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Transit workers show their power
The strike that shut down New York

January 6, 2006 | Pages 6 and 7

LEIA PETTY and JEN ROESCH tell the story of the transit strike that paralyzed the country's largest city--and talk to TWU members about the new contract and the future.

NEW YORK City's nearly 34,000 transit workers shut down the country's largest public transportation system last month in a three-day strike that became a battle between working-class New Yorkers and the bosses, politicians and ruling elite of the city.

The strike--illegal under New York's anti-union Taylor Law--was the largest display of workers' power seen in New York in over 25 years. Beginning on Tuesday, December 20, the city was paralyzed during the busiest shopping week of the year, and 7 million subway and bus riders opted for cabs, carpools and their own two feet to get around.

With a judge threatening multimillion-dollar fines against transit workers and their union--and to jail Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 President Roger Toussaint and other union leaders--the strike was abruptly called off Thursday afternoon, following a return to negotiations, with a mediator presiding.

The settlement that emerged after the return to work represented a retreat by the Metropolitan Transportation Agency (MTA) management on a number of fronts, including a proposal for a two-tier pension system that the bosses hoped would set a precedent for other city workers. But the union made concessions, too. In particular, the TWU agreed to workers' contributions to health care and a wage deal that won't make up lost ground from the last two contracts.

Energized by their experience on the picket lines and inspired by the support they got from working New Yorkers, many transit workers feel that the end of the strike was a lost opportunity--to win an all-out victory against the MTA and to set a fighting example for the labor movement as a whole.

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DESPITE A billion-dollar surplus accumulated over the year, the MTA went into negotiations eager to wrest serious concessions from the union, including givebacks on productivity, and pension and health care contributions. At the same time, transit workers wanted a deal that would make up for two contracts where the MTA had pleaded poverty and held wages down.

The stakes were high and the stage set for a walkout, with the arrogant MTA on one side and an angry union membership on the other.

Roger Toussaint, the TWU Local 100 president, was caught in the middle. The former union dissident won the local presidency after his predecessor negotiated a rotten deal in 1999, but Toussaint disappointed his supporters by giving up concessions in 2002 and undermining fellow reformers who worked to get him elected.

Toussaint may have hoped to avoid a walkout this time, too, but the MTA provoked the strike by repackaging its demand for a two-tier pension system. Instead of denying new hires the right to retire at age 55, it would have required them to contribute 6 percent of their wages to pensions, as opposed to 2 percent for current workers.

For the MTA, this was about more than cost-savings. The pension deal would have saved less than $20 million over three years--small change compared to the huge costs suffered by businesses and the city as a result of a strike. The pension deal was really an attempt by the MTA to establish a new precedent for public workers in New York.

From the beginning, the strike became a struggle for dignity in a city that treats its mostly Black and Latino transit workers like dirt. As a bus driver from the Manhattanville depot told Socialist Worker, "Being out here, I feel good, like a human being, seeing all the support we're getting. I know we're doing the right thing, and that we need to stand up and fight."

The strike changed the political landscape in New York City, polarizing the public and giving previously invisible workers a national platform. Every morning, as commuters were planning their alternate route, they were also forced to consider the demands of transit workers--and, inevitably, take a side.

The city's political elite certainly took one, and so did almost all of the New York and national media. Former Mayor Ed Koch called for the city to "crush the union," the top-selling New York Daily News newspaper called strikers "foolish," and current Mayor Michael Bloomberg topped them all when he called TWU members "greedy thugs."

"This guy's a billionaire, and he says we're overpaid," one picketer in Brooklyn responded. "They're trying to work us to death. Then to add insult to injury, he calls us thugs. I get up every morning to go to work in nasty tunnels with rats, breathing in toxic fumes. And they say I'm a thug."

In fact, one of the MTA's dirty secrets is the awful conditions employees work under. The average transit worker dies two to three years after retirement at age 55, so the MTA's original demand that the retirement age be raised to 62 would literally mean working TWU members to death.

Because there was no maternity leave in previous contracts, women--who comprise a third of the workforce--endured dangerous conditions, including track work, until the day they gave birth.

Workers face a repressive and arbitrary disciplinary system that resulted in 15,000 disciplinary actions last year alone, and prompts comparisons from workers to "plantation justice."

Bloomberg painted an image of highly paid transit workers who retire early with generous pensions. But the reality is that most workers can't afford to buy a home in New York City on the money they make, and they have been squeezed by a rising cost of living as wages stagnated.

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THE MEDIA'S bitter denunciation of the strike and obsession with interviewing disgruntled commuters was in contrast to the situation at any picket line, where shows of support buoyed the spirits of strikers. More than one New York City teacher commented that they should have struck, too, rather than accept a contract filled with further concessions late last year.

New York itself felt different--like a city where working people had found their voice and were speaking out against the assault on their living standards. The transit workers' stand against Bloomberg, Gov. George Pataki and the MTA struck a chord with working New Yorkers who have seen their own living standards decline while Wall Street raked in huge bonuses.

Though New Yorkers did keenly feel the effects of the strike, most blamed the MTA, and a large number joined strikers on the picket line, chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Where'd the billion dollars go?"

The mood of transit workers was confident and angry. After swallowing two concessionary contracts, most were happy to be taking a stand.

And rather than intimidating the strikers, the Taylor Law fines and threats only made them angrier. "We are going to rewrite the law," said a striker at the 207th Street train yard. "It's wrong. We're breaking it to rewrite it. All the laws they have, they mean nothing without us. We are the law."

However, in contrast to the mood on the picket line, the union leadership was coming under increasing pressure. Each day, the tabloid editorials became more dramatic in their attacks on the TWU. The Daily News printed a front-page picture of Toussaint behind bars, with the headline "Jail Him."

In fact, on the third day of the strike, Toussaint was scheduled to appear in court, where it was expected that he would be arrested--and additional fines of $25,000 a day would be levied against each striking worker. Bloomberg, Pataki, the courts and the MTA were pulling out all the stops to force a return to work.

Unfortunately, the widespread sympathy for the strikers wasn't organized into concrete solidarity action by city labor leaders. On the contrary, behind the scenes, many top union officials were pressuring Toussaint to work with state mediators to return to work – even without a contract. According to the New York Times, the president of the New York City Central Labor Council declared that the strike polarized the city too much and that the union should "work past things."

Even more devastatingly, the TWU International came out publicly against the strike by Local 100, which accounts for one-third of the TWU's membership. Signs at some picket line entrances read, "The International Transit Workers Union does not support this strike."

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HOURS BEFORE facing jail time, Toussaint called off the strike after the MTA put forward a new deal. The contents of the proposal remained under cover for close to a week, so workers were sent back to work without a contract. While many trusted Toussaint's decision, there was a lot of anger, too. "On the picket line, we kept saying, 'No contract, no work,'" one striker said. "What was the point?"

After negotiations were completed, the Local 100 Executive Board voted overwhelmingly to recommend a deal in which the MTA was forced to back down entirely on two-tier pensions, but scored a new precedent in forcing transit workers to pay into health care. Significantly, the deal also extended the contract by one month to avoid future strike threats during the holiday season--a major loss of bargaining power for the union.

The wage increase of 10.5 percent over three years was a standard cost-of-living increase in line with other city contracts. Other gains for the union included paid maternity leave for the first time and a joint commission to review disciplinary actions. In addition, the MTA wasn't able to force through any of the productivity concessions it had desired.

The MTA also agreed to $110 million in pension reimbursements affecting 20,000 transit workers, which will considerably offset the fines incurred by strikers. However, this provision needs to be approved by the state legislature, and Gov. George Pataki is now vowing to take a hard line and veto the provision. This sets the stage for a continued fight around this issue.

In walking out and gaining a better deal as a result, the transit workers broke through the longstanding idea that it's impossible to strike against the Taylor Law. For other city workers, whose union leaders have pushed concessionary contracts rather than mobilize for a fight, this lesson isn't lost. In many ways, this is the most important legacy of the transit strike, as a debate is renewed within city unions about the possibilities for resisting the attacks on job conditions and living standards.

Fighting off management's demand for a two-tier pension system meant protecting the future of the union. The MTA tried this attack on one of the strongest unions in the city, and it was stopped in its tracks. However, the deal does contain a crucial concession around health care, and the wage increases fail to make up for the givebacks of previous contracts.

Within the rank and file, pride in having taken a stand is mixed with frustration that the strike and resulting contract didn't go far enough. "When we went back to work, we got a lot of respect and praise," said a bus driver after the walkout. "There's a lot of people in this city who think that the city is a big bully, and that [workers] just need a voice. A lot of people told us that they were happy we brought the city to its knees."

After the previous givebacks, many transit workers had high expectations that this contract would reverse the tide and make up for past losses. "We're always giving back," said one track worker. "It seems like we give back two, they give us one. Any gains that we've made, for the most part they tried to take away.

"The raises overall leave a lot to be desired. We were looking for 5-5-5 [in wage increases over the three years of the deal] not because of this contract but because of past contracts. We want it for that $1 billion [surplus]--for what we gave back. We gave so much in the last two contracts. We deserve 5-5-5."

Because of this sentiment, some workers are planning to vote against the deal. While it's unclear whether the potential exists for the contract to be voted down and a new contract battle mobilized, it's certainly true that many transit workers feel the strike could and should have gone further. This sentiment needs to be translated into rank-and-file organization to prepare for the future battles that are sure to come.

But however the contract vote turns out, the transit workers have showed the potential for a real fight. The strike took place in the context of a labor movement in retreat, with a strategy around cooperation with employers instead of standing up to them.

In this context, the transit fight is an inspiring example of the power workers have in our society--and what it will take to defend what we already have and to fight for all that workers deserve.

In an increasingly polarized New York, the example will not soon be forgotten.

Standing up to racism

MONIQUE DOLS looks at how the comments of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other officials stoked New York's racial divisions.

AT THE height of the Transit Workers Union three-day strike, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ranted for the TV cameras that Local 100 President Roger Toussaint and the 34,000 members of his union were "greedy," "selfish" and "thuggish." Bloomberg's comments escalated a racially charged standoff between the mostly white faces of New York's politicians and business elite, and a majority non-white union.

Toussaint, a native of Trinidad, denounced Bloomberg's attacks as "offensive and insulting."

He specifically drew a parallel with the 1960s civil rights movement. "There is a higher calling than the law, and that is justice and equality," Toussaint said, commenting on the Taylor Law that outlawed the strike. "Had Rosa Parks answered the call of the law instead of the higher call of justice, many of us who are driving busses today would still be at the back of the bus. We want to drive the bus today with some respect and some dignity."

A poll by the NY1 news channel found that 54 percent of New Yorkers believed that union demands were fair--a high level of support considering the media's misinformation campaign. But a WNBC/Marist survey found that support for the strike was polarized along racial lines. According to the poll, 71 percent of whites opposed the walkout, and 53 percent blamed the TWU for the strike. On the other hand, 61 percent of Blacks supported the strike, and 58 percent blamed the MTA.

As one strike supporter, Jorge Hernandez, commented, "Most white people who opposed the strike were probably not blue collar. Most people of color know that working for transit offered us some security, and now they are trying to take away the little that they did get."

On the second day of the strike, a TWU-run Web log about the strike had to be shut down because of a flurry of racist and insulting remarks posted by site visitors.

The reason that non-whites overwhelmingly supported the demands of the union is no mystery. New York is one of the five most segregated cities in the county, according to a variety of studies. Despite its image as a progressive city, racism is alive and well in New York, African American men's life expectancy is six years shorter than for white men, and 50 percent of Black men are unemployed.

For the Black and Brown population of New York, which faces segregation, police terror and humiliation on a daily basis, the transit strike was an inspiration, and a glimpse of what's possible when working and oppressed people stand up.

David Jones, a columnist for the Amsterdam News, a Black newspaper in New York, called the strike a tribute to Martin Luther King's legacy. Jones compared Toussaint's civil rights unionism to King's support for the Memphis sanitation workers' strike in 1968 prior to his assassination--when King "recogniz[ed] that economic security was the next frontier in the fight for equity for Black Americans," Jones wrote.

Jones pointed out that the strike disproportionately hurt working and poor New Yorkers, but that this struggle for equality and desegregation showed that "the results justified the action."

The three-day strike will go down as a struggle in which Black and Latino working New Yorkers stood up to the racist establishment. It also serves as a reminder that our struggle to rebuild working-class organization must also be committed to reviving an antiracist movement.

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