New York Transit Activists' Account: The Strike and Beyond

— ATC interviews Josh Fraidstern and Jaime Veve

THE TRANSIT STRIKE that shut down New York City for three days in December dramatically showed the power of labor, yet ended after three days by order of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 leadership.  This was followed by a rank and file rejection of the proposed contract, to universal amazement—with the result that the critical issues of the strike remain unresolved.

Against the Current interviewed two strike activists for their perspectives on the strike's impact and the future.  Josh Fraidstern is a train operator and shop steward in TWU Local 100, and a member of Solidarity.  Jaime Veve, a twenty-year veteran of the Transit Authority (TA) and was one of the early founders of the New Directions caucus in Local 100, served in the recent strike as a picket line coordinator.  They spoke (separately, by phone) with David Finkel of the ATC editorial board.

Against the Current: What made the strike so effective?  Our understanding is that there wasn't much advance organizing...

Josh Fraidstern: The strike unfolded the way it did because the members just took responsibility and made it happen.  The union leadership did it without any preparation, planning or strategy—the membership had enough hate for management that they organized this terrific strike that inspired millions of people.

The leadership had no exit plan, and was very concerned about the mounting fines; so the Local president Roger Toussaint organized his Executive Board majority to order people back to work, by a 37-4 vote, days before revealing the terms of the contract.  Between the mass meeting (December 15 at the Jacob Javits Center) that unanimously voted strike authorization and the return-to-work order, the membership had no say, no place to express an opinion.

Jaime Veve: The union really made no serious preparation, organizationally or procedurally, for the contract fight.  There was no direction as to how a strike would be coordinated or conducted—those of us who have some experience had to come back and take responsibility, even if (like me) they had no official position.  While the union went through the formal procedure of the December 15 mass assembly and issued last-minute leaflets, it was in no way prepared.

This imposed on the membership responsibilities for which most had no experience.  Most of the members didn't go through the last strike, in 1980, though they've lived in the shadow of that strike with all its consequences.  Especially it's been driven into our heads that striking is to be avoided at all costs.

Behind the union's showcase of militancy, which those of us with experience knew was a façade, there was no real organic relation of the union to the membership.  The TA knew that.  In my Rapid Transit department, there are very few shop stewards who have really earned the respect to act as leaders.  Most of our members don't know who the stewards are, let alone follow them.

It was on the December 15 contract deadline that our union leadership showed up to tell us that things "weren't looking good" (for a settlement).  I confronted my Division chair to ask who were the picket captains—they had no answer.  Most of us knew from experience that there would be an extension of the deadline, despite all the rhetorical flourishes that "A deadline is a deadline."  Sure enough it was extended; and then the strike was definitely forced by the TA on the union leadership.

I believe our leadership thought they could just huff and puff and back management down.  But this in fact was the test case for management, along with the Mayor and Governor—targeting us to set in motion against all public sector workers what corporate America has done in the private sector to turn back health and pension benefits.  Whatever occurs in the private sector is now reflected in the public sector.

ATC: If the strike began in this unprepared fashion, what pulled it together?  And why did it end so suddenly?

JV: The TA believed we were vulnerable and assumed that our membership would just roll over.  But to our surprise our members, despite this total lack of preparation and information and orientation, overwhelmingly responded—and personally, despite my thirty-odd years of union experience, I was really shocked by how they stayed out.

Not only the active members but also retired people showed up at the picket lines without any clear leadership.  And the only reason to explain it is the accumulated abuse and everything we've had to endure, which the larger public doesn't really know about.  It really was an amazing manifestation that once workers are able to exercise some independent action, they go beyond the expectations of the leadership.

In my situation as the core leader at the 148 Lenox Street line, after the second day people began coming up with their own ideas and taking leadership responsibilities.

JF: On the second day of the strike, in fact, Roger Toussaint gave a wonderful speech that brought people back to the picket lines, and swung public opinion to our side.  That same night, he went into a secret negotiation with the TA and began to cave in. He had told them, if you take the pension demand off the table, we'll go back to work (the strike had been forced when management demanded 6% employee pension contributions from new hires—ed.)—later he claimed he had "misspoken," but that's what he'd said.

ATC: So once this demand for pension concessions was withdrawn, what made the contract a bad deal that the membership turned down?

JF: Instead of the pension contribution, they came back with a proposal for 1.5% of your gross salary to be taken to offset the costs of retiree health care.  That percentage would be recalculated after the first year and will keep escalating, becoming a huge issue in every future contract.  It also means we're paying much more up front—it amounts to millions more than the TA's pension proposal would have meant, and much more than is actually needed for their medical costs.

The supervisors actually have a plan where they pay $6 every two weeks for individual health coverage, $23 for family coverage.  That's it—and they have more choices.  It's not a perfect plan, and we don't think we should be paying when the TA has a billion dollar surplus, but that plan if offered to us would have passed.

In fact, without a strike the offer they made would have passed easily.  But the members had gotten a taste of their power, and were sent back to work just as momentum was building.  Now here was a chance to register their distrust not only of management but of politicians, the mayor and the union leadership.

ATC: How was the "No" vote organized?

JV: The membership activation was the central factor that governed the "No" vote.  The strike itself set in motion the membership sentiment to vote No.

While there were a number of people who helped articulate and lead the No campaign, especially around the health benefits issue, the real issue was that the membership went out for three days and were ordered back when they had felt their power, when we weren't supposed to go back without a contract.  Their radar was sharp as a tack, and—after a period of silence—they began to challenge the terms the leadership presented.

While the media and Toussaint were all over the place trying to defend his decision, and trying to minimize the result by saying the contract was defeated by the tiny margin of seven votes, nevertheless over half the membership voted No—despite the fact that this meant losing benefits (a pension rebate), despite the fact that the union unleashed a massive campaign, outspent by ten or twenty to one, despite telemarketer phone calls and telegrams to members' homes (we didn't see union officers at all).

Despite all that over 12,000 people voted No, and you can bet more than half of those who voted Yes were holding their noses tight.

JF: The Vote No campaign out-hustled the Yes camp even though they massively outspent us. They were slow to begin their campaign of intimidation and threats.  People were thirsty for information and we got it to them.  Our "Vote No" and "Union Thug" buttons (responding to Mayor Bloomberg's rhetoric—ed.) were very popular.  The union just couldn't sell a concessions contract after people tasted their power.  It came out very early that train operators sank the contract—they voted 70% against it. That was the strength of the No vote, as well as Roger Toussaint's own track department.  Toussaint now says he will run for reelection, but he's in very precarious shape there.

ATC: Where do things stand following the contract rejection vote?

JF: The TA has now come back with an even worse offer than before the strike.  They have included not only their medical payment plan, but reinstated the two-tier pension payment demand and all their other wish list.  They removed a provision that earlier pension payments would be rebated—a secret provision that had been negotiated without either the members' or the Governor's knowledge.  This raises the question of what other secret deals there may be.

Now the TA is trying to force us into binding arbitration.  Toussaint has said the union wouldn't go there.  The union executive board has floated the idea of sending out the same rejected contract for a re-vote.  That would infuriate people even further, but it would be intended to soften them up for a slightly sugar-coated contract.

The other thing is that there would be a 37-month contract, so we'd lose the leverage of the pre-Christmas contract expiration.  Meanwhile letters have gone out to people saying the Taylor Law fines (two days' pay deducted for every day on strike) would be collected in March.

But the strike has transformed the situation on the job. The strike experience as well as the contract rejection has brought new leaders forward who were never involved before, and reinvigorated people who had been on the sidelines.  Twenty-five years was too long to go without a strike.  This has given the union a real shot in the arm, despite the betrayals by the Toussaint leadership.  We will never be as unprepared as we were this time, because people know this fight is a reality and know we have to be organized and ready.

People knew what the penalties for striking would be, and were ready to deal with that.  It made them even angrier to be hit with those fines, then go back with a bad deal.  The last time the contract was rejected, in 1992, they came back with something slightly better (although the choice then was between voting Yes or going to binding arbitration).

On that second day of the strike Toussaint was on top of the world, supported by everybody.  Then he caved in. Now the union is willing to do the TA's bidding to save Toussaint's political career.

Toussaint is blaming a "vast rightwing conspiracy" between union dissidents, International TWU officers and the government to sink the contract.  But while he's attacking the International now, he was willing to cover up for them during the strike when the International was ordering people to scab, saying they were afraid of the fines.

Now Toussaint wants to blame them for his own failures.  Everyone knows it's ridiculous—and that's never going to go away.

JV: Right now it's a period of demobilization, deliberately so on the part of the Toussaint leadership.  Their whole emphasis has been any and all efforts to blame the members who voted No for the possibility of going to binding arbitration, instead of telling the members to confront the TA and reach out to the public.

When the TA came back as expected with these contract terms and request for binding arbitration, the union remained silent.  The purpose of this is to produce confusion and demoralization in order to "put the tiger back in the cage."

But this isn't an automatic thing.  There's no more Toussaint talk about the TA Evil Empire, rallying public opinion and community support, and of course no talk of rallying the union community in New York.  It's having an effect, and the whole purpose is to guarantee that the members would hesitate to vote down again whatever they come back with, knowing that the leaders won't fight to defend our interests.

Although we were able to generate and build on the sentiments of the membership, the whole opposition is still weak compared to the union structure, and is made up of elements who don't necessarily agree on fundamental issues although they have coalesced around the contract fight.

We have argued the need for the mobilization of the membership, and a general meeting at which members can seriously debate strategy.  We've also argued that we don't accept binding arbitration, and that we must use this time to organize the membership and job locations into contract committees, and a body of rank and file people to observe the negotiating process.  Unfortunately our ability to force the union leadership to conform to these demands is weakened by the fact that we're not a united organization, but a very disparate opposition.

The time frame for the next steps is anywhere from a few months to the end of the year.  We are subject to the Public Employee Relations Board.  The state board has to find mediators to bring the parties together to see if there's a basis for resuming negotiations.  If they feel the parties can't agree to negotiate, an impasse could be declared, leading to the creation of an arbitration board.  This would be followed by public hearings.  All this could take a long time, especially if the union chooses to actually pursue it as a fight, which would give us time to organize on the job to get members re-focussed and involved.

In fact, they're trying to expedite—in fact, as we speak they are meeting every day with the mediators to set up negotiations, and I believe they're trying to pursue it as quickly as possible, hoping to get people back into their ordinary uninvolved state.  So I believe it could be wrapped up in a few weeks or a month, but this is all speculative.

A final thought: No matter what happens with the contract, the leadership now has to take into account that come December 2006, there's an election.  The members will not forget—that will reflect itself very clearly in the election, although there aren't declared candidacies yet. That remains to be seen.

The Old Guard that we got rid of—the Sonny Hall regime (now the leadership of the TWU International—ed.)—are looking to make a comeback.  In the old days, the union leadership used to call its rank and file opponents "Communists."  Now people who oppose Roger Toussaint are said to be "aiding and abetting the Sonny Hall Old Guard."  It's basically the same game—and it's sad how many progressive elements in the movement fall into the trap of uncritical support of a leader, just because he echoed the progressive sentiments we all feel.

Our members were surprised during the strike to hear Toussaint say that we were fighting a civil rights struggle—that had never been reflected in the reality of the union's functioning at work, where it's always been in the traditional business union framework!

ATC 121, March-April 2006