TWU Rebels on Verge of N.Y. Union Takeover?

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By LEO SCHWARTZ

 

NEW YORK-A Dec. 13 union election may result in the insurgent New Directions Caucus winning control of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, which represents some 35,000 New York City subway and bus workers. If New Directions (ND) is victorious, the impact within the labor movement is certain to be felt far beyond New York City.

In the last election, in 1998, ND came within 2 percent of defeating the union bureaucracy led by Local 100 President Willie James.

New Directions presidential candidate Roger Toussaint spoke with Socialist Action about the election and beyond: “The challenge to the members of TWU Local 100,” he said, “is to begin a process of rebuilding the local and restoring the pride that we once had. We will begin restructuring, providing more accountability and representation in defense of the membership.

“For the first time in decades, transit workers will have a union that belongs to them. We’ll be opening up the doors to the participation of 35,000 workers. We’ll be taking off the handcuffs.”

Toussaint, the elected chairman of the 1800-member track division, was framed and fired by the NYCT in 1998. To transit workers, Toussaint is a symbol of the fight against the NYCT’s vicious discipline policy. His fight for reinstatement included several worker protests and an ongoing legal battle.

Besides leadership ability, the selection of Toussaint reflected real differences within ND. Enduring problems over ND’s tendency to focus on fighting the union bureaucracy instead of management and a lack of organizational focus were issues that contributed to Toussaint’s nomination.

Bureaucracy in terminal crisis?

In recent months, top union officials, one after another, have withdrawn from the old-guard James slate. These defections, activists believe, were engineered by TWU International President Sonny Hall, who sought a more credible candidate.

But easier said than done. Exacerbating the bureaucracy’s crisis was a burgeoning scandal over the spending practices of union officers. In May, former ND member turned James supporter Corinne Scott-Mack was stripped of her title as vice president of Rapid Transit Operations (train operators) after being caught red-handed charging $1100 on a union credit card for food and concert tickets for friends and cronies.

Testifying before the Executive Board Mack revealed that “what I did was nothing compared to what others did. There are no guidelines [on spending].”

The scandal deepened when an ND supporter, in an April 27 letter to District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, requested a financial investigation of the local in light of the Mack findings. The letter led to an ongoing U.S. Department of Labor audit (with a promise not to indict!) and an investigation by the TWU International.

In June, after a Local 100 Executive Board spending review committee was repeatedly stonewalled, ND-using the threat of legal action-obtained copies of union officers’ credit card charges. The documents reveal a pattern of spending by top officers for their personal benefit, mainly food and entertainment. These revelations were in addition to other questionable Local 100 financial practices that ND had challenged.

James bowed to pressure and, after a secretive review, released a memo on Aug. 14 for officers to pay back $52,000 to the local, including $6728 himself.

Signs of a terminal crisis were evident when James stepped down as a presidential candidate in August due to “diabetes.” Then one after another contender seemed to emerge-only to pull back.

As a desperate move to hold on to power, the bureaucracy, recognizing likely defeat in December, began a petition drive in the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority (MaBSTOA) bus division, a stronghold of the bureaucracy, to form a separate TWU local. The split attempt was bitterly denounced by ND.

However, the split effort was soon made moot by a bylaws referendum Sept. 5, which resulted in a landslide membership vote in favor of democratic Local 100 bylaws changes supported by ND.

The vote showed an unprecedented number of bus workers, 44 percent of those voting, siding with subway workers to: (1) reduce MaBSTOA’s disproportionate number of vice-presidents from two to one; (2) directly elect vice presidents in all divisions; and (3) create a new Private Lines bus division.

However, in a surprise turnaround, the Sept. 22 issue of The Chief newspaper reported that James announced he would run again after all! But, at this point, James’ candidacy may be little more than that of a sacrificial lamb. One bus official called James “unelectable.” Meanwhile, the bureaucracy has retreated from splitting the union.

Last December’s contract fight

A backdrop to the current crisis is December’s contract struggle, in which ND played a leading role (see Socialist Action, January 2000). With the contract due to expire on Dec. 15, 1999, two weeks before the millennial celebrations, transit workers had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Contract rallies grew to 15,000.

However, on Dec. 14, the local was slapped with two blatantly unconstitutional injunctions, containing impossibly high fines and prison sentences, imposed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and NYCT’s parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The injunctions forbade striking or job actions-or merely speak in favor of either!

ND responded to the injunctions with a legal challenge. TWU attorneys, present at ND’s hearing, refused to oppose the injunctions when questioned. The court upheld the injunctions.

On ND’s initiative, the union held two local-wide contract meetings on Dec. 14, the first in decades. Two unanimous, but contradictory, strike votes were passed in the somewhat disorganized meetings in defiance of Giuliani and the MTA.

Later that evening, the pro-James Executive Board majority ignored the two strike votes and accepted a proposed three-year contract from the NYCT. The proposal contained a mediocre 12.5 percent wage increase and major concessions like workfare and drastic work rule changes in the Car Equipment Division. The contract was approved by the demoralized membership.

Frustrated transit workers have seen concession-style contract bargaining erode wages and working conditions since the presidency of Mike Quill, the local’s founder, who led a successful 1966 strike shortly before his death.

New Directions was founded in the late 1980s by a handful of rank-and-file activists around the Hell on Wheels newsletter. Today, ND members are slightly less than half of the local’s Executive Board, while many are elected divisional officers.

ND’s greatest support is in the subway divisions, which is two-thirds of the membership. About 70 percent vote for ND. The bus divisions in contrast, particularly MaBSTOA buses, are a tightly controlled patronage machine, dispensing favors and punishing dissent. About 80 percent voted for James in 1998.

If victorious, ND faces major hurdles. Had there been a fighting grassroots network of transit workers last December, the membership could have been prepared to take on James and win meaningful contract gains.

Also, ND tends to rely on the court system. Under capitalism, the courts are a tool of management, not labor’s friend. Court suits against the union and even management are no substitute for the necessary task of mobilizing the rank and file to fight.

Hopefully, an ND victory will open the doors to needed changes. To keep up with New Directions, visit their website at:www.newdirections.net.

Socialist Action News

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