New York Transit Workers Say ‘No’ to Status Quo

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NEW YORK-An 83 percent “no” vote on a leadership-backed proposal in the transit union has delivered a sharp rebuke to concession-style bargaining. The landslide vote comes as talks on a contract due to expire on Dec. 15 loom near.

Members of the Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents some 32,000 subway and bus workers, rejected a proposed membership assessment of $60 for a contract media campaign. Contributing to the outcome was the failure of Local 100 President Willie James to provide members with the opportunity to discuss contract demands and contract strategy at union meetings.

Even in the bus-worker divisions, a bastion of support for the bureaucracy, the vote was overwhelmingly “no.”

The vote has apparently opened divisions within the TWU International over the poor performance of the James leadership. The James regime has put the bureaucracy’s ability to control the membership into question and represents a big advance for the insurgent New Directions Caucus, which fought the proposal.

New Directions (ND) has declared the referendum “a vote of no confidence” in the James leadership. A majority of ND has called for the resignation of James and his top officers.

Some in ND, however, viewed the resignation demand as a diversion and preferred instead to focus on deepening the mobilization effort around the contract in the wake of the vote. Others said that, with emerging dissatisfaction over James within the International, James’s resignation might result in Local 100 being placed under receivership.

Nevertheless, at the June 30 Local 100 Executive Board, James refused to allow both an ND motion on resignations and a proposal for a local-wide union meeting, which, if it had happened, would be the first in a generation. The furious controversy resulted in a walk-out by James and his supporters.

The referendum came as suspicions about unaccounted union funds and the perception of ineffective leadership are at an all-time high. The failure of James to deliver on a pension-reform package he virtually guaranteed the membership in last year’s election, as well as the June start of workfare union-busting in transit, which James has embraced, has contributed to his eroding support.

The outcome of the new contract is key to winning the next local-wide election in the fall of 2000. New Directions received over 48 percent of the votes in the last election.

The current contract, negotiated by James, provided a meager 3.75 percent raise over 39 months. It contained over $100 million in concessions: a $40 million reduction in management contribution to the Health Benefit fund; a one-year pay freeze; and the inclusion of workfare in the contract, possibly the only union to do so, which allows the elimination of 586 union cleaner positions.

The New Directions’ contract campaign slogan is “End a Generation of Givebacks.” In its newsletter, “Hell on Wheels,” New Directions has listed 39 major contract givebacks agreed to since 1973. In addition, New Directions has linked its contract struggle with that of emerging fight-back trends within some New York City municipal unions.

In May, a meeting of New York reform-minded trade union officials and activists was held. Calling itself “Contract 2000: Union Members for a Real Change,” some 200 trade unionists met to pursue a coordinated approach to contract strategy.

Present were New Directions members, reform currents from within the United Federation of Teachers, District Council 37, Teamsters, City University Professors, and Legal Aid attorneys. Local 100’s contract will be the first of several contracts to expire in the next year.

The case of Roger Toussaint

The fight to reinstate fired Track Division Chair Roger Toussaint, who represents 1800 workers, is seen as a symbol of the Transit Authority’s systematic violation of worker rights and the need for contract changes.

Toussaint, a New Directions candidate for Recording Secretary in the last union election, was framed up and fired in April, supporters say, because of his aggressive defense of members and his exposure of safety violations.

One of several termination charges by the Transit Authority (TA) is that he rode in an unauthorized vehicle-a union staff representative’s car!

An appeal of the charges was delayed one extra day due to a documented medical emergency. The TA then fired Toussaint, the first termination for a late appeal in 60 years.

The Committee to Defend Roger Toussaint has sponsored rallies of some 200 workers in April and in May at TA headquarters in Brooklyn.

The James forces conspired with the TA against Toussaint from the start. The TWU removed its name from a grievance challenging his dismissal.

In addition, Toussaint was stripped of his union title. Ultimately, bowing to the pressure of worker mobilizations and media publicity, James proposed at the June 30 Executive Board meeting to reinstate Toussaint. He also promised-under pressure from New Directions-to seek contract changes in discipline policy. It passed unanimously.

The E-Board decision represents a second humiliating defeat for James. The victory enables Toussaint to represent and retain contact with the membership in the Track Division, with which he remains very popular.

But, more importantly, it is a warning to the TA that if Toussaint is not reinstated and changes not made in the contract, transit workers may themselves take charge of the contract process.

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