Transit Union Shuts NYC Down: Standing Up for Our Rights

— Steve Downs

WHAT DO YOU get when you mix 35,000 angry workers, an arrogant management, a union leadership under pressure from its membership, a decades-long drive to shrink the public sector, a racial divide between bosses and workers, and miscalculations?

In December 2005, you got a transit strike in New York City.  Responding to management's 11th hour demand that future workers pay a greater percentage of their income into the pension fund than current members do, the leadership of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) called a strike December 20.

While Local 100's president Roger Toussaint had made it clear that the union would not accept reduced wages or benefits for future workers, and that the union was determined to preserve transit jobs as an entry into the "middle class" for future generations of workers, management continued to press the issue and precipitated the strike.

On both sides, the roots of the strike go back years.  Toussaint had won office in 2000 as the candidate of the New Directions slate.  ND had gotten its start in the late '80s by opposing the givebacks being accepted by the union's leadership—including lower wages and benefits for new hires.

Although ND no longer exists, there remains strong opposition to givebacks among officers and members of the Local.  Indeed, in the five days between the strike authorization vote and the contract expiration, hundreds of members concerned that Toussaint might not stand firm had signed forms pledging to vote against any proposed contract that contained givebacks.  The Local's security detail had prohibited members from bringing "unauthorized" literature and signs, even simply stating "No Givebacks," into the Dec. 10 membership meeting where the strike authorization was voted.

For their part, management wanted to force the TWU to give up something.  After high-profile contracts with the teachers and police officers were settled with lower starting pay (police) and longer hours (police/ teachers), it was important to both NYC's Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki that transit workers be made to accept that no gains could be made without giving something back.

Transit workers negotiate with a state agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, whose chairman is appointed by Pataki.  But since the buses and subways are almost entirely within NYC, the mayor takes a keen interest in the negotiations.

The feeling among transit workers was that the white billionaires (MTA chairman Kalikow and Mayor Bloomberg) who represented management's position were not treating the overwhelmingly Black and Latino transit workers and union officers with respect.  This dovetailed with the conviction among transit workers that they receive little respect on the job.

When the strike was actually called, however, it took almost everyone by surprise—including most transit workers.  Despite the posturing, the union leadership had done little to prepare its membership.  The union had not established strike offices throughout the city.  There had been no training for picket captains.  In fact, most picket captains were appointed in the days immediately before the strike began!

There was no structure in place to link the pickets at the sites spread throughout the city.  More important, the union had not clearly defined the issues for the membership or the workers of the city.  These and other preparations in the months leading up to the contract expiration would not only have resulted in a stronger strike, they would have helped to build the union even if there wasn't a strike.

Even though they recognized the poor preparation, the sense among many transit workers was, "It's about time."  Given the opportunity to show their importance to the city and its economy, they embraced the strike.  Rank-and-file members stepped up to ensure that picket lines were established and staffed.  For three days, buses and subways in NYC did not move.

Millions walked to wherever they had to go. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business were lost.  But once the workers were out, they and their union were the target of a concerted attack.

It's illegal for public employees to strike in New York state.  If they do, each striker loses two days pay for each day they are on strike.  In addition, the union is fined and risks losing its dues checkoff.  Since those penalties were not enough to prevent the strike, the MTA and Bloomberg upped the ante: They got a judge to fine the union $1 million each day of the strike and fines up to $25,000/day were being considered against each worker.  Top officers were threatened with jail.

The city's papers tried to whip up public sentiment against the strike.  (In fact, polls showed that a majority of city residents supported the union, and this support was shown to the pickets everyday.) Mayor Bloomberg's calling the strikers "thugs" and "selfish" fueled the strikers' resentment.

While the MTA was prepared to escalate the fight, the union was not. Although many strikers called for pickets to be sent to the commuter railroads, the union leadership didn't act. The city's labor leaders, who had pledged their support at pre-strike rallies, did not organize any demonstrations or even bring their members out to the picket lines.

On the third day, Toussaint recommended that the strike be ended so that talks would resume.  This was despite his pledge that the union would not return to work without a contract.  Transit workers returned to work with a mixture of pride, relief, and concern that they now faced givebacks in their contract—givebacks that could have been prevented if the union had been better organized and prepared to conduct its strike.

ATC 120, January-February 2006