Attacks on Transit Workers Stir Fear and Frustration

An MTA subway conductor keeps his head down at work.

On April 21 at 10:30 a.m., while many New Yorkers were enjoying their Easter candy, Denaul Jenkins II, 33, was on the job as an MTA subway conductor, waiting to catch the second train of his shift. As he sat on the southbound platform at the 149th Street-Grand Concourse station in the Bronx, Walter Rivera, 20, allegedly walked up and slapped him.

According to witnesses, Jenkins leapt to his feet. The conflict escalated when Rivera pulled out a knife and started stabbing the conductor, wounding him on his back, left shoulder, and abdomen, barely missing his spleen. Despite his injuries, Jenkins managed to subdue Rivera, holding him down until police arrived. The whole episode took less than two minutes.

In cell phone footage taken by an onlooker, Rivera can be seen laughing and talking into the camera while pinned to the ground. He is currently being held in a psychiatric treatment facility until his next court appearance on May 13.

Rivera’s assault was the third unprovoked attack against a uniformed MTA employee in April. An assailant threw urine on conductor Lucina Doley, 43, and bus driver Trellis Robinson, 43, in separate incidents on April 12. The most recent assaults occurred amid a public relations crisis for the MTA, as both passengers and employees voice growing concerns about conditions in the transit system.

“It’s almost like a state of emergency for the subway,” Jenkins said in a phone conversation following the encounter.

In his five years as a conductor, Jenkins says this is the second time he has had to subdue a violent straphanger. The last time, he says, was in Grand Central Station, where he held the person down for 10 minutes until police arrived.

The MTA seems to understand the seriousness of what’s happening.

“We stand in solidarity with our employees and are doing everything we possibly can, in conjunction with the NYPD, to keep them and our customers safe from people who pose a threat,” said MTA spokesman Max Young in a statement to NYCityLens following the assault on Jenkins.

But is the MTA truly doing all it can to protect workers? Many subway workers and bus drivers aren’t convinced.

Twelve days after the assault on Jenkins, dozens of transit workers gathered around a closed casket in front of the MTA headquarters at 2 Broadway, above the Bowling Green subway station. The casket was empty. The event was not a funeral but a rally, organized by Progressive Action, a transit worker advocacy group that currently has over 11,000 members in its private Facebook group. The coffin was a prop, meant to highlight the grave nature of workers’ complaints.

Jenkins was an invited speaker. Dressed in a mustard colored sweater and camouflage pants, his complexion was sallow.

Progressive Action functions as an opposition party within the Transport Workers’ Union Local 100. The union represents 41,000 New York City transit workers. Its current president, Tony Utano was elected last year on a platform called Stand United. Progressive Action’s founder Tramell Thompson also ran in the union election.

According to the “About” section of its website, Progressive Action aims to address racism and social justice in the workplace. In a statement after his re-election, Utano promised to focus on more concrete goals, like health benefits and job safety.

As speakers at the Progressive Action rally took turns at the bullhorn, they addressed a crowd carrying signs that read “We Demand Protection” and “Protect Women MTA Workers.” Each speaker praised Jenkins’ courage and criticized both the MTA and Utano.

Their complaints were numerous, ranging from inadequate maternity leave for female transit workers to being denied lunch breaks to being forced to work near biohazards without protective gear. In every case, speakers complained that their union had heard their complaints for years without acting.

The union leadership, they claim, is in bed with the MTA, its adversary in an ongoing contract negotiation that will dictate terms for most of New York City Transit’s 49,000 employees.

At one point, a speaker at the rally declared, “If you read the papers, they always talk about our salaries. We are the lowest paid city workers!” The crowd cheered.

Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo sparked outrage among transit workers by calling for police to monitor MTA workers on the Long Island Rail Road who he believed were fraudulently clocking in overtime hours to jack up their paychecks.

The job comparison site currently lists average MTA train operator pay at $34.80 per hour for an annual salary of $66,816 without overtime. While their wage is above New York City’s median income of $57,782, train operators earn less on average than police officers ($86,485) nurses ($83,665), and sanitation workers ($88,616 after five and a half years).

When his turn to speak arrived, Anthony Steiniger, a train operator and US Navy veteran, also addressed misconceptions around transit worker pay.

“All too often our stories are told by those who do not have the ability to tell our stories,” he began, citing a recent Wall Street Journal article that featured input from an economist at the Manhattan Institute who called for an end to “arcane” practices like extra pay for shoveling snow.

“This just demonstrates the disconnect between us, the working people, and people who make and influence policy. These people don’t have an inkling of what hard work is, and yet they can dictate to us how much we get paid,” he continued.

Asked if he had ever been assaulted on the job, Steiniger said that he had never had an altercation like the one Jenkins survived, but that he has been verbally attacked by passengers, people he believes were influenced by propaganda meant to mislead the public about the conditions transit workers face.

“These people weren’t unbalanced,” he says, “They just believed the narrative that we don’t deserve our salaries. Part of their strategy is to drive a wedge between working class people.”

Steiniger attended the rally on behalf of the Local 100 Fightback Coalition, another union subgroup opposed to the current leadership.

At one point during the rally, Progressive Action founder Tramell Thompson turned his bullhorn to Jim Gannon, the union communications director under Utano, who was in the crowd filming the event.

Thompson laid into Gannon, asking why the union president hadn’t accepted an invitation to the rally. He demanded that the union begin publicizing Progressive Action’s activities.

Gannon, who is white, started to respond, but was quickly shouted down by the crowd, whose members were mainly black, after he used the phrase “you people.”

NYPD officers moved in to remove Gannon, who wanted to keep talking, telling him, “You’re in the middle of an angry mob.”

Tramell posted footage of the encounter on Twitter later that day calling Gannon “hostile and reckless.”

The union leadership is dismissive of Progressive Action and Thompson. In an email after the event, Gannon wrote that “All those speakers at the rally except for one guy… just ran against the Stand United Slate…and they got their asses handed to them. So, they’re mad that they lost, and instead of accepting the will of the membership, they continue to attack the union leadership that did win.”

By phone the week after the rally, Thompson expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the event, saying, “I think it went excellent, especially when it hit social media.”

Besides its Facebook group and Twitter feed, Progressive Action  also produces an online talk show and podcast.

“If you look at the union website, there’s no information about members on the website. We put out more information. Why haven’t they tried to ally with me?” asks Thompson.

While the spat continues, so does the violence underground. On May 6, a female train operator was punched in the face while stopped at the Coney Island terminal. This time the union organized a press conference about the assault.

Caught between the MTA, the governor, and different union factions, transit workers are still looking for protection.

“You still had so many attacks that happened against MTA workers, even after what happened to me. It’s a slap in the face,” says Jenkins. “It comes down to money and resources. We need a task force that’s really going to focus on safety in the subway to make sure our MTA workers are safe, and of course, we want our customers to be safe, too.”