Saturday, April 01, 2006

A lesson from Transit Workers’ Local 100: The Limits of Bureaucratic Centralization

When Roger Toussaint was an insurgent in TWU Local 100, the 38,000–member union of New York City subway and bus workers, he campaigned to curb the authoritarian powers of the local president and to expand the countervailing power of the division chairs and representatives elected by the rank and file. But after winning election as president on the insurgent New Directions slate, he changed his mind. As he explained to the Chief, the civil service weekly, he decided that the most effective way to run a union was to centralize authority in the hands of a CEO, with full control over the paid staff and all phases of day-to-day operations. And so he proceeded successfully to wield powers that he once would have denied to others. Noel Acedevo, who was elected recording secretary along with Toussaint on the New Directions slate, says that when he expressed misgivings over the shift, he was with treated with contempt like an unwelcome clerk, confined to his office room, his incoming and outgoing mail carefully scrutinized, and denied meaningful participation in local affairs.

Ainsley Stewart and Toussaint were once fellow insurgents in New Directions, the opposition caucus that won the election for Toussaint just before the group fell apart. Stewart was later elected one of the division vice presidents in opposition to Toussaint. As vice president, Stewart is entitled to a constitutionally fixed salary. But now he is in federal court complaining that Toussaint unilaterally cut his bi-weekly salary installments whenever he decided that Stewart was not devoting time to pushing the official line. Stewart claims a loss of around $20,000 up to now.

Toussaint succeeded in entrenching himself organizationally. But when TWU members voted down the contract he had negotiated to end their three-day strike, they demonstrated that the power of bureaucratic centralization has its limits.

All went well for Toussaint until the three-day New York transit strike. By a tiny majority, the membership voted down the contract he had negotiated to end the strike, a contract which he and the executive board had campaigned hard to put over. Bitter over this rejection of his authority, he denounced those who had campaigned against it. If, only they had been responsible, if only they had not misled the voters, if only they had not lied, he insisted, what he proclaimed to be a fine contract would never have been defeated.

In this, he was perfectly correct. If no one had spoken against it, if everyone was willing to go along, of course it would have been adopted. But that’s not how the world works. If only Republicans had not criticized Democrats, John Kerry would be president today, or Al Gore. Toussaint says they lied about the contract’s defects; they say he lied about its virtues. That’s how it goes. Leaders in unions, as in politics, must live with it. No one is entitled to an automatic pass.

It’s tough to get a great contract these days, one that excites near-universal delight. You take the best you can get. Sometimes, you even have to take the least bad. Everyone should know that; New York Transit workers surely know that. Any debate over conflicting details gets so complicated and confusing that it’s often impossible for working members to decide what or who is right. And so, how can they make up their mind? They tend to accept the advice of leaders whom they respect and in whom they have confidence. Toussaint knows that. In a letter to The Chief discussing his contract defeat he wrote that the question is “why enough transit workers weren’t willing … to say that if Roger and our executive board say this is the best we can do, we trust them.” And he referred to this question as the “central issue of confidence in our union.”

Is he aware of the significance of his own words? A majority of the voters rejected the contract because they had less confidence in Toussaint’s executive board and more confidence in rank and file leaders who were independent of Toussaint and critical of him. In solidifying his personal power, Toussaint alienated a whole cadre of respected, independent-minded, local leaders, many of whom had originally supported him for president. In losing their support, he lost the support of the voting members.

Alan Saly, former managing editor of the Local 100 newspaper, told The Chief that when Toussaint fired one close supporter who opposed him on a minor matter, ”He made one too many enemies.” Richard Steier, editor of The Chief, wrote, “Mr. Toussaint has compounded his internal problems by taking harsh action against numerous former allies…. The net effect has been to wind up running the union largely on the strength of his own will.”

After his election, Toussaint ran a local which stands up militantly on behalf of its members against the Metropolitan Transit Authority. That might have been enough in a local of new unionists, subdued, inexperienced, grateful for modest gains, a union where no possible alternative leadership had yet emerged from the ranks. But Local 100 has a membership which has already fought its way up. It has a long tradition of internal political rivalry; Toussaint rode that tradition into power. On the job, transit workers fight for dignity and demand respect from a mean employer. Toussaint responded to that demand. In the union, however, there are rank and file leaders who insist on respect and dignity inside the local itself. In his obsession with power, Toussaint feared that insistence as a challenge to his authority.

Local 100 is composed of seven divisions, organized by job titles. Each division membership elects its own chairperson and is represented on the local executive board by one local vice president. The three top officers, plus the seven VPs plus 39 representatives elected by the divisions make up the 49-person executive board. In this big 38,000-member union, only the seven VPs and the three top officers receive any salary by virtue of their union office. Apart from these ten, the entire paid union staff numbering in the scores --- somewhere around sixty or more --- are all appointed by Toussaint. Division chairs get no pay unless appointed to a paid position y Toussaint. Disputes over this structure have triggered many a bitter battle.

The elected division chairs have position but no real power. The paid staff assigned to the divisions is appointed by the local president. The local president, not the division chairs, designates who can be released from their job and be paid temporarily for division union work. Insurgents have fought to give real power to the elected division chairs. A key demand in their platform, while Toussaint was part of the opposition, was to turn those powers over to the elected chairs. The old guard resisted. Once elected, Toussaint, having changed his mind, continued the old system, which remains today.

In 1999, according to Naomi Allen, Ainsley Stewart and Toussaint, then collaborators, sued to win the right of division chairs to a measure of participation in contract negotiations. They won something in court, but nothing changed on the ground. According to Toussaint’s critics, division chairs are still shunted aside at contract time.

In the past, the seven division vice presidents had been elected at large. In 2000, the insurgents won their battle for election of VPs by the membership they represented when the old guard yielded and changed the bylaws. Since then, the VPs, now elected by the members they represent, have become one source of potential power independent of the president. They cannot simply be ordered about; they must be convinced.

After many years of battles against private owners and city officials to establish a strong union, after decades of internal union battles over power and democracy, Local 100 developed a strong cadre of independent-minded union activists, sometimes in the ranks, sometimes in the leadership. Precisely because they were there, Roger Toussaint could be elected president as an insurgent in opposition to the local administration and in defiance of the international. After election, in his drive for centralized power, he alienated precisely the kind of unionists who lifted him into power.

In searching for the source of Toussaint’s troubles, his union rivals and outside neutral commentators alike find the answer in his personal quirks, in his inability to tolerate even mild criticism. Perhaps. But there is more to the story. His regime is representative of a growing trend in our labor movement, one which is moving beyond (or below!) the familiar bureaucratism of narrow-minded union officials: authoritarianism in practice but not backed up by ideology. The new tendency is most obviously revealed by the Change to Win coalition of unions which have seceded from the AFL-CIO. Its advocates, many of whom are dedicated unionists with an honorable record in civil rights and labor causes, offer an alternative philosophy. For them, authoritarianism is not an embarrassing problem; it is an indispensable part of the solution.

They would solve labor’s problems by undercutting local autonomous rights and concentrating power in the hands of a small well-meaning leadership. To them, union democracy, while perhaps fine as a somewhat Utopian long range goal, is an immediate practical hindrance. They would bureaucratize to organize. One model is supplied by the Carpenters union, which has merged locals into big regional councils, wiped out membership rights, turned locals into powerless administrative units, and assigned overwhelming authoritarian powers to a single council executive secretary treasurer.

In milder form, the Service Employees International Union has dissolved and merged locals into huge sprawling units, held together and administered by a small top leadership with full control over the paid staff, a system which makes it enormously difficult for any alternative leadership to coalesce.

In that new spirit, the regime of Roger Toussaint took form. At one critical moment in the local’s experience, in the post-strike contract referendum, that system obviously failed.