Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Thinking about the New York City transit strike

By Herman Benson

Most of the media comments and all of the outrage were focused on the inconvenience inflicted on the suffering riding public by the 33,700 New York City subway and bus workers during their three-day strike, right in the middle of the holiday season. All those mythical million dollars worth of business presumably “lost!” But why did they do it? That question, lost in the arguments over bargaining details, never got the attention it still requires.

Before authorizing the walkout, members of Transit Workers Union Local 100 knew that they would be violating state law; they knew that the strike would cost them at least two days pay for each day out, that they each risked heavy additional fines imposed by a judge, that their union’s treasury and all its assets could be rapidly wiped out by murderous fines, that their leaders faced jail sentences. With all this at stake, the strike decision was no off-the-cuff action. It had been a long time brewing. Or festering. At AUD we could tell, because the prospect had been revealed in the bitter internal union battles over the years.

There had to be a transit strike, if not now, then not much later. It had to come because so many transit workers viewed the Metropolitan Transportation Authority as a mean, heartless employer, contemptuous of their human needs. As so many put it: we want dignity! That basic aspiration was a powerful undercurrent during negotiations in 2002 when it was reported that the MTA had averaged around 10,000 disciplinary citations a year against its 33,700 employees. As a decisive factor in reaching an agreement without a strike that year, the MTA agreed to be a little more understanding, a little less strict, by cutting the citations by 25%. Even then, 40% voted to reject the contract that year. Forward to 2004. Last year, according to the N. Y. Times, the MTA filed 15,200 disciplinary citations against its 33,700 employers, almost one for every two workers.

Years ago at AUD, we became acquainted with the human face of that arithmetic.

My former landlord, John LoPinto Sr., drove the No. 68 bus along Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn until he finally retired. He was a peaceable, responsible, intelligent citizen, easy to get along with, not looking for confrontation with anyone. He was the first to tell me about the nitpicking MTA that kept a disciplinary dossier on its workers, as long as your arm and much older; he showed me one copy (not his own.) As I remember, it was he who told me about the time a driver saw an elderly man trip and fall to the street as he was getting off the bus. The driver left his seat to help the man only to end up with a demerit for leaving his bus without proper authorization.

Larry Labrocca, a Staten Island bus driver, came to AUD with his story: One evening, while driving along the streets of Staten Island, he was attacked by six young thugs, one armed with a knife, knocked unconscious, and landed in the hospital with a fractured skull. While out of work, he faced charges from the MTA for being absent without authority. “Failure to report will result in action being taken to have you dismissed from the Authority.” He needed a lawyer to beat off summary discipline and ended with an eight-day suspension.

These incidents are years old but nothing much seems to have changed. When police officers and firefighters are injured or killed on the job, city notables rush consolingly to pay their respects. When transit workers are killed or injured, the MTA seems more concerned with proving that the victims themselves may have been at fault. I have not yet heard of any transit worker, who got disciplinary citations for getting themselves killed without permission, but there always could be a first time. Especially if compensation money is involved.

All that explains why, at one point or another, transit workers would strike. There had to be some way to release the pent up fury, to express their outrage against a thoughtless employer. From that standpoint, the precise details of the technical contractual issues were almost irrelevant to that broad section of the Local 100 membership who wanted action. There was little that Local President Roger Toussaint could have done to stop them, even had he wanted to.

MTA negotiators made a chronically tense situation even worse. They demanded that the retirement age be lifted from 55 to 62; that workers begin paying part of their medical insurance; that wage increases be paid for by assorted workplace givebacks in the name of productivity. It seemed as though the MTA hoped to humiliate the union or even to provoke a strike that could undermine the union’s public credibility. And then on the edge of a deadline, when an agreement seemed possible, the MTA unexpectedly inserted a new demand: that all new hires, but not current employees, be required to pay 6% of their pay into the pension fund. It was the demand for the introduction of a two-tier system, a poisoned bait that offers an advantage to older union members at the expense of those who would come later.

For TWU Local 100, President Toussaint rejected the MTA demand. The union, he declared, would not sacrifice “the unborn” as the price of reaching an agreement. (And in the end, the union succeeded in warding off this demand.)

The strike lasted three days. The press, like the mayor and governor, were unanimously hostile. Despite all the inconveniences, the response of the public was surprisingly mixed; there was the expected flurry of denunciation against the workers as irresponsible and selfish; but there were perhaps as many expressions of sympathy for the strikers and of suspicion of the MTA

The most damaging moral blow to the embattled strikers came from the international office of their own Transport Workers Union, the parent body of Local 100. The TWU international president publicly denounced Toussaint and the calling of the strike as irresponsible. That kind of obvious stab in the back is mercifully rare in the labor movement. In this case, it is explained by the bitter, years-long, faction fight between Toussaint and the TWU international administration. Factionalism spilled over into a treachery bordering on overt strikebreaking.

On the whole, the labor movement in New York was sympathetic to the strikers. Sympathetic, but without enthusiasm. There were mild expressions of support for Local 100’s aims but no resounding declarations of support for the strike. There was no suggestion that transit workers might be carrying the ball for the whole labor movement. How could it? Local 100 was resisting the demands for givebacks by current workers and sacrifices by future workers as costs of a new contract. But many unions, especially in the public sector, had already abandoned the cause and had agreed to those conditions in their own bargaining sessions. Still, New York unions did not desert the strikers; many had supported New York Mayor Bloomberg or Governor Pataki for reelection; and they seem to have used their influence to end the strike on terms acceptable to the union. Through the intervention of mediators, the strike was settled without either side proclaiming victory over the other. But the union still faces fines of $3,000,000 and the strikers a loss of at least six days pay. The agreement now goes to the workers for a ratification vote.

Because the transit strike violated the law, immediately affected millions riders, subjected thousands of workers to legal penalties, and inflicted outrageous judicially imposed crippling fines upon the union, all the issues involved were raised to a height of emotional intensity. The dispute over the “unborn,” highlighted by Toussaint, focuses attention on a mounting conflict over the future standard of living of American people.

This issue has been slurred over by a growing concern over the needs of those millions of super exploited workers living and working at the edge of poverty, the racial minorities, the immigrants, the low-paid service workers of every nationality and color. One encouraging feature of American life today, is the growing consensus among decent people of every walk of life, conservative and liberal, religious and secular, an ecumenical agreement that something must be done to lift the poor out of their poverty so that they can enjoy our “American dream.”

However, transit workers fall outside that familiar circle of current interest. True, many NYC transit workers --perhaps most-- are members of racial minorities: blacks, Latinos. And, true, many others are foreign-born, like Toussaint himself. But they are not super-exploited victims, candidates for clucking sympathy. To an important degree they fought their way up, joined mainstream American, and share in that American dream. And more, they are determined to stay there, and defend what they have, and perhaps even improve it. And so, as part of mainstream America, they too face an acute problem: how to make that dream a reality and keep it so.

Ironically, as social forces gather on behalf of the poor, equally powerful forces pull in the opposite direction. There is a growing consensus that those who may once have achieved the dream, or even have lifted themselves substantially above the poverty line, must now reduce their expectations and reconcile themselves to a desiccated version of that dream. That is what is involved in all that talk about the unborn.

Workers in manufacturing and on the airlines are forced to submit to slashing wage cuts. Workers must pay for their own increases in wage rates by givebacks, that is, by accepting a decline in other working conditions. Future workers –already born and yet unborn!— face the diminished standards explicit in two tiers in wages, pensions, and insurance benefits. When these cuts are imposed on weakened unions in private industry, it can be viewed as part of the age-old conflict between capital and labor. But when the same disabilities are accepted, copied, and imposed by government upon public employees, we are faced with a newly emerging consensus on public policy: American workers, starting now and accelerating with the next generation, are supposed to submit to a downward pressure on the American standard of living.

The MTA demand that future workers pay more for their pensions was only a minor element in the final settlement, but it was reminder of larger social issues. In forthrightly rejecting that demand, New York transit workers made an important statement on behalf of others.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Abuse and they should go on strike again.

Anonymous said...

STRKE was right but with the right leader inexperence leader was a down fall for TWU. Strike again The public knows nothing what transit workers are going through. The supervior are more stupid than the worker Absolutely no communication skills at all. They hurt the worker They push peples button to anger them. God will justified the worker. Management are slave driver, The public knows nothing about what they go through, Management are traders no morales they will write their own mother up. Heartless and I hope to GOD just will be done,