Has telecommuting blunted power of potential New York rail strike?

Technology was less advanced during last strike in 1994
By Michael Y. Park
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 07/16/2014

NEW YORK (Reuters) — For decades, it's been the mightiest weapon in the transit union's arsenal, enough to cripple commerce and bring governments to their knees. But has the age of telecommuting taken the edge off the transit strike?

"Technology has certainly blunted that," said professor Joseph Foudy of the New York University Stern School of Business.

"The strike is not as effective a weapon as it once might have been," Foudy said ahead of a threatened strike by unionized workers on the Long Island Rail Road that could effectively shut down nation's largest commuter railway at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

Large and mid-sized companies with offices in Manhattan — where many of the 300,000 daily LIRR riders work — agreed.

They said they expected the power of cloud-based data storage, relatively seamless teleconferencing, multi-party chat functions like that of Google Circles, and robust cellphone networks to allow workers to get things done without customers noticing much of a difference, at least for a while.

If the strike by 5,400 unionized LIRR workers takes place, thousands of commuters will be inconvenienced or worse, especially those in jobs that do not allow for telecommuting. such as nurses, police officers or restaurant workers. But the action could cause far less trouble than the last LIRR strike in 1994 when communications technology was less advanced and its use less widespread.

At the luxury real-estate brokerage Stribling & Associates, downtown Manhattan manager Rebecca Mason said an LIRR strike would hardly be felt.

"We can be in touch with our clients by telephone and email, so we don't expect it to have much an impact at all," she said.

At Citibank, spokesman Kamran Mumtaz said telecommuting is an integral part of the company's crisis management plans designed for events like the potential strike.

"Our employees who may be affected have the ability to telecommute, work at alternative Citi sites or use MTA contingency services," Mumtaz said.

Foudy said the cutoff point for working effectively from a remote location is one work week. Until then, workers are more efficient at home than in the office, completing more routine tasks because there are fewer distractions, he said studies show.

"Past five days is when you start seeing a range of jobs where you have to start meeting people, make group decisions, bounce ideas off each other, talk to the people down the hall — anything innovative or pathbreaking," Foudy said.

The weakened power of a threatened transit strike also means the stalemate could drag on longer, Foudy added.

"We could see a slow crawl for weeks," he said.

Still, even a short strike could devastate small businesses that depend on daily face-to-face interaction such as the Trackside Cafe in Speonk on Long Island, which primarily feeds New York City commuters.

"There's a lot of business in people waiting on the train needing a coffee, needing water, needing a sandwich," said owner Bob Nidzyn, who estimates a strike will cost him 20 percent or more in sales.

"Hopefully the strike won't be that long. Hopefully it won't happen. But there's a lot of 'hopes' there," Nidzyn said.

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