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ISR Issue 46, March–April 2006

New York transit strike
A glimpse of union power


BETWEEN DECEMBER 20 and 23 of last year, during the busiest shopping season of the year, New York City transit workers paralyzed the country’s largest city. The nearly 34,000 members of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 defied New York’s Taylor Laws that make it illegal for public workers to strike, went up against a hysterical media and the bullying tactics of New York’s billionaire mayor, and shut down the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). In the process, they garnered massive support among the city’s working class. Starting on December 20, the city was transformed and battle lines were clearly drawn exposing massive class polarization and racism.

After returning to work, transit workers held their ground by voting narrowly to reject a contract that, while much improved, still contained major concessions. The vote was a blow to both management and the leadership of Transport Workers Union Local 100 president Roger Toussaint. Negotiations were continuing as the ISR went to press, with management taking an even harder line. But the city was still taking account of transit workers’ power to affect the city. At a time when most union leaders are trying to avoid confrontation with employers, even at the cost of massive concessions, the transit strike shut down the nerve center of U.S. capitalism, and in so doing revealed the potential of organized labor to fight back.

Track worker Jerry Warren expressed a widespread sentiment: “The rich and the powerful are playing real hardball with the union, but okay. Try to find an affordable apartment in Harlem. Go to the grocery store, everything’s more expensive. Time to fight or die.”1 According to the Washington Post, median-income New Yorkers, such as transit workers, who make $40,000 to $60,000 a year, have seen their incomes decline by 11.9 percent relative to inflation in the past thirteen years.

Incomes for the top-fifth of New York earners have increased by 26 percent. Inflation runs close to 5 percent in the city, and housing prices have shot up 85 percent. Few middle- and working-class families can afford to buy a home or apartment, even in the most far-flung neighborhoods.2

So when New York City’s billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, denounced the predominantly Black and Latino strikers as “selfish” and “thugs,” he only inflamed the anger of millions of New Yorkers who struggle to get by. The racist undertones of calling the overwhelmingly Black and Latino MTA workforce “thugs” was barely below the surface. Meanwhile the New York Daily News called for jailing TWU Local 100 president Roger Toussaint, along with “his bull-headed lieutenants,” and called for fines so steep as to “bankrupt the union within days.”3 The New York Post ran front-page stories calling transit workers “Rats” and another with a mocked-up photo of Toussaint behind bars, with the headline, “Jail ’em.”

Yet despite the unashamedly one-sided coverage of the strike, and its inconveniences in a city where millions depend on public transportation, the majority of New Yorkers supported the strikers, because they could identify with the issues the strike raised—the attack on pensions and health care. A WABC TV poll found that 52 percent of New Yorkers supported the strike, while only 40 percent backed the city.4 Many workers, without any organization from their own unions, went out to the picket lines with their co-workers to bring coffee, pizza, money, or moral support. One elementary school teacher brought out her whole class chanting, “TWU! We love you!”

Politicians did more than back the MTA with bullying words. Mayor Bloomberg took the TWU to court, seeking an injunction that—in addition to the already stiff penalties exacted by the Taylor Laws—would require further fines of $1 million from the TWU on the first day out and double that number on successive days. Individual workers would be fined an additional $25,000 the first day out and double on each successive day. By the third day of the strike, Roger Toussaint had been called in to court for a criminal contempt hearing, and many speculated that this court order would lead to his arrest. These injunctions were later dropped, but in the meantime, they hung over the union’s head and helped to pressure Toussaint to end the walkout.

For their part, while transit workers felt the economic strain of being out on strike—docked two days pay for every day they were out—resolve was strong. Even those who had not initially felt confident to strike were emboldened once they were out on the picket lines. During the first morning of the strike, train operator Faryl Dempsey explained,

I thought I wouldn’t want to be part of [the strike] because of the people it would effect, but then when I got in the midst of it, I said OK, we can do this…. This strike is inspiring. It brought me back to my dad’s days when Dr. King and others fought for equality.... I was like, Wow! We’re making history here.5

The strike is called off

When Toussaint abruptly called off the strike on its third day, some were relieved to return to work, but many others were confused and angry. TWU members have had years of pent-up anger simmering and two near-strikes in recent contract battles. Now, the MTA had a billion-dollar surplus, and the union had vowed “no contract, no work.” Expectations ran high, yet workers were sent back to work without a contract. Toussaint continued closed-door negotiations with the MTA, and announced a deal days later. When the details of the contract were revealed, disappointment was wide and deep, particularly among subway workers—historically the most militant of the workforce.6

The agreement contained some undeniable gains for Local 100 members. While wage increases were modest, at 10.5 percent for the life of a three-year contract, health coverage for pre-Medicare retirees was improved, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was added as a paid holiday, disability insurance was improved, and a modest maternity benefit was also gained. The MTA backed off its demand to increase productivity through broadbanding7 of job titles, and the creation of an independent review board to investigate its overbearing disciplinary procedures. Most significantly, the agreement forced the MTA to abandon its plan for a two-tier pension system—an issue that had been a key sticking point for both Toussaint and the MTA. The union also won a commitment on the part of the MTA to refund pension payments that as many as 20,000 workers had overpaid into their accounts between 1994 and 2001.

But a number of concessions marred the contract as well. At the top of the list was a provision that would, for the first time, have forced workers to contribute towards their health care coverage. The contribution was to begin at 1.5 percent and was pegged to likely increases in health care costs, making it all but certain that the percentage would rise during the life of the contract. And rather than the 1.5 percent coming out of workers’ base salaries, it was to come from overall gross pay—a hefty amount for a workforce that relies heavily on overtime pay. Figuring in the health care contributions and the Taylor Law fines that TWU members are required to pay for striking, many transit workers saw the average annual raise of 3.5 percent as inadequate. And as a last straw, Governor George Pataki vowed to veto the provision that would have refunded the pension over-payments.

Workers reject the contract

In the end, transit workers shocked the city’s establishment by rejecting the proposed contract settlement by a slim margin of seven votes. Of 22,461 total votes cast, 11,227 Local 100 members voted to ratify the contract, and 11,234 voted against.

Bitterness at exchanging one set of givebacks for another fueled the “no” vote. And a “Vote No Coalition,” made up of dissidents in the union helped to organize it. While Toussaint and the TWU leadership hired a PR firm—at a cost of $70,000—to inundate members with daily e-mails, phone calls, and advertisements, the Vote No Coalition’s estimated $3,000 worth of flyers and buttons had a higher resonance among the rank and file. The TWU organized meetings, with Toussaint speaking, to sell the contract, but these backfired as members grilled the president on the agreement’s concessions.

“It was easy to campaign with a simple message, and people caught on once they got the facts and info,” John Mooney, a Local 100 vice president representing station workers, said in an interview.

Transit workers see the world in a different light; this is historic and critical.… The key to the no-vote campaign’s success was grassroots organizing. Members of the executive board who were opposed to the contract called a rank-and-file meeting in Brooklyn to discuss the “no” vote. We went to the Brooklyn meeting with flyers that explained the givebacks and specific items that Toussaint wasn’t releasing. Vote no buttons and stickers were made, and were visible. One hundred members attended, and they went and put the message out at the work sites.8

The centrality of pension and health care contributions cannot be understated. Management’s pre-strike proposal to increase the contributions of new hires to 6 percent would have saved them under $20 million during the life of the contract. Yet they were willing to give up a lump sum for the refunds that would amount to $110 million—indicating that the real issue was not short-term economic gain. In the end, they exchanged health care deductions for pension deductions. In either case, their gain is long-term.

[I]t is the kind of judgment call that most government officials would favor: taking a short-term cash hit in return for savings that are long-term and recurring. The fact that those savings come from a reduction in the MTA’s health-care obligations rather than its pension contributions is irrelevant to the agency’s bottom line. And there is no reason to believe that MTA pension costs will continue to rise as they have over the past few years.9

In fact, the MTA’s contribution towards the pension fund was showing signs of leveling off, not increasing. City officials have complained that there is a pension crisis that calls for a restructuring of pension funds. But although it is true that employer contributions toward pension plans have increased in the last couple of years, this is only because they had already hit rock bottom. According to journalist Juan Gonzalez:

In 1981, 24 percent of the city budget went to pay for pensions. By 2000, that figure had dropped to less than 1 percent! The booming stock market of the 1990s created such huge returns for pension funds that many employers, including the city, virtually stopped contributing new money. At the height of the boom, for example, [then] Mayor Rudy Giuliani diverted more than $800 million from the pension system by simply changing asset value assumptions. Giuliani used that money to fund tax cuts and other parts of the city budget.… Even in those years when City Hall virtually stopped paying, most city employees were still required to pay at least 3 percent of their own salaries into the pension system…. Then the market tanked. Starting in 2003, the city actuary, who sets contribution rates for all pension funds, sharply increased the city’s annual payments. But even with that increase, pension costs today amount to only 8 percent of the total budget—far below the levels of the 1980s and early 1990s.10

By shifting the burden of payment for health care and pensions during a period of economic recovery and budget surpluses, city bosses get away with a massive siphoning off of wealth from the bottom to the top of society. Indeed, Bloomberg, Pataki and New York City bosses, hope to use transit’s contract to set a precedent to shift the burden of health care and pensions to the city’s workforce. This is Corporate America’s primary strategy for squeezing more from workers. In the process, they manage to convince workers that we are lucky to have health care or retirement provided at all. After all, what makes transit workers (whose life expectancy is typically just a few short years after retirement) so “greedy” for demanding the right to retire before they are worked to death? The TWU’s real crime was that they set a different example and showed that resistance is possible and necessary.

Union solidarity falls short

But if transit workers set a bold example, they also exposed as many weaknesses in a labor movement that has shrunk to just over 12 percent of the workforce nationally. If the labor movement is to regain ground it will have to challenge the bosses’ bid to shift the burden of workplace benefits and retirement on to workers. Where the TWU took the first step, the rest of the labor movement passively, and at times actively, resisted this route. Most outrageous were the actions of the TWU International, which immediately announced that they would not support the strike. At some picket locations, signs were posted announcing, “The International Transit Workers Union does not support this strike.” TWU president Michael O’Brien issued a statement directing members to “cease any and all strike or strike-related activities and to report to work at their regularly assigned work hours and work locations”11—essentially, to scab on their own strike.

According to the New York Times, UNITE HERE President Bruce Raynor, (a close ally of Andrew Stern—Service Employees and International Union president and leader of the AFL-CIO breakaway Change to Win coalition) personally intervened during the strike to negotiate a return to negotiations. And a conference call involving about twenty union leaders just hours before Toussaint called off the strike helped pressure the TWU to return to work. In fact, though all the major city unions rallied behind the TWU before the strike began, they were noticeably absent during the strike. At a press conference, many insisted that Toussaint was right to stand firm on the issue of pensions, but none publicly proclaimed support for the strike. And both major union federations: Change to Win and the AFL-CIO did little to support the union as it was being hammered by the Taylor Laws, injunctions, and a hysterical media. As a Socialist Worker editorial explained at the time, “Both wings of the union movement remain wedded to a project of labor-management partnership, which undermines and postpones—but can’t prevent—the kind of clash that the MTA was determined to provoke.”12

Toussaint likely wanted to avoid a fight as well, but was pressured from both sides to take a more aggressive stance. On the one hand, the MTA provoked a fight by insisting on a two-tier pension system, and on the other, the TWU’s angry rank and file and the existence of a small group of experienced dissidents made it impossible for him to come back with a weak deal. Toussaint himself used to be among these dissidents, and won the local presidency in 2000 as part of a “New Directions” reform slate. While clearly taking a more militant stance with employers than his old guard predecessors, he also squashed opposition and drove out former allies and longtime activists. And he disappointed many of his supporters by giving up concessions in the 2002 contract battle. Toussaint needed a better deal for members this time around in order to avoid getting the boot.

And while the strike itself was very strong—exhibiting confidence, militancy, and a good deal of organization on the picket lines, this was based on member initiative much more so than union preparedness. Members reported getting calls the night before the strike to be asked to captain pickets. According to Local 100 union activist Tim Schermerhorn, “The leadership of our local was not prepared for a strike and there were no plans in place. So whatever organization happened, it happened quickly, and it absolutely happened from the bottom up. And folks were extremely proud of that.”13

The way ahead

The outcome of the contract battle remains unclear. As the ISR went to press, formal negotiations had not yet resumed and the MTA is petitioning for binding arbitration—a process that would not bode well for the union. The abrupt end of the strike, followed by a mixed-bag contract, left a lot of bitterness and confusion among the union’s rank and file. Many union members who had been emboldened by the strike are left wondering whether it was all worth it. Sensing weakness, division, and weariness within the union, the MTA has gone on the offensive, proposing an even worse contract than their last offer before the strike. But one thing that is abundantly clear is that TWU members have sent a wake up call to New York’s elite in regards to the massive class anger and volatility that exists in the city. According to the New York Times:

Kathryn S. Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, the city’s largest association of business leaders, suggested that workers rejected the contract out of anger toward both the authority and the union leadership. “Clearly, everything we’ve been hearing about chronic labor-management problems is coming home to roost,” she said. “It’s a sign of substantial problems between union leaders and members. From the standpoint of the business community, nothing is worse than uncertainty, and this casts another pall over the reliability of the city’s transit system.”14

Speaking to the Daily News, David Gregory, a labor law professor at St. John’s University, said, “I’ve never seen anything like this. We are really in new territory. Union militancy and resolve was much greater and deeper among the rank and file than anyone had anticipated, including the union president, Mr. Toussaint.”15

The key factor in all this is whether this anger can be channeled through rank-and-file organization within the union. This is particularly critical for city unions, which will require solid planning, organization, cross-union solidarity, and even a willingness to risk the union’s financial stability in order to confront the Taylor Laws. If union leaders are reluctant to take these steps, it will have to be up to a well-organized rank and file to do so. The organization of dissidents in the union, coupled with years of pent-up bitterness, was strong enough to pressure Toussaint into calling a walkout, but was not enough to keep the struggle from getting cut short. The strike and “no” vote allow activists in the union to take the initiative. Indeed, they have transformed the Vote No Coalition into the Committee for a Better Contract, and have begun building open meetings to attract more rank-and-file participation. According to Schermerhorn, “Even though Roger Toussaint took us back in—and way too early—the rank and file had a taste of something real, a taste of genuine social power.”16 Now is the time to build on and organize this sentiment.

Hadas Thier is the author of “Zionism and anti-Semitism: Are Israel’s critics anti-Semites? “(ISR 38, November–December 2004) and “Ariel Sharon: war criminal” (ISR 17, April–May 2001). She is a member of the International Socialist Organization in New York.

1 Michael Powell and Michelle Garcia, “In pricey N.Y., transit workers feeling pinched,” Washington Post, December 18, 2005.

2 Ibid.

3 “Stop the strike dead in its tracks,” New York Daily News editorial, December 19, 2005.

4 “NYC transit strike enters third day: Negotiations resume, threats to workers heat up, public support remains high,” Democracy Now!, December 22, 2005.

5 Interview with author, December 20, 2005.

6 The contract did in fact pass in a majority of eight out of thirteen transit divisions, including buses, repair, and maintenance. But the “no” vote was overwhelming from conductors (1,631 to 676) and motormen (1,705 to 791). See Juan Gonzalez, “Underground revolt in TWU,” Daily News, February 2, 2006.

7 Broadbanding is a job classification structure that can be used to make it easier for managers to shift workers from task to task in order to avoid hiring more workers needed to perform the jobs.

8 Quoted in Hadas Thier, “Anger at givebacks in NYC deal: Transit workers reject contract,” Socialist Worker, January 27, 2006.

9 Richard Steier, “Why pension push ended: Employee windfall, employer nest egg,” Chief-Leader, January 6, 2006.

10 Juan Gonzalez, “Pension ‘crisis’ is a myth,” Daily News, January 12, 2006.

11 Also significant, a petition received by Toussaint two days into the strike from members of the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority division, closest to the old guard international leaders, (including the division head, who is on the International Executive Committee) claimed that resolve on the picket line was “wearing thin” and that members wanted to vote on the MTA’s original pre-strike proposal. See Tom Robbins, “Toussaint’s transit trauma,” Village Voice, February 7, 2006, and Ginger Adams Otis, “Int’l mending fences,” Chief Leader, February 17, 2006.

12 “A glimpse of labor’s power: Unnecessary concessions mar gains in NYC transit strike,” Socialist Worker, January 6, 2006.

13 Eileen Sutton, “A transit worker’s perspective on the strike and the ‘no’ vote,” Labor Notes, February 2006.

14 Sewell Chan and Steven Greenhouse, “Transit workers reject contract by 7-vote margin,” New York Times, January 21, 2006.

15 Pete Donohue, “How the TWU’s ‘victory’ quickly vanished,” Daily News, January 21, 2006.

16 Sutton.

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