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Tough Times for Transit Workers

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Dec 11, 2006
 

Though it happened a year ago, the 60-hour transit strike of 2005 is still very much alive for the members of Transport Workers Union Local 100.

--They await the findings of a state arbitration panel on the terms of their new contract, terms that, under state labor law, they must accept.

--Union members are electing a president and other local officials, with results to be tallied on December 15.

--The union members remains sharply split over the effects of last years strike on their individual well-being, on the union and on the labor movement as a whole.

The strike began on December 20, 2005 as 30,000 New York City transit workers walked off their jobs, shutting down the city’s subways and Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses. The move, in violation of state law, came after the Local 100 and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority failed to reach agreement on a range of issues, including health benefits and pensions. Two days and a half later, following marathon negotiating sessions with state mediators, labor and management reached a tentative agreement. To the delight of commuters, holiday shoppers and other New Yorkers, the subways were running again.

But the accord was short-lived. Union members rejected the pact agreed to by union president Roger Toussaint and other TWU leaders by a mere seven votes. In a revote, members approved the deal, but then MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow said it was too late: The offer was no longer on the take.

That sent the dispute to binding arbitration, in which a panel dictates terms of a new contract. That settlement could come any day – and around the same time union members learn who their president will be.

The following comments by Transport Workers Union President Roger Toussaint are adapted from a recent conference on the impact of the transit strike sponsored by City University, Cornell University Labor Programs and TWU Local 100 and from a debate between four of the five candidates for president, sponsored by the City University’s Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies.

Assessing the Transit Strike

By Roger Toussaint

We knew that the first transit strike in a generation would be a big deal. But I am not sure we at Transport Workers Union Local 100 fully grasp, even today, just how big.

The message we have received since December is: You struck, you shut down New York. There has been public punishment, a public flogging, crippling finance, and an end to dues check off. A constant barrage in the media and the attacks by political leaders. The refusal of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to honor the contract they agreed to and signed off on back in December.

The other side has said to trade unionists, “Don’t strike or else you will suffer heavy consequences. Awfully bad things will happen to you.”

So how should we assess the strike? An overall assessment will have to wait a bit but there are a couple of questions that I think are appropriate to address now.

One is why we struck and two is why we went back when we did.

WHY WE STRUCK

Let me state for the record that we did not go on strike to undo globalization, to topple the U.S. economy or to overthrow the Bloomberg regime. I know we have a reputation as a militant union and that I have a reputation for direct action. But that is not why we went on strike.

Creating a ‘Credible Threat’

The short version why of why we went on strike is because the transit authority did not believe that we would go on strike. In order to get anything at the bargaining table, in order to stop the full-scale looting, we needed the credible threat of a strike. Credible threat. Did we have one? Not from the viewpoint of the MTA. The MTA did not think we would strike. The mayor did not think we would strike. Neither did the governor.

My guess is that even our members thought that eight or nine months of bargaining and threats of strike would not result in a strike. Most transit workers thought it would come down to the wire and we would back off.

That was not an unreasonable assumption on their part because that is what has happened for a quarter of a century, not just with us but with almost every other union. The MTA probably concluded that we were just talking tough and that we were not ready to strike.

Preparing for Action

In 2005, Local 100 told the MTA that if they screwed with pensions there would be a strike. We prepared for a strike very publicly, and they still did not believe us. The actions started a year before the strike deadline arrived: union building and training hundreds of new shop stewards, action with the rank and file, basic training for a new generation of strike captains. We marched with picket signs saying, “just practicing.”

In early December, we had simultaneous actions at 85 properties with thousands of members participating. For those of you who are practitioners and students of the labor movement and labor historians, we had a greater percentage of members involved in strike preparation than those who participated in the famous Flint sit down strike against General Motors in 1937.

It was the biggest strike preparation in Local 100 history. We stressed in private sessions that if the MTA continued with its assault on our pensions, we were walking, Taylor Law or no Taylor Law. I don’t know what else we could have done to tell them we were serious. Maybe we could have rented the Goodyear blimp, but it seemed the MTA still would not believe us.

The ‘Bare-Bones Contract’

So what happened? When MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow entered the room at the 11th hour the MTA’s intention was to force the transit union to accept a bare-bones contract. We told them that this could not be a bare-bones contract, that we needed a pension refund, medical coverage for retirees, paid maternity leave, that needed paid schooling and all of these items that were critical for transit workers.

The MTA voted to reduce pensions for new hires right from the start. We said, “Hell no” right from the start. That was off the table by early December. Then the MTA came in at the very last minute, after we had bent over backward to try to reach a deal, after we had extended the contract for 12 days, they came back after the weekend with a new demand to create a lower pension tier for all new hires -- for our nephews and nieces and all our children and our neighbors’ children.

Forget the fact that this new pension demand was illegal and improper under the law. They were willing to risk a strike and what the MTA claimed was up to $1 billion of economic activity for a pension provision that had a value of $20 million. They thought we were too weak and too divided to resist.

The results of a generation without strikes had emboldened the MTA. From their perspective, we did not present a credible threat. I think, however, that they will believe us next time. I also think that they will take labor leaders more seriously now.

Disgust with the MTA

Local 100 did not want a strike. The strike was forced on us. But Local 100 members badly wanted a fight. Local 100 members wanted a chance to take a shot at the MTA after all the years of abuse and disrespect. Our members rejoiced at the chance to stand up straight and tell management where to go. They told us that it was time to take the MTA down a peg, whatever it cost.

When we came into office, there were thousands of disciplinary actions against transit workers a year. There continue to be thousands of disciplinary actions a year, and there is a lot of work to be done in this area, but we have eliminated for 70 percent of all members the notion of being under house arrest when they are out sick. Our members are no longer required to stay at home when they are sick.

At the end of the day, though, the way to handle a transit authority that is out of control on discipline is to have a strong union on the job. A strong union, strong policing, enforcement of the contract, that’s the way you push back against management. You need contract language and protection, but without enforcement and policing on the job, the contract language means nothing.

We polled our members quietly in the weeks before the strike deadline, and the polls showed that 65 percent of the members were in favor of a one-week strike. We conducted another poll while we were negotiating, and that percentage had climbed to 73 percent of the members in favor of a strike. Those are huge numbers in this business.

Against the Odds

The strike posed real risks and threats to Local 100. I have conducted six strikes in Local 100 – two with Liberty Bus Lines, two out in Queens, and two out in Connecticut. In my previous lives I have been involved in many strikes, bitter strikes. They are very, very serious business. It is easier to go out strong than it is to come back strong.

A losing strike threatens the very survival of the union itself. A losing public sector strike in 2006 damages the labor movement. Reflect for a moment on the defeat of the air traffic controllers in 1981 and the impact that that has had on the labor movement for a quarter of a century.

My responsibility as the president of the union was to get a victory and to bring back our members as quickly as possible. We were up against the MTA, a governor who wants to be president, a billionaire mayor, media, a united New York City business establishment, an international union president who told our members to return to work, longstanding public dissension inside Local 100, and mounting fines against the union, its members and all its leadership. We are up against a culture back decades of arrogance by one of the most out of control agencies in the state.

But we went out on strike strong and united. We put 11,000 members on the picket lines and over 20,000 in support of the lines. We had some scabs – not many, but too many.

This was not a union where people could be expected to hold their tongue until the strike was over even though that is the time tested union way of doing things. We are talking, after all about Transport Workers Union Local 100. We have a long history of dissension inside our union. We wash our laundry out in public even before it is dirty.

WHY WE RETURNED TO WORK

Why did we end the strike? Because we were able to stop the MTA assault on our pensions. Because we were able to get advances in several areas with real value to transit workers. We ended the strike because we were able to secure pension reform good for all our members and for all future transit workers. We ended the strike because we were able to obtain a new medical benefit for transit workers between the time they retire and when they become eligible for Medicare at age 65. We ended the strike because the MTA had enough and was feeling more pressure than it thought it would.

And we ended the strike because there did not seem to be a full army of reinforcements on the horizon inside the labor movement. We had a conference call with labor leaders during the strike. I told them I was not looking for someone to hold my coat. I was looking for leaders who would take off their coats and step into the ring. I did not see a lot of coats come off.

And there were serious risks: the risk of the international union imposing trusteeship on Local 100, and the risk of direct seizure of the union by the courts or the NYPD. It was time to claim our victory and end the strike.

LEARNING FROM THE STRIKE

Looking over the months from December to date, probably the most important lesson that we learned is how to communicate the provisions in the contract for the members. Clearly there were some weaknesses in that area. In the first vote, we relied more on written communication than in one-on-one discussions with our members in the crew rooms, the lunchroom or the shop. The second time we voted on the contract, we relied more on one-on-one conversations with members. This is, of course, an enormous undertaking because you’re talking 35,000 members spread over a very expansive property.

Strikes are very serious. And if one is on the transportation industry of New York City, a global village, it is even more so. The pain is real. The wounds are real.

The dark clouds that surround the entire labor movement, the adverse climate nationally and the concessions being made by unions around the country, make it much more difficult for us to defend what we have. This will be the defining battle for the labor union for the next several years. The outcome is not dictated by the Local 100. All we can do is stand with the rest of the labor movement and urge that a common line be drawn to defend health benefits and pensions so that decent jobs in America continue include guaranteed health benefits and guaranteed pensions.

It is often said that freedom is a hard won challenge and every generation has to win it again. After a generation without strikes we had to win back the sense that we have the right to stand up for ourselves. We had to win back the sense of sacrifice that every real struggle demands. We had to win back the tool of a public strike in a city that has lost its tradition of solidarity.

We did all of this and more. For myself and for all the thousands of strikers who stood up when we had to, it was our proudest hour. We did not strike to make history. We struck and so we made history.

Roger Toussaint is president of TWU Local 100.

 

The Other Candidates: The Union Is Failing Its Members

In the election, Toussaint faces four challengers: union vice president Ainsley Stewart, who opposed the proposed contract; Michael Carrube, a former Toussaint ally; Anthony Staley, a subway cleaner and relative newcomer to union politics; and Barry Roberts, a union vice president. The following statement by three of the candidates are excerpted from comment they made at a debate sponsored by the City University’s Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies. Barry Roberts was invited to that debate but declined to participate.

Workers Need A Strong Offense

Our founding father, Mike Quill, said: “We were no experts in the field of labor organization, but we had something in common with our fellow workers – we were all poor. We were all overworked. We were all victims of an 84-hour week. In fact, we were so low down on the economic and social ladder we had no way to go but up.”

That fact still holds true today.

The current leadership has lacked in the area that really affects our membership -- how members work hours upon hours just to make ends meet. How our wage increases have been below the cost of living. Our members donate their time to this job away from their families and their loved ones. That has got to change.

Discipline rules have been modified, but not enough. Discipline is an epidemic with the transit authority.

There have been no negotiations regarding the night differential [extra pay for working at night]. The last time our night differential was negotiated was in 1988. In 1996, then president Willie James gave away our night differential on overtime. To this day, that has not been renegotiated.

We are looked upon in the public arena as weak. And that has got to change.

Our current bylaws have never been handed out to our membership. Our membership is not educated in the sense that they know how to stay out of trouble and how the contract protects them. We need more union representation in the field and better-educated shop stewards in order to fight management.

I think [the negotiating on the last contract] was poorly done. Right after a contract is ratified, you have to set your union up for three years down the road, investigating all the MTA’s holdings with a team of members, officers and lawyers. Then we would be prepared for anything.

The union has always been on the defensive. It’s time that we go on the offense.

-- Michael Carrube

Losing Ground

The union never took a really strong position to defend the members. If you are paying dues you should be treated better and defended better than we were being treated.

With discipline, management is running amok. This discipline has gotten worse because nothing has been done to stop the MTA from doing what they want. They continually write people up. One of the things that I would do is train representatives to represent people at their hearings. Under the present president, discipline has gotten worse, because nothing has been done to stop the MTA from doing what they want.

If you walk through the system, that’s the best way to get your gauge on what’s going on. Ask some of the people actually doing the work. The present president lost touch with the membership, he doesn’t know what’s going on within the system, he doesn’t even walk through it.

We don’t have anyone intelligent enough to challenge the MTA and make them go by the contract and stick to the rules. Nobody is strong enough to do that, and that is why the members are suffering now.

People who get up out of their beds to come to work should be compensated justly, as well as have decent health benefits. But in the last two contracts, this union regressed. It is not the formidable union it once was.

-- Anthony Staley

Too Much Secrecy, Too Little Money

A fair day’s work requires a fair day’s pay. It is a human right to be able to work and get livable wages. If the transit authority has money, transit workers must get their fair share. You’ll never see money like this again in the transit authority; if you can’t score now – you’ll never score.

Toussaint agreed with the transit authority to write us up whenever we use up our sick time, even if we have a doctor’s letter. At the same time Toussaint accused the transit authority of plantation justice, he was aiding the enemy in a new and more aggressive path toward terminating all members when they use those 12 sick days. But we have no control over the viruses that attack us and the hazards that we are exposed to over the years

The representation we have is more concerned with giving back to the transit authority than demanding more for the workers, so we can keep up with the cost of living.

Short of eliminating the disciplinary system what we need to do is ensure that members receive representation from the reps they elect -- and that those reps are educated in how to handle disciplinary cases. We will take them to training where they will spend three to six months learning every word in the contract, they will have access to all the resources within the union, which cases we won, why won them how we lost them and how could move toward winning them in future. We will ensure the member’s voice is heard

The problem now is a lack of transparency. The union has headquarters that it sold. We have never seen an ad in the newspaper saying the building was up for sale, we have never seen an appraisal report, we have not seen a check from the proceeds of the sale.

In the last negotiation, more members participated at the street level. But when it came to negotiating health benefits everyone was excluded. The president alone did that. In my administration, that will not happen. The ability to express different ideas and opinions is the backbone of every union. You must have people express those ideas and opinions and then pick up from there and move forward.

Everything is being done in the dark. We have never had one meeting to discuss what is going on in the arbitration process.

Under my administration, that will never happen. As a matter of fact we would never get to arbitration. We will have a contract on that deadline.

Transit workers recognize that we do not come here as a hobby, we come here to make money to take care of our families and to advance the labor movement. At the end of the day, we need to get fair wages and fair compensation for the work that we perform because we move New York.

-- Ainsley Stewart

 

 


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