The recent spate of violence in New York City’s transit system may be making New Yorkers jittery, but it’s almost par for the course for those who are paid to work on the buses and in the subway system all day long.
MTA workers are members of the Local 100 chapter of the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU). Transit workers generally feel they have a good job, with good pay—and those who spoke with the Amsterdam News would only do so off the record, they did not want their names connected to any comments about problems in the system.
Chris Lightbourne, TWU’s department director of member services, notes that transit workers don’t regularly talk about the stressors they deal with on the job. “As a practice, they don’t really complain to the public about the dangers of being in different spaces. The only thing that they would relate—even to their union—is their actual work conditions and the environment that they work in and the conditions of certain facilities, things of that nature. You know, telling us what they need or what could change.
“But they are aware of the dangers in the subways.”
The public hears about headline-making violent incidents, but there are regular, unreported events that happen in the transit system on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. TWU workers can turn to their union for support in dealing with such issues, but the sad thing is that these have now practically become common workplace hazards.
This past Monday, a 20-year-old man got either his clothes or backpack caught in the doors of a southbound No. 1 train. As the train pulled away, it dragged the man onto the train tracks and in front of an oncoming train, which killed him. A 14-year-old girl was stabbed and slashed during a fight on a No. 1 train on Sunday. And two men in Queens got into a fistfight on Oct. 17 after one accidentally knocked the other’s phone onto the train tracks. The man who lost his phone shoved the other into the path of an oncoming subway train at the Roosevelt Avenue subway station; two subway cars rolled over the victim before the motorman was able to stop the train.
New York City Transit Authority train operators use codes to signal when occurrences like these take place, and they need help. Their radio signal codes all begin with a 12: “12 – 7” is a request for police or medical assistance; “12 – 8” is a call about an armed passenger; “12 – 9” means a person has been hit by a train; a “12 – 10” means there are unauthorized people on the train tracks; and a “12 – 11” is a call that there is vandalism taking place.
“You have to be aware of your surroundings,” one worker commented. In the city in general, the worker added, you have to pay attention and you just have to extend that to when you’re in the transit system.
Workers feel the increased police presence in the subway system is helpful in concept, but if the police are not making arrests, their show of authority isn’t accomplishing much.
“I can tell you that basically when it comes to, like, fare evasion, they don’t really want the cops to crack down on it,” observed one MTA worker. “And a lot of crime, most of the crime that happens on the subway, it starts from fare evasion. They’re not really telling the cops to really enforce it.”
Another worker recalled when NYC Transit Police used K-9 dogs on the subway, back in the 1980s: “They should have the dogs, you know like they used to have: they go, they board the buses, they board the trains, you know, basically looking for criminal activity. That’s something they should really look into. I mean, I know that marijuana is legal, it’s legal on the streets, but it’s not legal in the transit system, for obvious reasons. But every day we have people smoking on the subway and the bus, and nothing is being done.” The worker said police don’t have to use violence, but they should have greater authority to escort violators off of trains and buses.
Some TWU members think police presence can be a crime deterrent. But another MTA worker declared that the main problem is that homeless people have taken up residence on the trains: “Let me put it this way: right now, there’s a lot of crazy people out there on the subway. One of the main things is the homeless people, and now when it starts getting cold, they’re not allowed to take them out of the station when the temperature outside is under 32 degrees.”
“We have to be more careful right now,” a worker told the AmNews. “I’m in the booth all day, so I’m basically okay. But then you got your cleaners outside there, they just have to be aware of their surroundings and not walk towards a situation where you, say, see two people fighting. You’re not going to walk by them.”
When asked if the violence in the system is too much, and if they plan on maintaining a career working with the MTA, all workers said they would. “I wouldn’t mind, this is just always kind of what I wanted to do,” shrugged one TWU member. “I mean employment-wise, this is one of the best jobs you can do. As far as the safety aspect of things, you know things do need to change—but that has more to do with politics.”