Transit Workers Try a New Direction

Marian Swerdlow

Posted July 29, 2008

THE FUTURE DIRECTION of New York City’s most potentially powerful union hangs in the balance as Transport Workers Union Local 100 faces its second election within six months. The local, which represents workers who operate and maintain the city’s buses and subways, brought New York City to a halt with strikes in 1966 and 1980.

In December 1997, New Directions, a rank-and-file slate with a dramatically new vision, nearly defeated incumbents led by President Willie James. The official count showed James a mere 800 votes ahead of insurgent candidate Tim Schermerhorn, out of a total of 18,500 votes cast.

James’ victory was not only narrow, it was short lived. Within hours, New Directions leaders had announced they would demand a U.S. Department of Labor investigation of the election. They raised eleven points in their challenge of how the Election Committee, handpicked by James himself, had conducted the election: Union staff had campaigned for James while on the union payroll, the union had provided James with a computerized phone list for phone banking, management had released workers from jobs to hear James and his slate campaign, and hundreds of members did not receive ballots in time to vote.

The TWU International evidently felt the Department of Labor would grant a new election, because in March it ordered a rerun. It directed that the election be conducted by the American Arbitration Association, and overseen by an outside monitor. Recognizing that time was not on his side, President Willie James decided ballots would go out May 1, and be counted May 21.

How to “Take Back the Power”

New Directions is radically different from the union’s present leadership. The press has focused on New Directions’ greater militancy, but the differences are far deeper.

New Directions calls for “greater worker and union control on the job,” including such specific reforms as elected stewards who would have the backing of the union leadership to take direct action, and giving the membership the power to turn down changes in work schedules by vote. These measures would give substance to New Direction’s campaign slogan, “Take Back the Power,” and would put workers in control of the union.

New Directions has already proven itself to be internally democratic, open to all comers who agree with its ends. Differences are hashed out in regular full membership meetings. No cult of personality leader dominates. New Directions members are quick to praise their presidential candidate, “Tim knows how to work collectively.” Candidates who have won office have been held accountable to the group as a whole. Officers who have been worked in the union office full-time have voluntarily returned to the workplace, the better to organize.

New Directions in power would change the face of New York City’s labor movement because it is totally different from any other municipal union leadership. While virtually every city labor leader has rubber stamped workfare, New Directions has opposed it. When the 1996 contract was proposed, New Directions attacked its provision allowing workfare recipients to replace subway cleaners by attrition, and called for giving those on welfare real jobs instead.

It has criticized dependence on the two major political parties, and could make the union a core of support for independent political action in New York. A New Directions victory would be a shot in the arm for every other rank-and-file effort underway in city unions.

From Newsletter to Caucus

New Directions’ roots go back almost fifteen years, when a small group of transit workers with backgrounds in radical politics founded a rank-and-file newsletter, Hell on Wheels. It achieved a wide readership but failed to attract new activists. In 1988, when it looked like local President Sonny Hall would run unopposed, these activists determined to provide the rank and file with an alternative. Despite their strong bias against “electoralism” and “running to win,” they launched a slate&#8212New Directions. It received twenty-two percent of the vote.

In subsequent elections, New Directions won divisional chairperson posts and executive board seats, and increased its share of the presidential vote. In the Fall, 1992 the group constituted itself as a formal caucus.*

New Directions has achieved much more than most rank-and-file movements, many of which stagnate or disappear. Part of the reason lies with recent TWU contracts with the Transit Authority and the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority. They have included pay freezes, and the introduction of copayments for medical insurance. Discipline and harassment have been increasing. Suspensions are doled out for things as minor as missing a tie. Less trivial offenses, such as speeding or going AWOL, which once provoked suspensions, are now grounds for termination.

Behind this heightened retaliation is a contract provision that allows employees to “work off” suspensions at seventy percent of full pay. For example, if a worker chooses to “work off” a three-week suspension, the Transit Authority gets almost a week of free labor.

The increase in firings is also part of a management “downsizing” campaign. Since 1990, the number of workers organized by the local has fallen from around 35,000 to 31,500. The Transit Authority is introducing the “labor saving” technology such as transverse cabs for motormen, and Metrocards to eliminate conductors and token clerks.

The 1996 contract gave the TA the right to eliminate 500 union cleaner jobs by attrition, replacing them with workfare recipients. Disciplinary firings are a way to get around a long tradition of “no layoffs” without provoking an explosion of worker militancy.

Combativity and Power

Transit workers are unwilling to accept such treatment because their objective conditions encourage confidence and combativity. In unions like USWA and UAW, militant rank-and-file groups have foundered on the shoals of plant closings. But you can’t move a subway line offshore. And there is an awareness, strongest perhaps among the workers who crew the trains, that they are capable of shutting down the city.

These conditions shape how workers’ view their current union leaders. During Sonny Hall’s presidency, there was wide sentiment among the Black and Hispanic workers who form the majority of the local that the poor leadership of the union was related to the fact that white officers cared little what happened to minorities. Much of its support in its earliest election campaigns came from the fact that New Directions was running a Black candidate for president.

After the 1992 contract was signed, Hall became International President and picked as his successor Damaso Seda, a Puerto Rican (although several workers commented that they remembered him when he was Italian). After proving utterly incompetent, Seda was replaced by Willie James, who is Black. However, New Directions support continued to grow. Members can see that Hall, Seda and James, regardless of race or ethnicity, negotiated bad contracts and forced them on the membership with threats.

In 1993, Sonny Hall threatened members with the bankruptcy of their welfare fund, and binding arbitration or an unprepared strike, to get them to approve virtually the same contract they had turned down months earlier. In Fall 1996, James threatened workers with layoffs if they did not approve an equally bad deal. Both contracts were approved, but more workers became convinced that their union needed new leaders.

In mundane day-to day-servicing, incumbents have been unresponsive to membership needs. Despite the fact that transit workers do their jobs round the clock, the union hall is open only nine to five. Staffers visit the workplace chiefly at election times. They stall grievances and in disciplinary cases urge and even threaten workers not to appeal.

New Directions, in contrast, has earned respect and loyalty. Although workers sometimes grouse that it has no charismatic figure at its helm, they extol its leaders’ honesty and dedication.

They feel New Directions definitely has addressed the issues closest to their hearts: discipline, declining real wages and working conditions, job attrition, and poor servicing. In divisional positions, New Directions leaders have handled grievances and disciplinaries aggressively and effectively. Their willingness to stage protests in front of Transit Authority headquarters and even the Union Hall has won them support (although only a small layer of activists translate that support into actually showing up).

In the few months since the overturned election, a new issue and potentially momentous issue has emerged in the local: a financial crisis. The James leadership waited until after the ballots were counted to reveal that the local is in serious fiscal trouble. Staff salaries were cut and positions eliminated.

No explanation was given as to why the local, solidly solvent a decade ago, is now in deep red. New Directions alerted the membership to this squandering of the union’s assets, and called for an independent audit of the books.

At this point, it may be difficult to see how James could have won even with the help of cheating. One way was his “pie in the sky” promise that, if elected, he would get the members a new pension plan, with retirement after twenty years at 50 years old, with no contribution. (Reality check: the current retirement plan is retirement at twenty-five years, age 55, with a 5.2% contribution.) Another was heavy red baiting, and playing on membership fears of a costly strike.

Also, James was able to provoke a split in New Directions. He offered one of its most vocal leaders a lucrative staff position. She accepted, despite many reservations within New Directions. Inside a year, she was firmly in James’ camp and became his poster girl for his attack on New Directions and its leading red baiter.

Preparing for Victory

When New Directions wins the top local offices, it will face its greatest challenge yet. New Directions leaders strongly feel that without a predominantly rank-and-file organization to hold full-time officers and staffers accountable, it will be hard for them to resist the strong organizational pressures that have turned many honest reformers into conservative bureaucracies once in power.

So New Directions will strive to maintain a rank-and-file movement while leading the local. Will it have the numbers to staff the union to provide services to members, while leaving enough leaders in the workplace to keep the rank-and-file movement alive?

It will be a tough battle to realize their vision of a strong union that fights for workers’ interests. The danger is that too many members will view electing New Directions as the only thing they have to do to get a stronger union. But unless the members are willing to mobilize, to be active, to stand up for one another, and to take risks, New Directions will not be able to deliver on its promises.

The power of a union, in the long run, depends upon its ability to wield its ultimate weapon, the strike. Transit workers face a special problem here. A provision of the Taylor Law, the New York State law which governs all state employee unions, decrees that for each day a state worker strikes, there will be a personal fine of two days’ pay.

Back in 1980, with the complicity of the labor bureaucracy leading the local, this penalty turned the eleven-day strike into a debacle. Local leaders successfully blamed the defeat on the insurgent militants who had forced the strike, and this greatly contributed to the smashing of an earlier generation of dissidents and years of rank-and-file demoralization.

During the 1992 three contract fight, when the local faced the real possibility of a strike, New Directions argued that a well-timed, well-prepared strike could demand and win the strikers amnesty from Taylor law penalties. Its current literature recalls that the TWU won amnesty from the penalties of the Condin Wadlin Act, the Taylor Law’s predecessor, by making it a condition for ending the 1966 strike.

A New Directions victory would be a great new opportunity to turn the tide of union retreat in New York City. At the same time, it could shed new light on an issue facing socialists and other radicals: where does change in the labor movement come from? Many have taken the position that it comes from above, and therefore have supported the Sweeney leadership of the AFL CIO.

The NYC transit workers, with New Directions leadership, could provide a living example that deeper and more meaningful change comes from below, from rank-and-file leaders committed to democratic unionism and workplace organization and militancy.