacks, or between labor and small business, it cannot project any unity of the 99% otherwise. And without unity, it’s a movement without any clear policy agenda.

The Option of Profitable Transit

David Levinson’s post saying that transit should strive to restructure and be profitable stirred much discussion on neighboring blogs, including Human Transit (which broadly agrees with the idea if not the libertarian tone) and The Transport Politic (which does not), as well as multiple commenters who chimed in noting that it’s ridiculous to require transit to break even when cars get so many subsidies. While I agree with Levinson and Jarrett’s sentiments about core versus welfare services in principle, in practice the causes of transit losses are orthogonal to the subjects under discussion; the actual issues are somewhat related to what the commenters mention, but those commenters don’t go nearly far enough.

In the original post, Levinson proposes the following distinction:

Mass transit systems in the United States are collectively losing money hand over fist. Yet many individual routes (including bus routes) earn enough to pay their own operating (and even capital costs). But like bad mortgages contaminating the good, money-losing transit routes are bogging down the system.

We can divide individual systems into three sets of routes:

1. Those routes break-even or profit financially (at a given fare). This is the “core”.

2. Those lines which are necessary for the core routes to break-even, and collectively help the set of routes break-even. These are the “feeders”.

3. Those lines which lose money, and whose absence would not eliminate profitability on other routes. These money-losers are a welfare program. We might politely call them “equity” routes.

Jarrett, whose work has focused on priorities, not only agrees with the distinction but also downplays the importance of routes in category #2, and has often advocated that agencies let go of low-performing routes and concentrate on trunk frequency. While Jarrett is right and this distinction is critical when an agency needs to reduce its expenditure, it’s not going to make any agency profitable.

The number of routes in the US that break even financially is minimal. It’s easy enough to come up with routes that cover their avoidable costs, but transit has enough fixed costs that retreating to them is not going to be enough. For a New York example, see this spreadsheet, due to Cap’n Transit: although multiple bus routes are portrayed as profitable, once one checks the more detailed spreadsheet the Cap’n links to, it turns out that when including both direct and indirect operating costs, the best-performing route, the M86, drops from an operating ratio of 172% to one of 91%. Moreover, the best-performing routes do not form a trunk system, but are for the most part short-hop crosstown buses, with very high ridership per kilometer of route length. Most networks that actually are profitable consist of buses feeding into the Lincoln Tunnel, a choke point that has an exclusive bus lane in the morning rush hour.

Since in some other parts of the world urban transit is in fact profitable, we need to address causes other than the existence of lesser-used routes. I propose that instead of classifying American lines into profitable and unprofitable ones, a division in which one category is going to be very lonely, we classify whole networks according to what makes them lose so much money. I believe the following list of causes is relatively uncontroversial for good transit advocates:

1. High labor costs, predominantly overstaffing, but at some agencies (for example, Muni) also very high salaries.

2. Poor design, e.g. of intermodal transfers.

3. Low fares on some networks, which exist predominantly to provide minimal mobility of last resort rather than core transportation.

4. Bad regulations, especially when it comes to regional rail.

5. An auto-oriented policy.

Cause #5 is the elephant in the room. It’s not just ongoing auto subsidies and such mandates as Euclidean zoning and free parking. It’s also a decades-long history promoting auto-centric development, as a result of which uses are too widespread and low-intensity for transit to be of much use on most trips. Even edge cities are too dense sometimes; if you can find Robert Lang and Jennifer LeFurgy’s sadly now behind paywall article Edgeless Cities, read it for a quick explanation of the limitations of the relatively intense but auto-centric development form of Tysons Corner or White Plains.

The best analogy I can give here is a growing industry or industrial zone. Early on in a country’s development, it will want industrial policy: subsidies, tax breaks, protectionism. The US railroads got it, most Japanese exporters got it, Samsung and Hyundai got it. As a country becomes richer and its economy becomes more mature, those industries become profitable and suddenly start advocating free trade and free markets, even for themselves, and whine loudly at the suggestion that rich regions or industries should subsidize poor ones.

There are plenty of routes in the US that, while unprofitable now, could be made profitable with better management and operating practices. This is usually what I write about. Those are causes #1, 2, and 4. Cause #3 applies to some but not the most relevant agencies; fares in large US cities tend to be average or high by international standards, though perhaps lower than the revenue-maximizing fares. Altogether, fixing what are essentially issues of competence is going to raise transit use, possibly to acceptable levels. But it will not turn New York into Tokyo, Boston into Taipei, or Providence into Zurich.

Buy America is a Scam

Streetsblog’s interview with Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Henley hits on the normal points regarding labor issues and transit, but one bit there deserves additional followup, regarding Buy America provisions:

Tanya Snyder: Some transit advocates are also critical of things like Buy America provisions because it costs transit agencies more money.

Larry Henley: This is the Wal-Mart question. This is whether or not we have a country at all anymore.

If the goal is to race to the bottom, to get the cheapest products, which means the cheapest labor, then we ought to be mindful that while we’re preserving the fiscal integrity of the MTA, we’re ruining the lives of American kids. We’re making it impossible for them to get a job. And if you look at the unemployment rates today, as staggering as they sound, it’s 9 percent overall, but for college educated kids it’s 4 percent. Which means that people who lack a college education no longer have a future in America. They just don’t.

…So that now, we have people in China and India and all across the world competing with American kids.

…This is about a moral crisis in America. And then they have the gall to come back and make all these arguments about American people being inefficient or American people not working hard enough and why shouldn’t they all be part time. But the central issue is that we have allowed corporations like Wal-Mart to wring every ounce of hope out of young Americans’ lives.

In the comments, Stephen Smith already justly mocked Henley for complaining about China and India when the major rolling stock and bus vendors are from peer developed countries, and Buy America’s most recent derailing of a light rail order was about imports from Spain, a country with 21% unemployment. But there’s much more at stake here.

Buy America’s purported role is to create American jobs. But let’s examine the costs. Amtrak’s Sprinter locomotives, compliant with both FRA regulations and Buy America, cost 30% more than the European locomotives they’re based on, and 50% more than competitor products built only for passenger trains rather than also for freight trains. A 30% premium works out to an extra cost of about $100 million, providing 250 jobs. Since the income earned by skilled workers is normally around $100,000 or less rather than $400,000, we can conclude most of the premium doesn’t go to workers. Or, for an even more egregious example, but without job numbers specified, look to SMART’s DMUs, at twice the cost of comparable European trains.

In other words, it’s a scam. Blocking parallel imports ensures only a select number of vendors can bid, driving up prices. Usually there’s a small sop to American labor, well-publicized in the media with photo-ops of people in hard hats – e.g. the 250 jobs heralded for the Sprinter order – but the bulk of the extra money goes elsewhere. It creates makework for consultants and lobbyists. It increases vendor profits, since fewer companies, typically the largest and most global ones, can bid. (This also goes for regulations: Caltrain applied for its FRA waiver in consultation with the biggest train manufacturers, potentially locking out Stadler and other small up-and-comers.)

When the number of vendors is very small, the result can be not just high cost, but also shoddy work. The reason the US has no legacy domestic rolling stock vendors is that two of the few that remained by the 1970s, protected by Buy America but servicing an ever-shrinking market, sold New York City Transit defective trains, the R44 and R46 orders; this was one of many mishaps facing the city in the 1970s. The subsequent lawsuits bankrupted the vendors. The R44 is still a lemon, though since refurbishment the R46 has performed well. In the 1980s, NYCT switched to global vendors instead; the next order, the R62, was not federally funded due to Reagan’s cuts, so NYCT went ahead and imported trains from Kobe, which worked fine.

There is another way, but, as with most other issues facing transportation, it requires importing ideas from other developed countries. The idea in question is that parallel imports are not a bad thing, either for the economy or for workers. The US and Canada import cars from each other; neither is any worse for it. To a much smaller extent due to trade barriers and different sets of regulations, North America imports cars from Europe and Japan – and the attempts to fight it have not resulted in a union revival, but in the proliferation of non-union plants in low-wage states.

Parallel imports are not an anti-worker or anti-union tactic. The Swiss Socialist Party is for them, and, far from a neo-liberal sop, it also supports linking trade to human rights and workers’ rights and has a general roster of policy positions that most Daily Kos contributors would love to see the Democratic Party endorse.

The majority of trade is within the developed world. To the extent Buy America is supposed to protect American workers from low-wage countries, it has failed; NYCT’s Buy America-compliant R160 trains were partially manufactured in Brazil to save money. The main function of Buy America is to protect companies that do business in the US from competition, period. At that it has done a very good job; it’s just not good for the public, which has to pay for it.

Organized Labor and the Housing Protest

In both the US and Israel, the power of organized labor is in decline, and union membership is increasingly restricted to public sector and legacy manufacturing employees, who are usually well-compensated and have a middle- or even upper-middle class income, but are still under attack by right-wing politicians who hope to privatize public services. However, these two countries’ lefts react to those employees and their representatives in diametrically opposed manner. American leftists typically support the major unions, Israeli leftists disdain them as sellouts. Although in both cases the left supports insurgent unions over well-established ones in intra-union fights – for example, UNITE-HERE over SEIU’s leadership – the attitudes toward the established unions are very different.

The relevance of this is the role of Ofer Eini, the leader of the Histadrut, in the emerging housing protests. Although the protest is grassroots, he’s started to play a role as well, demanding that the government negotiate with the demonstrators. For a selection of English-language mainstream sources mentioning his role, see Globes, the Jerusalem Post, and Haaretz, as well as Daily Kos, which bases its reporting on mainstream Israeli media. The general tone is that the protest began as a grassroots effort, separate from any mainstream organization, but now has a powerful player by its side.

In contrast the reporting I see from Hebrew-language leftist sources is quite different. 972Mag contributors Rechavia Berman and Yossi Gurvitz react uniformly negatively toward Eini. Berman explicitly and Gurvitz implicitly complain about Eini’s representing an establishment union whose members are predominantly public-sector. Berman even wrote a post on the subject entitled “Don’t Let Ofer Eini Coopt the Struggle,” calling Eini the biggest danger to the protests.

To clarify matters, neither Berman nor Gurvitz is an economic rightist, or even centrist. Both bloggers’ views on economic matters would place them in the middle of a group of Daily Kos contributors. Berman also took a hardline stance against Scott Walker’s anti-union law. But their view toward the mainline Israeli unions is hostile: they view them as representing the status quo, not the change that’s needed.

Put another way, the Israeli left is viewing its predicament and demanding wholesale changes in the economy, backed by grassroots activism. The American left is instead trying to cling to what the unions still have left; it welcomes struggles to unionize more workers, but views the mainstream unions as a succor of the working class rather than as part of the establishment.

I bring this up for several reasons. First, general interest. Second, more precisely, it shows that political stances come from not just ideology, but also political alliances, with all the implications it has. Third, specifically about good transit, it connects to what I said in my post about politicals vs. technicals, that the politicals are usually mainstream or moderate left while the technicals are all over, from the center-right to the radical left. Transit advocates with views similar to those of US labor liberals are just glad that they have APTA and Brookings on board and often want to expand from there. It’s advocates with views similar to those of the Israeli left – usually technicals, but not just politicals – who view those organizations as industry sops, with interests different from those of riders. It of course does not mean the latter kind of advocates are themselves left-wing – just that they view transit agencies the same way the grassroots left in Israel views the Histadrut.

Even on pure politics, it’s the latter approach that wins over non-leftists. The current housing protests in Israel attract everyone, even political groups that traditionally vote right-wing. The ultra-Orthodox and the settlers are fielding protest tents alongside anarchists and other people who demonstrate in front of the West Bank security fence. They argue heatedly about politics all day, and in the process build a new political arena that excludes the present-day establishment, but are united in their opposition to the status quo. The establishment right is doing its best to smother the protests, but its divide-and-rule tactics are no longer working. This couldn’t have happened if the protests had been started by the usual center-left organizations, with all their cultural baggage. People who want better services but are culturally indisposed toward joining with petrified organizations respond much better to grassroots efforts, even more radical ones, than to the same old.

On Privatization

My post identifying the FRA as American passenger rail’s biggest nemesis drew a lot of links due to the relevance to Rep. Mica’s proposal to privatize the Northeast Corridor. So it is time to step back and ask in general which problems privatization could solve, and which problems are facing American rail travel apart from the FRA. The operating assumption here is that capitalism is not a magical thing that always works, but rather a system that solves some problems created by competing economic systems while creating others.

First, privatization can be done in two separate ways. In Japan, or in the US before 1971, railroads comprise both infrastructure and operations. They run their own trains on their own tracks, and negotiate bilateral trackage rights agreements when they need to access other companies’ tracks. They compete for passengers, but cooperate when necessary; for example, many Shinkansen trains run through the territory of both JR Central and JR West, but the change of drivers only takes a minute.

The other way to privatize, favored in Europe and by Mica, is to split track ownership and operations, on the model of airports (not owned by airlines) and highways (not owned by truckers). Tracks remain public, operations are contracted out to the highest bidder. Regional services in Europe require subsidies, so the highest bidder in this context is the one asking for the smallest subsidy. Depending on which country it is and whether the service is regional or intercity, the public entity controlling the track may fix the schedules and fares in order to guarantee seamless compatibility between different operators.

Both ways have subcategories – for example, in the first method, the government could provide zero subsidies (Hong Kong), minor subsidies for capital construction (Shinkansen construction in Japan, the electrification of the Northeast Corridor south of New York in the 1930s), or ongoing subsidies for operations (Metra, some US commuter lines until the 1970s or 80s). In the second method, the operators can be all private as in Britain, or they could be a mixture of private and state-owned as in France and Germany.

The competition in Japan and the US works, when the railroads have power. There is not much cooperation apart from bilateral agreements and trackage rights. Thus, while Tokyo’s Suica and PASMO are top-notch smartcard implementations, they are poor examples of fare integration; people can swipe the same card on any company’s lines, but transferring from one company to the other requires paying for a separate ticket. For travel between two different metropolitan areas’ companies, smartcards are compatible only based on bilateral agreements, even though all smartcards in Japan use the same FeliCa technology.

When the railroads are not in power, disaster can happen. This is not easily seen in Japan, where the largest cities have not undergone urban renewal or transit decline, but in the US, agency turf means competing for a shrinking customer base and making the customer experience worse.

Therefore, straight Japanese-style privatization requires modifications to ensure timetable and fare integration, and compatible rolling stock. Here, ironically, FRA regulations provided something positive, paving the way to make the Bombardier Bilevel Car a standard commuter rail coach, which different North American cities can lease from one another when necessary; this indicates that what is necessary is better regulations modeled after those of the UIC or Japan rather than a free-for-all.

The other issue with privatization is that one of its primary features, the pruning of marginal branch lines, can become a bug. Focusing on core products has led railroads to neglect markets perceived as marginal rather than try to improve them. Both France and Germany have neglected regional travel in order to look more profitable; although SNCF and DB are state-owned, they act like private companies. In Berlin the resulting deferred maintenance led to a total meltdown, in which three-quarters of the S-Bahn stock had to be recalled on a day’s notice; while German trains are for the most part all compatible, the Berlin S-Bahn is an exception because it was electrified earlier and uses a different voltage from the rest of Germany.

Even in Japan, this is visible once one notes that for JR East and West, the core products are both the Shinkansen and the Tokyo and Osaka commuter networks. All the rest on those networks is lumped together under “Other lines,” so that JR East’s reports do not distinguish the Sendai and Niigata commuter lines from legacy intercity lines. It’s perhaps telling that the fastest non-Shinkansen train in Japan is in Hokkaido, where tilting DMUs on curvy single track with a top speed of 130 km/h average 100 km/h between Sapporo and Hakodate.

Note that the regulations here are mostly irrelevant, except where they involve cooperation between different private companies. Bad regulations can exist both under a private system (e.g. the US before 1971) and under a public one (e.g. the US today); the same is true of good regulations.

We should now step back and look at what enabled the success of the breakup of Japan National Railways, and the subsequent sale of its three constituents serving Honshu to private investors. Restructuring slashed the labor force, improved the quality of management, shut down lightly used lines, and erased the debt that JNR has accumulated to cover operating losses (for it was not subsidized, unlike Western money-losing railroads). It was done slowly, and the government helped find jobs for the displaced workers, which was easy since at the time Japan’s economy was booming. Subsequently, safety and punctuality increased.

The problems privatization solved, then, include operational inefficiency, political meddling forcing the operation of marginal lines, and labor problems. JNR not only was overstaffed, but also was represented by four separate unions, split along political rather than professional lines, ranging from centrist to communist. In the years before privatization, this was mitigated by reforms to both management and labor.

The experience of the positives of JNR privatization further shows that instead of shock therapy or PPPs, a slow reforming approach is required. The best practice is to do this slowly, like in Japan, and postpone the final decision until substantial changes have been made. A government that is too incompetent to run things by itself is also too incompetent to ensure privatization works for the public rather than just for cronies; at least some increase in the quality of government is required if privatization has any hope of success.