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New York City transit workers reject givebacks

By Harry Harrington - Industrial Worker, March 2006

Shocking city and state politicians, the corporate world and their bosses at the MTA, New York City transit workers rejected their proposed contract after a three-day strike. The vote was close; of 22,461 total votes cast, 11,227 Transit Workers Union members voted to ratify the contract, and 11,234 voted against – a difference of only seven votes.

This was a significant defeat for Transport Workers Union local president Roger Toussaint. The Toussaint leadership spent $70,000 on a public relations firm to promote the contract while the Vote No Coalition/Transit Workers for a Just Contract (TWJC) spent less than $3,000 collected from the membership. The union inundated members with daily e-mails, phone calls and advertisements, and held borough-wide meetings to explain the contract, but these were an abysmal failure as he met widespread opposition to what the membership regarded as costly givebacks.

Local 100’s three-day aborted strike shut down the city of New York. It showed the power of industrial organization in unions and the powerful prospects a general strike would have as an effective weapon against the corporate rule.

The vote no campaign was a success because of rank-and-file organization. It echoed the demands of the Transport Workers Union pre-strike demands of no givebacks and no paying for medical benefits. The vote no coalition of union activists called a well-attended meeting against the proposed contract which demanded that any contract offered reflect the demands and needs of the membership.

A few TWU vice-presidents and executive board members were in attendance at the meeting and spoke out against the givebacks and medical plan with built-in rising costs.

The vote no sentiment was popular, but many transit workers voted ‘’yes’’ out of the fear knowing of their leaders’ inability to negotiate good contracts, resulting in a narrow margin in the vote. The overwhelming sentiment was that it was a bad contract despite the close vote.

The no vote was also fed by the confirmed suspicion transit workers had of Roger Toussaint, who had delivered a bad previous contract earning himself the name Roger “Two cents.” Subway and bus workers had felt the sting of the less-than-inflationary raises the TWU president had won in the 2003 contract and were not ready to get cheated again nor to pay for their medical. All of this was especially in view of the fact that the MTA had over a billion dollars in surplus cash, much of it won through givebacks in the last contract. Many transit workers saw the contract as more of the same bad contracts full of givebacks and increased medical costs they had accepted in the past and were fed up and ready to fight for better benefits and conditions.

TWU president Toussaint said at the first Executive Board meeting after the strike that he hoped to have an investigation of the votes, no doubt in hopes of passing the contract as the result of a re-count. The board proposed nothing in the way of strategy to win a new and better contract, other than to go back to the negotiating table.

Union Executive Board member Marty Goodman demanded that the executive board chart a strategy and go back to the demand put forward by the union for 8 percent wage increases. He was ruled out of order by the union president. No further discussion of plans to fight for a just contract were put forward at that meeting. But now that the contract has been rejected, negotiations will have to be re-opened and plans must be made if success is expected.

The Toussaint leadership is making no bones about it that they attribute the failure of the contract to pass to the Vote No Coalition and a few VP’s and is blaming them for any future setbacks. He has even docked the pay of some officers who fought the contract. The union leadership is now going around attacking the majority of members who voted no. They attribute their loss to a “conspiracy of lies” told by those opposed to Roger Toussaint’s leadership. The union leadership said the strike was for respect – but they refuse to respect the vote of its members, they refuse to accept that the membership rejected a bad contract.

Transport Worker’s Union President Toussaint has also threaten the prospect of the negotiations going to “binding arbitration” with the Public Employee Relations Board. This is unlikely as the transit bosses do not want to have their ability to pay to be a factor in the consideration of such arbitrators, when they have over a billion dollar surplus. This is seen as a scare tactic by the Vote No Coalition and Transit Workers For a Just Contract to encourage acceptance of a similar bad contract that they speculate will soon be negotiated.

The Vote No Coalition recently met to sketch out a new strategy to get a just contract. Transit workers now fear that they will receive the same contract they rejected in a revamped form with little difference in the contracts value. The Toussaint leadership has not expressed any plans to push the demands for a better contract forward. Roger Toussaint sent some of his officers to that meeting to disrupt it, but his minions had little to offer and some were shocked to find out what the contract would actually cost members, twice as much as managers pay. The pitiful attempt to stifle opposition showed what desperate circumstances the Toussaint leadership finds itself in. The transit workers at the meeting were exposed directly to the undemocratic nature of the union leadership and for many it verified what had been said for years about Toussaint’s undemocratic tactics.

Most transit workers don’t see a strike in the future as they felt the last three-day strike was ended too soon by the TWU president, who returned them to work contrary to union custom and good tactics without a contract. This failure many attribute to the difficult circumstances union members now face and their lack of desire to follow the TWU president into a new strike. The workers saw that their strike was 100 percent effective and that it is poor leadership that has put them in the situation they are now in. They are now bargaining for a contract with no leverage, that leverage having been aborted by returning to work without a contract. What they need is real revolutionary union leadership. They do not need a leadership that courts the favor of Hillary Clinton and Freddy Ferrer and other Democrats who are all in favor of using the Taylor Law against the TWU, which keeps subway and bus workers the lowest-paid transit workers in the Metropolitan New York area.

Most are now in the process of receiving notifications from the MTA that will take money out of their checks to pay Taylor Law fines, about a thousand dollars each. The MTA is taking the fines without any legal process. Transit workers are considered guilty and fineable without any hearings. The MTA notified its workers that they must prove their innocence to prevent being fined. The MTA bosses are acting as judge, jury and executioner in this matter. A local bus driver told me that “the union had no plans to fight the fines and that we would have to pay them without a fight.” At this time TWU leaders have announced no plans for union mobilization against the strike-breaking Taylor Law along with other municipal unions to stop the fines and smash this anti-labor law.

The negotiation process can take months and Toussaint faces elections at the end of the year. Many workers hope he can be defeated before a contract is negotiated.
In the meantime many workers from the Vote No Coalition and Transit Workers For a Just Contract are calling for mass meetings and demonstrations as well as another strike vote. They feel the strike empowered the membership with their strength and dramatized the limitations of their leadership. Many rank-and-file workers felt that if the strike had continued they would have won substantially more.

MTA workers now know the power they have and are disappointed in the fact that it is not being used to stop cuts and givebacks that will eventually hurt all workers, especially municipal employees. Transit workers have noted that other municipal workers are happy the transit contract was voted down as the mayor said before the contract was voted down that the medical co-payments in the rejected contract would be a model for other city worker contracts. Other municipal unions see the rejection of the MTA contract as a step forward. They see it as a positive sign that transit workers did not fall for the bait and switch of paying for medical instead of pensions, nor the pressure to pay for medical as is becoming increasingly common.

The MTA workers have felt the effect of their power. Now they must fight the givebacks and possibility of having the same contract in a slightly altered form jammed down their throats with threats and fines, by the present union leadership. They must find leaders in the rank and file and amongst a few dissident union officers in the battle for a good contract and the fight against Taylor Law fines for striking.

The strike gave workers confidence in themselves and many union dissidents see the strike and the no vote as opportunities to strengthen and democratize the union and replace the current leadership. Transit workers who took over picket lines and organized them now see that it is the membership that must lead this struggle. Ainsley Stewart, a local vice president representing the car equipment department, and a member of Transit Workers for a Just Contract, stated, “A lot of people have woken up to the reality that you can’t leave it up to the leaders.”

John Mooney, a TWU vice president from the station department, said, “This fight is not over – we must keep up the pressure. We need to organize a mass membership meeting and put the options to their vote. The members don’t sit on the sidelines in this union.”

Militancy is alive and well in the rank and file of the Transport Workers Union and plans are being organized to mobilize the membership against the MTA’s latest lousy offer. This post-rejected contract offer repeated the first offer put forward by MTA management back in August that helped provoke the strike. These demands by the MTA officers with changes in job titles, work rules and many givebacks have increased the militancy of transit workers to fight.

It is time for the TWU to mobilize for real change for its workers. We should begin to put forward the demand for workers control more and more in the workplace. The power displayed by the effective citywide transit strike must be used to advance the cause of transit workers, in discipline and safety and in other areas. The union has called for bringing in outside consultants to review disciplinary procedures. This won’t be any more effective in fighting MTA “plantation justice.” The union, the membership, must defend its own members through direct action – not endless grievance procedures weighted in management’s favor.

The bureaucratic methods employed by the TWU leadership have been a failure in fighting the MTA bosses. When a subway conductor was killed after her head slammed against a fence as she leaned out of cab observing the platform as required, the MTA blamed her for her death. When track worker Joy Anthony was killed while trying to flag and work on signals at the same time, under orders from management who sent out a three-man crew instead of the necessary four-man crew, the MTA blamed the supervisor, instead of inadequate staffing. These types of victimizations resulting in injuries and death are all too typical. Contractual changes have not changed anything in safety and discipline. What transit workers need is willingness to use its power to shut down work sites and bargain about it later. This is especially necessary as the MTA has refused to follow federal regulations and receives variances from the state of New York on safety.

The TWU should also demand an end to “random” alcohol and drug testing, which is regularly used to intimidate and harass transit workers. My fellow transit workers know the tests are grossly inaccurate and that the MTA is protected by law from paying damages for such “mistakes,” if ever found. These tests have wrongly ruined careers and are applied in such a way that transit workers are afraid to take medicines for fear of false positives.

The TWU should demand that the MTA open its books so that everyone can see the financial shenanigans of the MTA bosses. One-quarter of MTA revenue goes to banks for debt service – that’s the MTA profits transferred to banks, stolen from its workers and riders. By keeping at least two sets of books, the MTA has for years been hiding billions in surpluses.

There has been a 40 percent increase in riders in recent years and the transit workers deserve more and demand that the MTA hire more workers and shorten the work week.

It is a significant sign that the Transport Workers Union members rejected a contract that was to begin the process of forcing subway and bus workers to pay substantially more for their benefits.

This is a great victory for labor. It shows that union members can not be intimidated into taking a bad contract despite being poorly led. It is hoped that this militancy continues and that workers all over the city of New York and the nation see the power labor has to stop the greatest city, the world capitol dead with almost nothing moving.

This is the power of organized industrial unions and hopefully is a portent of struggles to come and victories to be won by organized labor. The massive effect of the New York transit strike shows the power a general strike will have.

This battle against pension and medical givebacks are the battles of all workers. This is the proverbial camel’s nose inside the tent. It’s an opening to stick transit workers with skyrocketing health costs, and end pensions.

Municipal workers should also unite against the Taylor Law and givebacks. At a recent Labor Notes forum on the strike, many municipal workers supported that fight. They know the city bosses are out to punish workers who want decent wages and benefits.

There is no reason the transit workers should not have won this battle hands down, save one, it was saddled with a leadership that would not do what was needed. TWU members do not need Taylor Law-enforcing Democrats to advise and represent our union in talks. We need to recognize what we did with the strike. We have the power, all we need is continued militancy, and confidence in our power. The strike of one union, the Transport Workers Union, organized along industrial lines showed what power a general strike would have and how devastating it would be to the corporate class.

The workers who make up the Vote No Coalition/Transit Workers for a Just Contract hope to show the wisdom of militancy and widen the struggle to other workers and activists. This we see as the key to victory and it is a lesson we hope all our fellow transit workers understand.