New York MTA transit workers demand new anti-spitting law

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Eight MTA unions representing bus, subway and commuter railroad workers held a press conference Friday to urge the state Legislature take action to address the plague of assaults and abuse inflicted on workers.

Dozens of workers, many of them victims, were in attendance, including subway conductor Terence Towler.

"Very fearful moment, very upsetting moment," he said. "I was closing the window, and he reached in and got this hand around my face and poked me in the eye with his finger."

That incident happened at the 59th Street station on the N line, while the most recent incident involved a bus driver in Brooklyn who was spit on before being knocked out by a wooden plank.

The driver is now recovering at home with 11 stitches to his finger and staples to his head.

RELATED | MTA bus driver spit on, knocked unconscious with wooden plank in Brooklyn

Violent crime in the New York City transit system has been rising, for the people who ride the subways and buses and for the people who run them. More than 170 transit workers were victimized just last month, an increase of 23%.

"We came here to move people," TWU Local 100 President Tony Utano said. "We need protection."

The MTA Labor Coalition is calling on the state to amend the penal law to make spitting, kicking, shoving, and other physical contact with transit workers the misdemeanor crime of aggravated assault.

Right now, spitting is just a violation that at most can result in a fine.

A misdemeanor can result in an arrest and jail time, and the officials say the change is needed to provide real consequences and a deterrent effect for transit worker abuse.

"We need this to be a felony," ATU Local 1181 President Michael Cordiello said. "We need people to go to jail and know there's a consequence."

Union leaders also announced that all five district attorneys in New York City have provided statements of support legislation that would make spitting at a transit worker a crime.

RELATED | Officials call for harsher penalties amid increase of assaults on MTA drivers, passengers

Transit workers were spit at more than 200 times last year, and more than 200 times the year before.

Towler was not hospitalized after his assault, but it was traumatizing. And his assailant has not been caught.

"We live in New York, we don't know who's out there, what problems they have," he said. "But apparently they feel like they can just take it out on anybody."

MTA officials have already said they support stricter penalties.

"This is appalling and unacceptable," MTA Chairman and CEO Pat Foye said.

The MTA is also begging the city for help and for more patrols and assistance with mental illness.

It comes at a time when elected leaders have decriminalized low level offenses, but these crimes could become the exception.

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