MTA Strike in New York Wikipedia Alternative

MTA Strike in New York

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Commuters lined up in Queens to board a Long Island Rail Road train to Manhattan

December 21, 2005
In Final Hours, M.T.A. Took Big Pension Risk

On the final day of intense negotiations, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, it turns out, greatly altered what it had called its final offer, to address many of the objections of the transit workers’ union. The authority improved its earlier wage proposals, dropped its demand for concessions on health benefits and stopped calling for an increase in the retirement age, to 62 from 55.

But then, just hours before the strike deadline, the authority’s chairman, Peter S. Kalikow, put forward a surprise demand that stunned the union. Seeking to rein in the authority’s soaring pension costs, he asked that all new transit workers contribute 6 percent of their wages toward their pensions, up from the 2 percent that current workers pay. The union balked, and then shut down the nation’s largest transit system for the first time in a quarter-century.

Yet for all the rage and bluster that followed, this war was declared over a pension proposal that would have saved the transit authority less than $20 million over the next three years.

It seemed a small figure, considering that the city says that every day of the strike will cost its businesses hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues. But the authority contends that it must act now to prevent a "tidal wave" of pension outlays if costs are not brought under control.

Roger Toussaint, the president of the union, Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, said the pension proposal, made Monday night just before the 12:01 a.m. strike deadline, would effectively cut the wages of new workers by 4 percent.

"They’re trying to beat down wages for our new workers," Mr. Toussaint said yesterday.

In the days immediately before the strike deadline, the union kept hammering the point that the authority’s pension demands would save little over the life of a three-year contract.

Indeed, not just Mr. Toussaint but some other New Yorkers are questioning whether it was worthwhile for the authority to go to war over the issue when the authority’s pension demands would apparently save less over the next three years than what the New York City Police Department will spend on extra overtime during the first two days of the strike.

"What they’d be saving on pensions is a pittance," Mr. Toussaint said.

Robert Linn, a former New York City labor commissioner, questioned the transportation authority’s decision – with the backing of the mayor and governor – to go to the mat over pensions with a union that can exact huge pain on the city in a year when the authority was enjoying a $1 billion surplus.

"They might have picked a union that was more willing to consider the subject," Mr. Linn said. "It not just the considerable economic power of this union, it’s also the timing," just before Christmas. "It’s tremendously problematic."

Gary J. Dellaverson, the authority’s director of labor relations, said he and the authority’s other negotiators had tried to be flexible in making the pension offer.

"We tried to remold our position, to be reflective of their issues and still be consistent with our finances and our bargaining goals – what we considered a good faith effort to close the deal," he said.

Labor negotiations resemble high-stakes poker, and it was not until a few hours before the strike deadline that the authority ‘s chairman, Mr. Kalikow, showed his hand, making an offer far different from what he had previously said was his final offer.

With the transit workers’ union demanding raises above inflation, Mr. Kalikow raised his wage offer so that raises would average 3.5 percent a year for three years, up from 3 percent in his previous offer. Responding to the union’s demand that he not raise the retirement age, Mr. Kalikow also dropped his proposal that future transit workers not qualify for a full pension until age 62, up from 55 for current workers.

But then he put his new demand on the table, that new workers contribute 6 percent of their wages to finance their pensions – a demand that clashed with Mr. Toussaint’s oft-repeated refusal to sell out the "unborn," meaning new workers.

Mr. Dellaverson declined to spell out how much that proposal would save each year. "Pension changes always have small effects at the beginning and grow over time," he said.

John J. Murphy, a pension expert and former executive director of the New York City Employees’ Retirement System, said he computed that the authority’s pension proposal would have a modest saving at first: $2.25 million in the first year, $4.8 million in the second year and $7.8 million in the third year.

But he said the plan would achieve significant savings, more than $160 million in the first 10 years, with some officials estimating that it would save more than $80 million a year after 20 years.

Mr. Dellaverson said it was important for the authority to try to control its pension outlays even in a year when it had a surplus. The authority’s pension outlays for the transit workers have soared to $453 million this year, triple the amount in 2002.

"If you know a tidal wave is coming and you can still play around in the surf because it’s not here yet, anyone would think that’s foolishness," Mr. Dellaverson said.

That wave, he suggested, is a continued rise in pension costs and the authority’s forecast of a $1 billion deficit in 2009.

Mr. Dellaverson said the week of negotiations at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Midtown were unusual because the union made hardly any firm counteroffers. "The longer you wait to start to address the problem," he said, "the more dramatic the changes must be to address them."

He said the union made no new offer countering the authority’s pension offers. The union, he said, asked for an 8 percent raise a year, without ever specifying how many years of 8 percent raises it wanted.

He said that just before negotiations broke off on Monday, "We made another offer, even though the union had never countered our earlier offer," he said. "From a tactical standpoint, it’s unusual in my little business."

Several union officials said Mr. Toussaint was often reluctant to make a new proposal – for instance, lowering a wage demand – because the clamorous dissidents in the union might seize on such a move to accuse him of selling out.

E. J. McMahon, a budgetary expert at the Manhattan Institute who favors reducing government pension costs, said there were wise and unwise aspects to the authority’s focus on pensions in the bargaining.

"On one hand, the transit workers are the hardest union to bring this up with," he said. "On the other hand, this has really put a spotlight on the pension issue."

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Wikipedia alternative

This story was printed from ZDNet Asia.

Wikipedia alternative aims to be ‘PBS of the Web’

By Daniel Terdiman, CNET

A new online information service launching in early 2006 aims to build on the model of free online encyclopedia Wikipedia by inviting acknowledged experts in a range of subjects to review material contributed by the general public.

Called Digital Universe, the project is the brainchild of, among others, USWeb founder Joe Firmage and Larry Sanger, one of Wikipedia’s earliest creators.

By providing a service they’re calling "the PBS of the Web," the Digital Universe team hopes to create a new era of free and open access to wide swaths of information on virtually any topic.

"The vision of the Digital Universe is to essentially provide an ad-free alternative to the likes of AOL and Yahoo on the Internet," said Firmage. "Instead of building it through Web robots, we’re building it through a web of experts at hundreds of institutions throughout the world."

Their idea is particularly timely given recent questions about Wikipedia’s accuracy and credibility. A frequently raised criticism of the constantly growing repository of information has been that the millions of articles created by a worldwide community of contributors are not verified by experts.

Of course, that has always been Wikipedia’s modus operandi–that its articles are written and vetted by its community, not by an elite corps of Ph.D.s. Yet there are some who feel that while the site has a satisfying populist appeal, and may be on par with the Encyclopedia Britannica when it comes to accuracy, it still suffers from a lack of true accountability.

By including articles that have been approved by experts, Digital Universe will have such reliability, its founders say.

The problem that Firmage and his colleagues are trying to solve is finding a financially viable way to back up an endless supply of no-cost and ad-free articles written by the general public with review and certification by subject-area experts.

There have been previous attempts at this. In fact, Sanger and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales were behind the last major attempt, known as Nupedia. But that effort died when it failed to generate the kind of critical mass that Wikipedia has–more than 45,000 active users and nearly 900,000 articles in English alone–over the last couple of years.

Avoiding past pitfalls
But Firmage, Sanger and Digital Universe President Bernard Haisch think their project can avoid the pitfalls of its predecessors. They’ve created a system built around the idea of portals–one for each major subject area, such as climate change, energy, education, the solar system and so on. Each portal will contain many different kinds of resources.

"There will be a lot of resources of different kinds that are actually prepared by experts and the general public under the management of experts," Sanger explained. "So this would include an encyclopedia, but also public-domain books, participatory journalism, forums of various kinds and so forth."

While the Digital Universe will be free to anyone, it has a business model, Firmage said. The idea is that it will partner with nonprofit organizations including NASA, the American Museum of Natural History and U.C. Berkeley and sell Digital Universe-branded Internet service to their members. He said subscribers would pay no more than what they currently pay for Internet service, and would get the benefit of knowing that some of their fees are going to supporting the organizations, as well as the Digital Universe itself.

In any case, the encyclopedia element of the project is the one that is the most similar to Wikipedia. But where Wales’ project has just one kind of article–those created and vetted by users–the Digital Universe’s encyclopedia will have two separate and distinct tiers: publicly written articles that are not certified by the experts as accurate, and those that are.

"Both categories are specifically labeled as such," Firmage said. "People (will) know what they’re looking at, so they know if it’s been looked at or reviewed by someone who knows what they’re talking about."

"In the Digital Universe, a Ph.D. matters, and in the Wikipedia universe, a Ph.D. does not matter."

–Joe Firmage, Digital Universe co-founder

That dynamic, as well as a line on the Digital Universe site that refers to itself as a project that "will become the largest reliable information resource in history" might lead one to think that Firmage and his team are taking indirect digs at Wikipedia.

Firmage, in fact, said the line is unapologetically direct.

"In the Digital Universe, a Ph.D. matters, and in the Wikipedia universe, a Ph.D. does not matter," Firmage said. "I believe that is a fundamental problem with the Wikipedia model. I’m all for public contribution, and Digital Universe will invite content contributions from the general public.

"But in terms of editorial supervision, we would all agree that a Ph.D. matters, whether it’s history, sociology, physics or environmental science," he added. "Surely you would want to be operated on by an M.D. when it comes time for surgery."

For his part, Wales said he finds what he’s seen of the Digital Universe project "interesting" and isn’t too concerned about whether it will undercut Wikipedia.

"We’re a community and we do what we do, and we don’t think in terms of whether something’s competing with us, or whether it’s complementary," Wales said. "It sounds like a cool thing on the Web. (But) it doesn’t really affect us."

To be sure, when Digital Universe launches in January, it won’t have anywhere near the depth and breadth of Wikipedia’s information. But like Wikipedia–which launched in January 2001 with just 20 articles and has expanded steadily since–Digital Universe founders expect their project to grow slowly and organically.

It will launch with about a dozen subject-area portals, Firmage said, but will add a new portal every two to three weeks.

According to Firmage, experts, many of whom have already been lined up, will be paid to work part-time vetting articles. The initial funding will come from US$10 million raised over the last three years from angel investors and others.

To Sanger, the experts will want to be involved in the project because of its vision of being "a free, nonprofit and authoritative information resource (that has) never before been tried."

Some of those involved agree.

"It will be the first Web-based information resource that combines the trustworthiness and authority of scientific review and governance with the power of Web-based collaboration, all enabled by a state-of-the-art technology platform," wrote three Ph.D.s, Cutler Cleveland, Jim Lester and Peter Saundry, the chair and vice chairs, respectively, of the project’s Environmental Information Coalition.

"As such, the (Digital Universe)," they wrote in an open letter, "will be a direct conduit of objective information from scientists and educators to decision makers and civil society at large."


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