NYC Reformers Rise Again—In Transit And Teamsterdom

The rise, fall, and rise again of union reformers is a familiar story line in American labor. To some observers, in fact, it’s a source of much cynicism about the whole project of union democracy and reform.

The day-to-day demands of full-time elected office, combined with heavy pressure to conform to the norms of business unionism, has led more than a few rank-and-file heroes down the primrose path, sooner or later.

After reformers get elected, their “Si se puede” campaign rhetoric has been known to give way to a litany of excuses about why “we can’t” — empower members, fight the boss, or “build a new union,” as promised during the campaign. There are, fortunately, always some committed activists ready to push the boulder of reform back up the hill again. But starting over is never easy. It requires winning support from fellow workers now angry, frustrated and/or disillusioned by the actual or perceived failure of previous insurgencies.

Two iconic New York City labor unions — TWU Local 100 and Teamsters Local 804 — provide a recent case in point.


Angel Giboyeaux, Benita Johnson, Izzy Rivera and John Samuelson of TBOU

Local 100 of the Transport Workers has 38,000 subway worker and bus driver members. In 2000, a Caribbean-born track worker — bearing the name of a great 18th century liberator — took office as the presidential candidate of the “New Directions” caucus. Roger Toussaint was a battle-tested militant, with a left-wing political background, previously fired by the Transit Authority. His New Directions comrades-in-arms had contested many earlier elections, less successfully. They had also spent two decades or more trying to strengthen the union, from the bottom up, through workplace agitation and organizing, a story well told in “Hell on Wheels,” a Solidarity pamphlet by Steve Downs, the elected chairperson of Local 100’s Train Operators Division (click here to order.)

The trouble of top-down ‘reform’

In office, as Downs recounts, it didn’t take Toussaint long to create a personal patronage machine, rather than “the democratic, member-run union that New Directions and thousands of the local’s members had fought for.” Reform of the local became “a top-down, staff-driven process… Officers and members who pushed for a more participatory approach were frozen out.”

As a result, Local 100 was in weak organizational shape when it skimped on contract campaigning in 2005 and then plunged into a brave but bungled strike in violation of the draconian Taylor Act. The dispute ended with healthcare give-backs, deep internal discord, costly fines for members and their union, Roger in jail for a few days, and suspension of automatic dues deduction. This last penalty — still in effect–has left Local 100 with a very big and disgruntled “open shop.”

Only 18,000 out 38,000 workers are still supporting TWU financially. The local’s deeply eroded and demoralized stewards’ network — long neglected by Toussaint — has been unable to collect more voluntary dues or do much else to enforce the contract, except in remaining pockets of workplace self-activity.

By 2006, the increasingly unpopular Local 100 president had to rely on a divided field of challengers to win re-election with only 43% of the vote. As reported accurately by no less an authority than Wikipedia, Toussaint soon came under renewed factional “criticism as he began removing union officers who were elected on opposition slates and working more closely with New York City Transit management.”

The rise and decline of a Teamsters local

In Teamsters Local 804, based in Queens, the trajectory from militancy to complacency, demobilization, and de facto company unionism occurred in a better-known national context. 804 is the home local of Ron Carey, who died of lung cancer a year ago. In the 1970s and ’80s, under his leadership, 804 was a formidable island of rank-and-file resistance to the largest Teamster employer in the country, United Parcel Service. In those days, Carey and his members were surrounded by a cesspool of Teamster corruption and gangsterism in New York City and New Jersey, plus union collaboration with UPS management just about everywhere else.

In 1989-91, Carey joined forces with Teamsters for a Democratic Union to wage a successful grassroots campaign to oust old guard officials at the national union level. Carey’s six tumultuous but productive years as IBT president in Washington reached their peak with the Teamsters’ 1997 strike victory over UPS; shortly, thereafter, he was forced to step down from office in a re-election campaign fund-raising scandal, that also led to his indictment. Acquitted of all charges in 2001, he remained painfully banned from having any contact with his former co-workers in 804.

Over time, Carey’s successors in the leadership of this 7,000-member UPS local drifted into the camp of current Teamster President James Hoffa. Two years ago, they gladly went along with a Hoffa-engineered UPS contract settlement that was overturned, in 804 at least, by dissatisfied members. The TDU-backed rank-and-file campaign against concessions in the 804 local supplement to the UPS national contract forced management to put a better offer on the table.

The final deal reversed a 30 percent pension cut, stopped a proposed wage cut, and saved the “25 & Out” retirement option that was key legacy of the Carey years. In a fatal pique of annoyance over this political setback for them, Local 804 officials didn’t even send flowers to the funeral home or attend the wake when Carey died a year ago. At a memorial service for Ron last February, hundreds of UPSers showed up, angry and determined to avenge this grievous slight — and, more importantly, take back their union — at the polls this fall.

Two election victories for insurgent reformers

In Local 100, that’s exactly what the anti-Toussaint forces called themselves — Take Back Our Union (TBOU). Roger himself wasn’t on the ballot this time because he now has a high-paid staff job with the TWU’s tiny and not very helpful national organization, whose failings he once criticized harshly (during his previous incarnation as a rank-and-file militant and, for a few years, dissident local leader).

Instead, a candidate backed by Toussaint and favored by the national union squared off against John Samuelsen, a Local 100 vice-president from Brooklyn with a long history of activism around track safety issues and the fight against contracting out. On Monday, Dec. 7, Samuelsen’s multi-racial TBOU team won all four local-wide officer positions, including the presidency and four out of seven V-P slots. In his own race for the top job, Samuelsen won by nearly 900 votes out of more than 10,000 cast. Just a few days earlier, on Dec. 3, there was a record turn-out (1,000 more voters than before) in the balloting for 804’s officers and executive board members. The TDU-assisted “804 Members United Slate” won all 11 seats, turfing out the hapless Hoffa fans in their union hall by an even larger margin of two to one.

Rank and File focus at forefront

In both races, the challengers produced detailed campaign platforms that were strikingly similar. (See www.takebackourunion.org or www.804membersunitedslate.org for details.) TBOU’s literature stressed the need for an “open, democratic union,” “member-driven, clean of corruption,” and “single-minded in its resolve to break the cycle of concessionary bargaining.” As UPS worker and 804 president-elect Tim Sylvester explained last week, “We laid out ten changes we’ll make to build a stronger Local 804. We’re not going to be able to fix all the problems overnight. But we’re committed to implementing a reform program and tapping the power of an informed and organized membership.”

When they take office like Sylvester in January, Samuelsen and his running-mates — Izzy Rivera, Benita Johnson, and Angel Giboyeaux — will face an Augean stable full of accumulated organizational and financial problems. High on their “to-do” list will be a systematic membership drive, to get delinquent dues payers back into the TWU fold, and a push to secure long overdue 2005 contract pay increases that are still tied up in a post-arbitration appeal by management. Unusual among U.S. trade unionists at the moment, Samuelsen has a singular focus on “building rank-and-file power and re-establishing union strength in the workplace.” At a day-long transition planning discussion, held in Manhattan last month with ninety TBOU supporters, John kept returning to the theme that Local 100 wouldn’t become a “powerhouse” in NY labor again until it first re-built “layers of density” on the shop-floor, fought to “control the pace of work,” and tackled, rather than ignored, day-to-day problems like the “disgusting condition” of subway employee bathrooms.

At a time when unions like SEIU are downplaying the role of workplace representation and any fight over working conditions — and, in some cases, even replacing stewards with “call centers” — Samuelsen talks non-stop about the centrality of elected shop stewards, who can’t easily be replaced with “loyal bums” at the whim of a local president. He believes stewards should be trained and encouraged to deal directly with management as “on-site dispute handlers” and key contract enforcers. In the legislative/political arena, he thinks Local 100 should rely less on high-priced lobbyists and consultants or union check-writing to politicians. He wants more rank-and-file members to run for office themselves and pressure public officials directly, in their own neighborhoods and communities.

The 42-year-old Samuelson is particularly concerned about the challenge of reaching younger, newly hired transit workers. In a pre-election message to them, he warned of a Transit Authority management that has “stepped up its abuse of our members and routinely violates our contract.” The Toussaint regime’s abandonment of “any real attempt to mobilize the membership to defend our jobs” has produced a union “in full retreat on safety, discipline, job picks, and seniority rights.”

Now faced with the challenge of actually stopping that retreat and finding ways for Local 100 to go on the offensive again, Samuelsen and his slate will need all the help they can get from members, new and old, next year, as will those picking up Ron Carey’s banner in Teamsters Local 804.

[Steve Early was a CWA organizer, contract negotiator, and strike strategist in the northeast for 27 years. He is a longtime supporter of Teamsters for a Democratic Union and the author of “Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home,” Monthly Review Press, 2009, a book that discusses TDU and other union reform efforts. This article was also published at In These Times.]

Puerto Rico's Teachers Show the Way; SEIU Learns the Meaning of "No"

When last seen on the picket-line, Puerto Rican teachers were fighting their way through police barricades to appeal to fellow workers from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), at its
lavishly funded convention in San Juan in June. (See my article in CounterPunch, June 3, 2008.)

The message of the Federacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR) was simple: please stop SEIU President Andy Stern from colluding with the indicted governor of the island to replace FMPR with a “company union.”

At SEIU’s convention, only a handful of delegates dared to challenge Stern on this issue. When eight rank-and-file members from California tried to distribute a leaflet asking why the “top leadership has sided against the teachers of Puerto Rico in a gross case of ‘colonial’ unionism,’ ” SEIU staffers threatened several of them with reprisals. “They told us that this is a betrayal and that we could be
suspended from the union if we continued handing out the fliers,” delegate Brian Cruz, from Local 1021 in San Francisco, explained to The San Juan Star.

Most of the 3,000 delegates and guests simply cheered when Stern and SEIU vice-president Dennis Rivera, a native of Puerto Rico, introduced their good friend, Anibal Acevedo Vila, the Popular
Democratic Party governor. Acevedo Vila is still awaiting trial on federal corruption charges and it was his administration that precipitated a ten-day, island-wide public school strike led by the
FMPR last winter. As The Star reported June 3, SEIU used its convention and the governor’s appearance to promote a rival organization, “which is hoping to become the new union representative for an estimated 42,000 public school teachers.”

In the view of SEIU and Acevedo Vila, teachers needed a new SEIU-affiliated union because FMPR no longer had legal recognition after its walk-out over wages, classroom size, and the threat of privatization. This month, however, the teachers themselves disagreed that it was time for a change. By a margin of 18,123 to 14, 675, they voted on Thursday (10/23) against joining the SEIU-backed SPM
(Sindicato Puertorriqueno de Maestros), which is closely aligned with another SEIU affiliate, the Association de Maestros de Puerto Rico, an organization of school principals and administrators.

The “Vote No” campaign was orchestrated by the FMPR which, as further punishment for its “illegal” strike, was denied a spot on the ballot. (FMPR was even barred from having observers at teacher polling
places.) Prior to the start of the election, FMPR presented evidence to the labor relations commission showing that it still had voluntary financial support from 12,000 members (who have continued to pay union dues even though automatic deductions from all teachers’ paychecks were discontinued when FMPR was “decertified.”) Although SEIU favors “employee free choice” on the mainland and assured critics here there would be a multiple choice ballot, Stern and his local allies limited Puerto Rican teachers to just one union option, which they then rejected.

The defeated SPM has almost no dues payers so SEIU had to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into this losing effort, much of it spent on advertising. As one FMPR supporter reported, SEIU had “paid
staff at each school giving out free t-shirts and coolers and the media and the government were clearly in its favor but still they couldn’t impose their union on us.” FMPR activist Edgardo Alvelo, who
teaches at a vocational school in Rio Piedras, estimates that his union spent only “$50,000 on the whole campaign.” According to Alvelo, “that money was very hard to obtain, but it was enough to win. It was our people in the schools that did the job. Today, we are celebrating and tomorrow our struggle will continue in all our schools.”

The representation vote turnout was extremely high. Of the 36,000 teachers eligible to participate due to their permanent status, 33,818 actually voted, with a thousand of those ballots being challenged or voided. FMPR now faces the task of continuing to
function as what’s called a “bonafide organization,” under P.R. labor law. While still deprived of the full collective bargaining rights it had before the strike, FMPR retains a strong shop steward structure,
the ability to represent members, and mobilize around educational policy issues and day-to-day job concerns.

FMPR supporters in New York, California, and elsewhere aided the successful “Vote No” campaign by raising money to help keep this militant independent union afloat. (For more information, see http://
mysite.verizon.net/
or the FMPR’s own website) On October 14, some protested outside the Manhattan headquarters of United Healthcare Workers-East (the former SEIU/District 1199 long
headed by Rivera), where they denounced Stern’s raid on FMPR as an insult to New York hospital workers “proud history of fighting for justice and dignity.”

During an August visit to the mountain community of Utuado, one New York Solidarity Committee member, Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, brought money that was collected for FMPR members disciplined for their union activity. Reports Sheridan-Gonzalez, a registered nurse:

“The union, in collaboration with students and parents, had developed a progressive, inclusive curriculum that was extraordinarily successful. This collaborative structure was unilaterally dismantled
by the government/school authority in 2007 and 17 teachers were suspended when they fought back. They stood firm even without an income and the class of 2008 in Utuado even dedicated their graduation speeches to these teachers. Their energy and commitment was inspiring and reminiscent of the spirit of U.S. unions in the 1930s and Puerto Rican labor in years past.”

That same feisty spirit was on display in this month’s island-wide union vote, which gave SEIU an expensive lesson in the meaning of “No.”