NY Transit Workers are Defiant as Voting on New Contract Nears

BY LEO SCHWARTZ

NEW YORK-The most popular chant by transit workers at two large contract rallies was “strike!” but the union bureaucrats were determined to sabotage any real confrontation with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the city’s ruling class.

A tentative contract agreement was reached two hours after the expiration date of midnight, Dec. 14. The contract now faces a ratification vote sometime in January by the 31,000 members of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100.

The defiant mood of the rank and file was most evident in the prominent role of the New Directions Caucus (ND), whose contract theme this year was “End a Generation of Givebacks.” ND received over 48 percent of the vote in the previous union election and controls just under half of the union Executive Board.

As a result of the new militancy, two “gag order” injunctions, amounting to unprecedented fines and prison sentences, were filed on Dec. 14 by the city and the MTA, a state agency, on the initiative of Mayor Rudolf Giuliani.

The proposed three-year contract, negotiated under the gun, contains a modest 12.5 percent wage package and a highly uncertain 2.3 percent reduction in membership pension contributions. Included are minimal changes in transit’s vicious discipline policy. These “gains,” however, are funded by massive union givebacks.

Gag orders imperil all labor!

Shaping the contract package were the draconian injunctions. They called for fining Local 100 $1 million for the first day of a strike, which would double each succeeding day. Individual workers also would be fined $25,000 a day for striking and that amount would be doubled each additional day.

The injunctions also prohibited making union motions on striking or slow-downs. The gag orders even prohibited talking about strikes or slow-downs. According to city attorneys, advocating a “no” vote on the contract also may have been prohibited. Arrests of Local 100 executive officers were possible, said Giuliani.

Giuliani specifically singled out the role of New Directions as “a bunch of Marxists” with “too much power.”

The gag orders were in addition to New York State’s existing Taylor Law, a particularly repressive piece of anti-union legislation. It was passed by both Republicans and Democrats in the wake of the successful 1966 transit strike. The law prohibits strikes, slow-downs, and even “work to rule” job actions.

ND challenged the injunctions in court on Dec. 16 in conjunction with the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights. Local 100 attorney Malcolm Goldstein, who was present at the hearing, actually consented to the injunctions!

Mayor Giuliani later withdrew the city’s injunction, in order to not risk certain defeat in a higher court. The city’s injunction will likely be filed again against Local 100 during the membership ratification process and will certainly lie in waiting for upcoming municipal union contracts. The MTA injunction still stands, and ND is continuing its legal actions.

Bowing down to Wall Street

Transit workers were expecting to make up ground lost in decades of sellout contracts. The previous contract, ratified in 1996, included a mere 3.75 percent raise over the life of the contract; a one-year wage freeze; cuts in health benefits, a union-busting workfare scheme, and other givebacks totaling about $100 million.

The 1996 contract was narrowly ratified following a fear campaign by management concerning budget deficits and lay-offs. The MTA’s subway and bus subdivision, the New York City Transit (NYCT), claimed it was $350 million in debt and threatened to lay off 2000 workers if major concessions were not agreed to.

Local 100 President Willie James proposed workfare as a way to save transit millions. But one week after the contract was narrowly ratified the NYCT revealed a $256 million surplus for 1996!

In 1999, expectations were high, given the enormous MTA surplus estimated at up to $400 million. And so, when transit once again cried poverty, few believed it. MTA chief Virgil Conway quickly revealed his hypocrisy when he told the press that the tentative contract had a “quite modest effect on the MTA budget.”

Most transit workers view the proposed contract as nothing less than a sellout. Statistics released by TWU consultants show that the perceptions of Local 100 members that they have lost ground in relation to transit workers in most other major U.S. cities are warranted. Wage gains for increased productivity and management contribution to members’ pension plans are virtually the lowest of any major transit system.

In addition to anger over the paltry wage and benefits package, Local 100 members reacted angrily to revelations of massive givebacks negotiated behind the backs of the membership and most of the elected officers.

In the name of “productivity savings,” the contract includes a management “broadbanding” scheme, which will combine many job titles and result in a loss of seniority rights. Broadbanding is a form of union-busting that will allow management free reign to play favorites in assigning work for 3000 workers.

In addition, the new proposal includes the continued use of a union-busting workfare workers program, strongly opposed by the membership. Workfare is a racist, anti-labor program signed into law by President Clinton. It forces the poor to work without rights for their meager assistance checks and substitutes virtual slave labor for union workers.

Union bureaucrats undermine fight

With the Christmas shopping season combined with approaching millennial celebrations, members saw the timing of the Dec. 15 expiration date as a once in a lifetime opportunity to exert maximum leverage on the MTA.

During negotiations, President Willie James vowed, under intense pressure from ND, that he would “not rule out any option” concerning a strike. However, activists interpreted a statement made by James on television (which he now denies having said!) that “the members of this union will keep the subways and buses running” as being a reassuring signal to the city’s ruling class.

Even though the MTA is primarily state funded, the TWU was seen as the contract pace setter in upcoming contract battles next year between city municipal unions and Mayor Giuliani. Unfortunately, James received an ovation at a meeting of the New York City Central Labor Council for his role in negotiating the TWU contract. Not surprisingly, there was virtually no mention of the gag order injunctions.

It will not be forgotten by transit workers, who are mostly African American and Hispanic, that the James leadership and most of the Labor Council endorsed the racist Mayor Rudolf Giuliani in the last mayoral election. By applauding James’ role, these labor misleaders betrayed not only transit workers but the entire labor movement-especially their own members.

The role of New Directions

Defeating New Directions in next year’s union election was James’s top priority in contract negotiations. The pro-James officialdom is in the double bind of being forced to deliver a minimal package before facing off with ND in the election while maintaining Local 100 as a union loyal to the MTA and the city’s ruling bankers and real estate sharks.

ND is widely viewed by the membership as providing the impetus for whatever gains were made in contract negotiations, and the caucus expects its “vote no” campaign to succeed. ND organized numerous press conferences and media interviews and its perspective became a constant feature of the extensive media coverage of the contract struggle.

An ND motion was passed by the Executive Board to hold the first local-wide union meeting since at least 1972. Although held under a gag order, the mood of the several thousand who attended was defiant.

In addition, an ND initiative called for a march from transit headquarters to City Hall over the Brooklyn Bridge the day after the Dec. 15 expiration date of the old contract. Other unions were invited to attend the rally in order to begin a united contract fight. An ND motion for Local 100 to sponsor the rally was also approved.

However, the rally turned into a “vote no” event, with only ND and its supporters attending. Some 500 turned out for what turned out to be a spirited march. Yet the relatively small crowd revealed enduring weaknesses of ND in building broad grassroots organization among transit workers.

ND was fortunate in securing the solidarity of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), which had organized several successful taxi strikes. When taxi organizers appeared at an ND-sponsored news conference pledging not to pick up “multi-fares,” as the mayor had urged them to do during a strike, Giuliani threatened the NYTWA with an injunction.

The big business media quickly fell into line with the Giuliani administration and the MTA in demonizing ND as the “out of control” militant wing of Local 100.

Mobilizing the “vote no” sentiment and resisting the gag order injunctions are the tasks ahead for ND and all Local 100 members. The gag orders and the anti-labor Taylor Law are deadly threats to the labor movement and to free speech rights under the Constitution.

New York transit workers need the support of the entire labor movement and all working people. If you’d like to help, call ND at (718) 796-1986.