Roger Toussaint, president of Transport Workers Local 100, has perfected the art of how to lose friends. He was elected in 2000 to lead this union of New York subway and bus drivers at the head of New Directions, an insurgent slate, a caucus that had campaigned consistently for more democracy and militancy in the union. Once elected, he did adopt a more militant stance in the face of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the mean and overbearing employer of most of his members. But democracy? That was something else.
From the outset, he began with a reputation as a new, fresh type of labor leader. After leading a short subway strike, he endeared himself momentarily, to some of the more advanced elements in and around the labor movement. He was cheered by a packed crowd of academics at the City University of NY, honored by labor historians, invited to make the keynote address at the statewide convention of the Public Employees Federation.
Chief among those who were favorably impressed was The Chief, New York's civil service weekly, a pro-labor tabloid that provides the main source of dependable information about public employee unions in the city and state. Its early news stories and editorial comments were important in furbishing Toussaint's enviable public reputation.
But abruptly, Toussaint and The Chief have fallen out. Despite its early services, he now treats the paper like a hostile element. His problem is that The Chief, even while acknowledging his virtues, has remained independent and impartial. That's what Toussaint cannot tolerate. That's why he turns friends into enemies in his own union. He demands uncritical, unquestioning subservience.
Promptly after Toussaint was first elected in 2000, the New Directions caucus that propelled him into office fell apart. Although New Directions had campaigned for years on a platform of unleashing the democratic spirit in Local 100, Toussaint, the new president, insisted on exercising the unilateral right to fill every paid staff position by presidential appointment, free of control by the executive board. The founders of New Directions, like Noel Acevedo, newly elected secretary treasurer on the New Directions slate, went into opposition. Even while continuing to credit Toussaint for fine work in administering Local 100 affairs, The Chief reported the views of his critics in its news stories and gave them space in its Letters to the Editor columns. (You've probably never seen anything like these L to E contributions. Writers have extended, even tedious, space for self-expression on anything remotely relevant and are free to denounce The Chief and its editor, Richard Steier.)
So it went. In 2006, when Toussaint ran for reelection to a third term, he faced four opponents. (One opposition ticket was supported by John Samuelsen, a former close Toussaint supporter whom he had excommunicated over some minor disagreement.) Toussaint regained the presidency but without a majority, with only a 45% plurality. The Chief duly gave full coverage to all sides, including Toussaint's rivals, with more, many more, letters to the editor. With all that, Toussaint was still doing fine in the paper's pages.
All went well until the brief Local 100 strike on New York subways and buses at the end of 2005. In editorial comment, The Chief mildly criticized Toussaint's handling of the strike; but relations became really strained in the strike aftermath.
Penalized for violating the state's law against public employee strikes, Local 100 was fined over a million dollars and lost the right to receive dues by automatic payroll checkoff. So the union now campaigned to convince members to pay dues by voluntarily authorizing regular deductions from bank deposits or credit cards. It was rough going. After the first round of appeals, 50% of the members had complied. The Chief found this a poor performance by Toussaint; in our Union Democracy Review, we commented that it was an encouraging beginning. (The glass was half full!)
Now, Toussaint was obviously becoming edgy. John Samuelsen, formerly so loyal a Toussaint henchman, distributed a letter to the Local membership urging them to support the union by paying their dues. But because he had written some derogatory words about Toussaint --- essentially, pay your dues despite Toussaint --- he was summarily removed as job steward. Now, in a pointed editorial comment, The Chief reproved Toussaint for arbitrary, authoritarian behavior: “Mr. Toussaint...has gone too far in stripping Mr. Samuelsen of a shop steward position to which he was elected last month....” A few weeks later, The Chief editorialized “Mr. Toussaint...has stopped talking to us because we haven’t censored his critics.”
Meanwhile, Local 100 continued its campaign for voluntary dues payments. When a Chief reporter called the union to ask how the drive was going, he was told to get lost, a sign of how deeply the union's relations with the paper had deteriorated. Editor Steier explained:
"They told …reporter Ari Paul that there is no reason to supply such data to a newspaper whose coverage of the union they [distrusted] … What seems to have particularly annoyed Mr. Toussaint and his acolytes is a series of letters by in-house critics regarding his leadership and the prominence sometimes given to some of those critics in our news stories…."
A week later, more was to come: In the 2006 election, a Toussaint opponent had been elected vice president of the Private Bus Lines division. But just a few months into the three-year term, he accepted a management job and resigned his union post. Another battle inside Local 100. Members of the division, which had supported Toussaint's critics, called for an election to fill the vacant spot, arguing that the local bylaws required an election, but Toussaint, disagreeing, insisted that the executive board, now under his control, could fill the position by appointment, a position upheld by the TWU international president.
After reporting the straight facts, as usual and at length, The Chief commented in an editorial: "We have no way of knowing which side is right…. But it is untenable for the Local 100 leader to on the one hand demand that members rally to his side for the greater good of the union, and on the other insist that one segment of the rank and file be denied the right to democratically choose their representative on the executive board…."
The Chief started out solidly in Toussaint's camp. You would imagine that any public figure would carefully cultivate that kind of asset. Instead, Toussaint managed to alienate it. That talent for turning friends into critics helps explain how he has succeeded in alienating so many in his own local. Still, after all this, The Chief editor still keeps a small warm spot open for the big man. In July, Steier quoted a former Toussaint admirer "who spoke conditioned on anonymity out of concern about Mr. Toussaint's tendency to react harshly to what he perceived as criticism…said … that for all his flaws he is a cut above most union leaders. 'Roger is a diamond,’ this man said, 'Maybe in the rough, but a diamond.'"
For that kind of comment, you need the protection of anonymity! Maybe Local 100 diamonds must always be called perfect, never rough.