By LEO SCHWARTZ
Despite a bitter “vote no” campaign waged by union insurgents in the New Directions Caucus (ND), a new contract for New York City transit workers was ratified by 69 percent on Feb. 8 in a count of mail ballots. The contract contains a 12.5 percent wage increase over three years, with an uncertain promise of about a 3 percent reduction in membership pension contributions.
The vote ratified an agreement reached in the early hours of Dec. 15 between the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, representing 31,000 New York City subway and bus workers, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and its subsidy, New York City Transit (NYCT).
The vote ended a tumultuous period for transit workers, who last December were the focus of a daily media barrage over a possible strike during the holidays.
The wage package is subsidized by numerous giveback provisions and work-rule changes such as a “broadbanding” scheme, affecting 3000 workers-which will merge many titles into one, thus undermining basic union protections-and an ominous proposal to split bus divisions from subways. A union-busting workfare program remains in place and the vicious discipline system has been slightly modified.
TWU Local 100 President Willie James, who faces New Directions next December in a union election, hailed the contract as a victory for the membership and a good trend-setter in the upcoming round of municipal contract negotiations this year. Several municipal union bureaucrats, whose contracts expire this year, praised James and the settlement.
But New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani, whose injunction against a transit strike was invoked during the last 48 hours of the old contract, warned municipal unions they would receive even less than transit workers.
Tim Schermerhorn, who as the New Directions presidential candidate narrowly lost to Willie James in the last union election, cautioned that “the fear of doing worse and members’ distrust of union officials were real factors” in the vote.
Although approved, transit workers were definitely disappointed, especially by the modest wage settlement. The old contract’s Dec. 15 expiration date was strategically close to both Christmas and the Millennium celebrations. Workers viewed the timing as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to apply maximum leverage.
The previous contract, negotiated by President James in 1996, contained a mere 3.75 percent wage increase over three years. With an estimated MTA budget surplus of $400 million, workers had hoped for a larger raise.
But with the holidays now past, many workers saw little hope for a better deal by sending the widely discredited James back to the negotiating table. Workers voted 11,516 to 7100 for the contract.
Wall Street responds with iron fist
The contract vote was framed by massive state repression, which followed an unprecedented mobilization of transit workers. A contract rally on Nov. 12 attracted 3000 transit workers and a second on Dec. 8 attracted over 12,000. “Strike!” was the most popular chant.
Fueling the rebellious mood was New Directions, seen by workers as directly responsible for whatever wage gains were being made. ND kept the pressure on James to not rule out a strike in public statements.
Wall Street cracked down. Unprecedented injunctions were initiated by New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani and joined by the MTA. Local 100 faced a $1 million-a-day fine for striking or engaging in slow-downs, doubling each succeeding day. Fines for participating workers were $25,000 a day, doubling each succeeding day. The city’s injunction included a gag order on even talking about strikes or slow-downs!
Giuliani implied prison for violators and singled out ND as “a bunch of Marxists” with “too much power.”
Although the city withdrew its injunction on Jan. 6, the MTA’s remained in place until Feb. 16. The injunctions were in addition to the severe anti-strike Taylor Law, passed by both Republicans and Democrats alike in the state legislature in the wake of the successful 1966 transit strike.
The unconstitutional injunctions were immediately challenged in court by ND and civil liberties organizations such as the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights. The injunctions were upheld, but legal action still continues.
Struggle reveals strengths and weaknesses
Local 100 members gained important lessons forgotten during the decades of retreat that followed the successful 1966 strike, which was led by the union’s founding president, Mike Quill, who died shortly afterwards. The retreat deepened after a demoralizing, poorly led 1980 strike.
But the large union rallies last November and December showed workers how, by their own actions, they could change the balance of forces.
Critical New Directions initiatives forced the bureaucracy to try to appear to not oppose mobilizations. The bureaucrats were cornered into sponsoring morning and afternoon mass union meetings. Attended by 1500 and 3000 respectively, they were the first local-wide union meetings since 1972! Transit workers of many different job titles and backgrounds mixed, absorbing the militant spirit.
ND ran the larger afternoon meeting by the default of the union bureaucracy. A few union bureaucrats appeared-escorted by Giuliani’s cops!-yet President James never showed. The bureaucrats made brief contract reports, but primarily came to read the mayor’s injunction. A deep hatred of the mayor’s racist policies prompted the mainly African American and Latino workers to answer the injunctions with loud curses and clenched fists.
On Dec. 15, the day after the agreement, there was a ND-initiated, union-sponsored march over the Brooklyn Bridge. Originally scheduled as a solidarity march for upcoming municipal contract struggles, it turned into a contract rejection rally. It attracted over 500 marchers, but less than was hoped for.
Other serious weaknesses became apparent during the contract fight. ND had traditionally focused its criticism primarily on the union mis-leadership and not on a fightback against the MTA. This misdirected focus resulted in an absence of contract committees when the strike question was posed at the mass meetings-thus making a strike ultimately unrealistic, in my opinion, especially given the repressive injunctions and a spineless union leadership.
In fact, at the afternoon mass meeting two contradictory strike ratification motions were passed. One called for a walkout at midnight and the other, favored by ND, called for a strike ratification vote if the contract proposal was rejected by the local’s Executive Board, as per the union’s bylaws. In the chaotic atmosphere, the differences and consequences were not made clear to the members and both passed unanimously! (The pro-James majority on the Board accepted the contract later that evening.)
As the meeting closed, with ND running the meeting, no clear course of action was given, except a poorly motivated call for workers to go to the union hall for a rally, which attracted about 250 members. The small crowd again revealed a lack of planning and organization.
ND must reassess its strategy if it is to achieve its goals when and if it is elected in December’s union election. Local 100 is potentially one of the most powerful unions in the country; its workers sustain the richest city in the world by providing transportation for millions. The contract fight showed that the potential for a fighting trade union is there, one that can revitalize the entire labor movement. Will New Directions live up to it?