Viewpoint: How to Save Transit Workers’ Lives

New York City transit workers working in a subway tunnel in 2017.

As of April 20, nearly 70 New York transit workers have died from COVID-19. Photo: MTA New York City Transit / Marc A. Hermann, cropped from original.

Transit workers have always known they were essential to the functioning of New York City. Wider public recognition of this fact has come at a high cost.

As of April 20, almost 70 have died. Thousands have been exposed to the virus as they keep the buses and subways running so that health care, emergency, grocery, and delivery workers can get to their jobs. More are likely to die in the weeks to come.

Management of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) likely pushed the number of fatalities up by the steps it took—or failed to take—in February and early March.

Transit workers started wearing their own masks before there was a single fatality in New York. But management banned masks because a) they were not part of the issued uniform, and b) they would panic the riders.

The agency resisted worker and union calls to institute rear-door boarding of buses—until a strike in Detroit got the ball moving on this basic distancing measure.

It still has not increased cleaning of buses, subway and rail cars, and crew facilities to a point that might actually make a difference in limiting exposure.

And it tried to maintain full service—until the lack of crews forced a reduction.

The changes that transit unions and workers pushed for would have decreased exposure to the virus.

The pandemic has not yet run its course. There are lessons to be learned from what happened in New York that can save lives, here and elsewhere.

‘Do What You Gotta Do’ vs. ‘Here’s What We’re Gonna Do’?

How do we balance our need for safety against the needs of other essential workers to get to work? What do we do when there is not sufficient personal protective equipment?

When some members of TWU Local 100 in New York asked one of their officers what they should do, they were told, “Do what you gotta do.”

This is a terrible response, especially since Local 100 has very strong contract language to protect workers who object to unsafe conditions.

There is a written safety dispute resolution process that enables the worker or rep to document the unsafe condition. It requires two supervisors to sign off on any order to work—assuming such an order is given once the concern has been raised. Until the process is concluded, the worker does not have to perform the work.

While a few stewards and low-level officers have posted information about this process and these rights on social media, higher-level officers have not yet organized a campaign to use it to back up the union’s demands for proper personal protective equipment and other safety improvements.


The MTA claimed that it was simply following the guidance of state and federal health agencies.

But as Transport Workers Union (TWU) President John Samuelsen has pointed out, workers have learned the hard way that the government and employers play down environmental hazards. Recall the Environmental Protection Agency telling workers after 9/11 that the air near Ground Zero was safe to breathe. Or, the residents of Flint being told their water was safe to drink.



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On March 2, the MTA announced that its subway cars, buses, and commuter rail cars would be sanitized every three days. It’s doubtful the agency ever achieved this. But even if it did, what good does sanitizing every three days do against this virus?

Every bus, subway and rail care should be cleaned and sanitized at the end of each run. This will require hiring hundreds of cleaners, but hundreds of thousands are newly out of work in NY—including thousands of experienced cleaners from hotels and building services.

Federal money needs to be made available for transit agencies to hire enough cleaning staff to actually lower the risk of transmission. Crew quarters and locker rooms also need more frequent sanitizing.

The MTA waited until March 25 to reduce service—and then only did it because they had to, since so many workers were out sick or isolated due to virus exposure.

If service had been reduced sooner, it would have been possible to adjust work schedules so that workers did not have to report to work five days a week. Transit unions have pushed for this. This would also have reduced the number of workers in common facilities at the same time.

Rear-door boarding resulted in the elimination of fares on buses—but not the subway. Why not? Ridership has plummeted. The subways and trains are running to make it possible for essential workers to get to work. Eliminating the fare would be a small gesture of appreciation for those workers, and an economic benefit. What sense does it make to pay for the privilege of being exposed to the virus on your way to an essential job?

All these measures pushed by transit workers and unions would have reduced exposure to the virus, and probably would have saved some lives.


Even as transit workers push management and lobby Congress for personal protective equipment, improved policies to limit exposure, and full pay for anyone who can’t work because of the pandemic, they also need to gear up for the coming fights against austerity.

During his press briefing on April 17, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said:

“We talk about environmental changes that we’re going to make, but we never really do it. We talk about issues of income inequality, but we never really get there. We talk about changes to our public transit system, but it’s too hard, it’s too controversial. All right, well now you have an opportunity in this window to really make changes and reforms and improve things in a way you haven’t.”

In the past, Cuomo’s ideas for “changes to our public transit system” included cutting jobs in stations, removing conductors from trains, and adding Automatic Train Operation.

Transit workers have fought these initiatives in the past. This time, they will be fighting when state and local finances have taken a major hit, when ridership remains low, and when congestion pricing (a plan to charge vehicles traveling into a part of Manhattan starting next year) will not deliver the promised funds. The unions will need to address how transit and other essential public services are financed. They will need allies in the public and other unions.

But Cuomo is right that now is an opportunity to improve things.

Transit unions should ally with other unions and groups to put forward environmentally sustainable, pro-worker, pro-union proposals to deal with climate change and income inequality. Now is our chance to make our public transit system serve the needs of working people, and to make it a safer, more respectful place to work.

Steve Downs is a retired New York City subway train operator and a former officer of TWU Local 100.