Reform in TWU 100--Thirty Years On

Steve Downs

TRANSPORT WORKERS UNION of America’s (TWU) Local 100, representing most of New York City ’s subway and bus workers, has a proud history as a militant union that has won solid gains in wages and benefits for its members. Credit for this is often given to Michael Quill, the union’s central leader from its founding in 1934 until his death in 1966.

Quill deserves a lot of credit, but he didn’t act alone. Obviously, the members who supported Quill, his leadership team, and their successors were critical to shaping the union’s history. Just as critical were some of the members and officers who challenged Quill and the officers who came after him. There was rarely a decade since its founding in 1934 that Local 100’s leadership did not face an organized electoral and/or political opposition.(1)

Some of the opposition came from the right, like the Catholic trade union groups that challenged the Communist Party-linked leaders in the 1940s and ’50s. By the 1960s, though, opposition groups were more likely to be critical of the TWU leadership from the left. They pressed for a more militant stance toward management and demanded greater democracy within the union.

From the 1960s through the 1990s, the demand for greater democracy also reflected a push for more control of their union by African-American and Puerto Rican workers, who made up an increasing majority of the members in a local with an overwhelmingly white leadership. The political challenges were often overlaid by generational ones.

Fighting Management, Reshaping the Union

Members’ dissatisfaction with wages and working conditions helped push the leadership to strike in 1966. Approaching the deadline for the 1980 contract, critics of Local 100’s administration, divided among three groups, had a one vote majority on the Executive Board. Their demands and votes on the Board drove the Local to strike in 1980. But no opposition group was successful in winning control of the Local until the New Directions (ND) slate won in 2000. Their victory set the stage for the strike in 2005.

New Directions emerged in the fall of 1988, when a young African-American train operator, Tim Schermerhorn, ran for president of TWU 100 against the white incumbent president of the union. Schermerhorn received 22% of the vote and won Rapid Transit Operations (RTO). This contest gave birth to the New Directions caucus, whose support grew from year to year and department to department until they won the Local presidency and other top offices in 2000.(2)

A critical early base of support for ND was the small layer of people hired in the early 1980s who had been involved in the social movements of the 1970s — such as opposition to the war in Vietnam, struggles for Black Liberation or Puerto Rican independence, fights against municipal austerity. They supported the push for a more militant and democratic union kicked off by the even smaller number of activists, including Schermerhorn, future Local 100 president Roger Toussaint, and this writer, who brought the politics and skills they had learned from the struggles of the 1970s, and their participation with radical political groups, into the TWU.

Between 1988 and 2000, New Directions organized members to fight back against management’s speed-up and productivity drives. ND mounted its own contract campaigns, challenging the union’s officers to win better contracts. This resulted in the first-ever rejection of a contract in 1992.

They also ran candidates for union office. ND’s share of union offices grew with each election.

ND’s organizing resulted in:

• Improved working conditions

• Reductions in staff salaries and benefits to bring them more in line with those of the members

• The election of VPs solely by department rather than local-wide(3)

• By-laws amendments that require annual membership meetings (in 1999, ND forced the Local to hold its first local-wide meeting in a generation)

• Establishment of a new norm: members receive a full copy (not just highlights) of a proposed collective bargaining agreement before they vote on it

In 2000, the New Directions slate won 60% of the vote (in a three-way race) and control of TWU 100. Roger Toussaint, ND’s candidate, was elected president and Tim Schermerhorn was elected VP of RTO.

The new officers immediately set out to increase the union’s presence on the job through training stewards and safety reps; they worked to raise the Local’s political profile; and began preparing for a contract fight in 2002 against a hostile Republican governor. They were immediately confronted with a crisis of funding for medical insurance, and responded with mobilizations of thousands of members in the street and the threat to strike rather than accept any cuts.

Through these actions, the union was able to keep management from making any cuts. The issue of funding for benefits was addressed and resolved during contract negotiations in 2002.

After New Directions

Unfortunately, New Directions did not survive its move from opposition to administration. Concerned about what they viewed as Toussaint’s undermining of elected representatives and the right of members to be represented by those they elected, several former leaders of ND ran against Toussaint’s slate in 2003 as part of a slate headed by the Local’s Recording Secretary, Noel Acevedo. Toussaint was re-elected, but four of the seven VPs were elected from the challengers’ slate.

In December 2005 president Toussaint, with an eye to the Local’s upcoming election (fall 2006), led the Local on a three-day strike. Former ND allies of Toussaint opposed the resulting contract and were central to the campaign against it. The contract was narrowly rejected (11,234 “no” to 11,227 “yes”); it was later imposed via binding arbitration.

Although the New Directions caucus did not hold together after its victory in 2000, there is a direct line from Schermerhorn’s run in 1988 to Toussaint’s win in 2000 to the transit strike in 2005. That line continued through to the membership’s rejection, in early 2006, of the contract that came out of that strike.

Strikes by public employees are illegal under New York State law. As a consequence, in 2006 each member lost a day’s pay for each day they were on strike (on top of the day lost during the strike).

The union was fined $2.5 million; Roger Toussaint was sentenced to 10 days in jail for violating an injunction; and, starting in mid-2007, the union lost dues checkoff, forcing it to collect dues directly from its members. (Dues checkoff was restored in the fall of 2008, after Toussaint signed a statement to the effect that TWU did not assert a right to strike.)

In 2006, Local 100’s Executive Board made it easier to qualify to run for office. This resulted in a five-way race for president. Toussaint was reelected, but with less than 50% of the vote.(4)

In 2009 John Samuelsen, a close ally of Toussaint’s until the fall of 2005, challenged Toussaint’s team (Toussaint had left the Local for a job at the national union), heading a slate — Take Back Our Union (TBOU) — made up mostly of officers and members who had opposed the contract in 2006.

TBOU included former New Directions members, as well as supporters of the administration that New Directions had defeated in 2000 (including current president, Tony Utano). Samuelsen won; his slate took control of the Local with five of the seven VP spots and a majority of the Executive Board.(5)

Unlike the ND slate in 2000, which won at the head of an energized membership following 10 years of organizing, Samuelsen and TBOU won in a union whose membership had become demoralized after the 2005 strike. About half the members still owed dues from the period when checkoff was suspended. Few members were active and the Local was almost broke.

Samuelsen’s administration set out to rebuild the local. The leaders emphasized bridging the divide between factions within the union; training new officers; bringing members back into good standing; growing the Local’s treasury; and training stewards to strengthen the union’s presence on the job.

These efforts were part of preparing for contract negotiations against a hostile Democratic governor in 2012. The Local also made a renewed commitment to organizing among non-union workers.(6) Samuelsen won re-election in 2012 and 2015, before becoming TWU’s national president in 2017.

True to TWU’s history, Samuelsen faced an opposition slate each time he ran for reelection. Joe Campbell, who ran against Samuelsen twice, had been on the local’s staff under Toussaint; his slate was composed principally of the remains of the Toussaint administration. In 2012 and 2015, Campbell’s slate won the VP position in the Car Equipment Department.

Thirty years after Tim Schermerhorn’s first run for president, a young African-American conductor, Tramell Thompson, ran for president of TWU 100 against the white incumbent president of the union. Thompson received 16% of the vote and won RTO.(7) It remains to be seen whether Thompson and his slate, Progressive Action, will develop the kind of support and influence earlier opposition groups had.

A Reflection of 1988?

While we can’t know where Thompson and Progressive Action will end up, we can look at where they come from and what they have in common with as well as how they differ from Schermerhorn and New Directions. For starters, these contests, 30 years apart, are each rooted in specific characteristics of RTO, as well as generational challenges to the broader existing leadership of the union.

RTO is the department of TWU 100 that represents NYC’s subway operating crews, i.e. Train Operators, Conductors and Tower Operators. It was an important base of support for dissidents who challenged the local’s leadership in the late 1970s and backed the transit strike in 1980.

RTO provided the core support for Schermerhorn in the 1988 union election and the New Directions caucus that grew out of that race. In the 2018 election, it was the one department won by the first-time challenger, Tramell Thompson, and his slate, Progressive Action. What’s with RTO?

The key to RTO’s support for union dissidents is the disparity between the potential power that subway crews possess to disrupt the trains — and the city — and the union’s failure to build a strong presence on the job to make that potential a reality.

Train operators and conductors know that their work is critical to the (relatively) smooth functioning of NYC. It’s not unusual to hear them comment, “If we followed the rules to the letter, nothing would move.”

From time to time, whether during contract fights or in response to provocations from politicians or management, crews have put this knowledge into practice — more often than not, without the support of the union’s top officers — slowing trains down to put pressure on management and to give a taste of what might happen if management pushes them too far.(8)

However, TWU has not been able to build an infrastructure that can maintain a union presence in the terminals, yards and crew quarters and organize the members to use that power on a regular basis to resolve the problems crews confront every day.

The failure to build a stewards system is not because union officers haven’t recognized the need to build one. At times, this failure did reflect the deliberate policy of the administration because, as more than one officer has said over the years, “we’d just be training the people who will run against us.”

A more fundamental reason for the failure, however, is the nature of work in RTO. The majority of subway crews work in passenger service. They operate the trains that carry passengers throughout Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. They spend most of their work day on the trains, away from their co-workers.

They get short breaks at the end of each “run,” and in mid-shift 30-45 minutes for lunch. That’s when they have a chance to sit in a crewroom and catch up with their co-workers. (If there are delays on the trains, the time for their breaks will be cut.)

They might work five days on the same line, but they might not. The people working the runs before and after them might be the same every day, but they might not.

Every six months, a new “pick” goes into effect and everyone has a chance to change their hours, days off, and the line they work. Stewards work under the same conditions, spending most of their working day away from other workers and seeing a continually changing set of co-workers when they are in the crewroom. This goes on across dozens of terminals, yards, and crew quarters.(9)

Since 2001, although a few officers remained reluctant to train the people who might run against them, under presidents Roger Toussaint and John Samuelsen several thousand workers (including a few hundred in RTO) were recruited and trained to be stewards and/or safety reps.

This increased the union presence in some departments, but neither administration committed the time or resources necessary to overcome the instability imposed by the structure of work in RTO.

Generational Challenge

Both Schermerhorn and Thompson were part of a new generation on the job and in the union. Both had roughly five years on the job when they first ran for president. Each ran against officers with more than 30 years on the job. Both came on the job a few years after a transit strike (1980 and 2005) that had altered the political dynamics of the union.

Both also found support among newer workers adversely affected by changes to the pension plan (which is set by the state legislature, not the union contract). In 1976, the state legislature raised the retirement age for new hires in most city and state titles to 62 (from 55) and the years of service required for a full pension to 30 (from 25). The cost that individual workers had to pay into their pensions also increased.

Improving the pension was a core issue for Schermerhorn and those hired after the change. As the percentage of members covered by the 30/62 pension grew, so did the pressure to do something to regain the 25/55 pension. Along with some other public worker unions, TWU 100 took up this fight and, by the late-’90s, transit workers (and others) had won back the 25/55 pension.

Then, in 2012, New York’s Governor Cuomo pushed changes through the state legislature that raised service and age back up to 30/62 for most public workers in the state. The legislature again raised the cost of the pension for each worker, at the same time as it reduced the benefit that would be received at the time of retirement.

Even police, firefighters and corrections officers, who had long been able to retire after 20 years of service, had their years of service requirement raised. Unlike the other big state or city unions, TWU was able to preserve the 25/55 pension. However, incoming TWU members were hit by the changes that raised the cost and lowered the eventual benefit. TWU has taken up the fight to reverse these changes.

The generational challenge is real, but shouldn’t be overstated. While Schermer­horn and Thompson were from a new generation of workers, Campbell, who won more votes than Thompson last fall, is not. He’s a former officer whose slate is still built upon the remains of the Toussaint administration that Samuelsen’s slate defeated in 2009.

More important, unlike the leadership in 1988, the established leadership of the union, since 2010, has recognized the need to prepare the next generation of union leaders. Many if not most of the candidates on President Utano’s slate in 2018 below the level of VP became active as a result of the steward training provided by the union. Like Schermerhorn in the ’80s and Thompson today, they, too, represent a new generation on the job and in union office.

Running to Build or to Win?

Unlike other opposition groups before and after, New Directions did not run to win in its first few local-wide races. Instead, it ran to build. The difference reflects not only differing assessments about what was possible, but also different strategies for reforming Local 100.

By running to build in 1988 and 1991, Schermerhorn and ND acknowledged that they did not have a broad enough base in the local to win the top spots. More important, this expressed the view that the surest way to change the union was to organize the members to push back against the boss, and to demand leadership that would support that.

Running to win usually reflects both an exaggerated sense of the support the challengers have and the (generally) unspoken view that change comes from the top, not the bottom of the union. The tension between running to build and running to win came to a head in the 1994 election.

Some in New Directions (including this writer) approached the election as essentially another opportunity to build ND and the rank and file movement it depended on. Others thought there was a real opportunity to win and the campaign should have been run accordingly.

The fact that Schermerhorn received 45% of the vote suggests those pushing for a run to win were right. ND’s approach to elections shifted to running to win after 1994.

There are key differences between 1988 and 2018 oppositions. Despite some surface similarities and the common roots in RTO of Schermerhorn’s and Thompson’s campaigns, the messages of the campaigns, their strategies for changing the Local, and their stances toward management are very different.

Schermerhorn and New Directions, like almost every other opposition slate during the last half-century, were unflinchingly opposed to management. They were clear that the workers were subjected to poor working conditions, speedup, violations of the contract, punitive discipline, disrespect from supervisors, etc., because management saw those practices as necessary to run the buses and subways.

Schermerhorn and ND focused their efforts on organizing among TWU 100 members not only to demand better representation from the union, but also to push back against management by taking direct action on the job. They organized among their co-workers to make their potential power a reality. Despite their differences with TWU 100’s leadership, they never took management’s side against the union.

Thompson, on the other hand, has shown himself to be much friendlier toward management. His Twitter feed and Facebook postings make clear that he thinks the central issue is that senior management is unaware of the nature and extent of problems on the job and that, if only they would talk to him, he would make them aware and they would then take steps to correct the problems.

He has compounded this softness toward management with a readiness to take positions that weaken the union’s ability to fight for its members. The most glaring example came during contract talks in late 2016.

A few weeks before the contract expired, then-President Samuelsen, noting that little progress had been made in negotiations, raised the possibility that TWU 100 would strike. Thompson quickly posted a comment to his Facebook page. It began with, “I will not strike. I don’t trust John Samuelsen,” and concluded with,

Dear MTA, Progressive Action & myself are available for work if Samuelsen calls a strike, no worries

Thompson actually offered to help break a strike! He placed his personal hostility toward Samuelsen above the most basic union principle. Without even being asked which side he was on, Thompson took management’s side. In addition, he has encouraged members not to make contributions to COPE, which would starve the Local of funds needed for political action — including the effort to improve pensions.

In December 2018, after seeing the results showing he had won only in RTO, Thompson called for RTO to split off from the TWU. Such a split would weaken not only TWU 100, but RTO itself as well.(10)

A New Cycle of Reform?

Looking back, it’s clear that the local election in 1988 marked the beginning of a period of heightened member activity in TWU 100 in support of a more militant stance by the union toward management and greater democracy within the union.

That activity resulted in job actions, mass demonstrations, rank-and-file mobilizations for good contracts, highly contentious elections, a system-wide transit strike, rejections of contracts 1992 and 2006 — and election to the leadership of the union candidates from a radical opposition caucus.

There have been significant gains as a result of the struggles since 1988. Of course, much remains to be done. There are still compelling reasons for transit workers to organize against management. In 2018, as in 1988, RTO is dissatisfied. Throughout the local, a new generation is asserting itself.

This is bound to produce opposition to the union’s leadership, and slates that embody that opposition. That’s nothing unusual for TWU 100. Most of its elections for more than 40 years have been contested.

Challengers have always won low-level offices. Now, after the changes to the by-laws in 1999, it is not unusual for VPs to be elected from opposition slates. But it will remain very rare for a presidential candidate from an opposition slate or caucus to win.(11)

Whether new organizing among the members happens mostly through the structures of Local 100 or outside of them is not yet clear. There are two key questions unanswered:

Will members support leaders committed to challenging management or those who seek accommodation with them?

Will TWU’s officers be willing and able to welcome new activists and build up the union’s presence on the job?

As in 1988, progress for transit workers in 2019 and following years will depend on changing the balance of power with management to push back against petty supervisors, win better working conditions and contracts, and bring forward a vision of the transit system that better serves the people who run it and the people who use it.

Notes

  1. TWU 100’s internal life is unusually well documented, by both outside observers and participants. See, in particular, In Transit by Joshua Freeman; More Profile Than Courage by Michael Marmo; Underground Woman by Marian Swerdlow; Subway After the Irish by Horace Mungin; The Transformation of U.S. Unions edited by Ray Tillman and Michael Cummings; Hell on Wheels: The Success and Failure of Reform in TWU Local 100 by Steve Downs; An Early Challenge to the Age of Austerity and Inequality: Re-Examining New York City’s 1980 Transit Strike from the Bottom-Up (paper submitted to NY Labor History Association) by Marc Kagan; and numerous articles in Against the Current and Labor Notes by Steve Burghardt, Steve Downs, Marian Swerdlow, and Josh Fraidstern.
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  2. Union opposition groups take many forms. Two of the most common are “slates” and “caucuses.” I consider slates to be groups that come together primarily to contest elections. Caucuses, while they generally participate in elections, exist between them and look for additional ways to organize the members and present their ideas about what the union should do. Caucuses are more likely to have a clear political identity in the union than slates do.
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  3. In 1988, VPs, even though they supposedly represented one of the Local’s seven departments, were elected local-wide. As a result, even though New Directions won RTO in 1988 (and other departments in subsequent elections), it did not win any VP spots. Those went to the person who lost their own department, but won because of votes from other departments. In 1999, fearing they would lose all VP spots in the event of a New Directions victory, the administration agreed to ND’s long-standing demand that VPs be elected solely by the department they would represent. This change made it possible for Thompson’s candidate for VP of RTO and Campbell’s candidate for VP of Stations to win their departments and become VPs of TWU 100 in 2018.
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  4. For more about the rise of New Directions, and the experience and consequences of the 2005 transit strike, see the pamphlet Hell on Wheels: The Success and Failure of Reform in TWU Local 100. This pamphlet can be ordered for $2 (including postage) from Solidarity, 7012 Michigan Avenue, Detroit, MI 48210.
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  5. As a result of the loss of dues check-off, in 2009, almost 40% of the local’s members were not in good-standing because they did not pay their full dues while dues check-off was suspended. These members did not have the right to vote. Since then, the percent ineligible to vote has fallen below 10%.
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  6. TWU 100 has organized — and won contracts covering — several thousand workers in the last several years. These include technical workers at the transit agency, school bus, bike share (in six cities) and tour bus workers (also in several cities). As a result, the local has grown from 38,000 in 2010 to 46,000 today.
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  7. The winner of the 2018 election was Tony Utano. A year earlier, Utano had been appointed to complete the term of John Samuelsen, who was elected president of the national TWU. Joe Campbell, also ran for president in 2018, receiving 20% of the vote. This was his third run for president and his worst showing. After winning Car Equipment in the two previous races, in 2018, he won in Stations, the department representing Station Agents and Cleaners.
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  8. The most transparent, and widely-reported, job action took place in 1983. A management consultant said motormen “operating like cowboys” caused a series of derailments that were actually the consequence of governors’ and mayors’ failure to properly fund and maintain the system. In response, motormen (now called Train Operators), many wearing cowboy hats, slowed their trains to a crawl for several days. Mayor Ed Koch, publicly apologized for the consultant’s comment and stated the workers were not to blame for the derailments.
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  9. Stations Department, which also supported an opposition slate in 2018, is the one department where building a union presence on the job is even harder than in RTO. Station Agents and Cleaners work in hundreds of locations. In the course of a workday, a Station Agent might only see two co-workers — the person they relieve and the person who relieves them. But workers in Stations do not have the same sense of potential power as workers in RTO have. They have rarely been at the forefront of supporting dissidents or opposing contracts, as RTO has.
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  10. In February 2019, after a few years of calling Samuelsen and Utano corrupt, racist and anti-union, Thompson issued a “call for unity” and stated his support for Utano as the Local prepared for contract talks.
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  11. One difference that should concern everyone in the union is the decline in voter turnout over the last few elections. Turnout steadily increased through the 1990s, reaching over 50% — sometimes over 60% — of eligible voters. It has declined since 2009 and fell to almost 30% in the 2018 election. In RTO, the turnout was closer to 20%.
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Steve Downs is a retired subway train operator and TWU 100 union officer. He ran for Local Recording-Secretary on the New Directions slate in 1988.

July-August 2019, ATC 201
Updated 7/2/19