By MARTY GOODMAN
NEW YORK-Thousands of angry New York City transit workers marched on June 20 to begin “a long hot summer” against management abuse. The target was threatened cuts in health care benefits as well as transit’s notorious discipline policy.
The demonstration was organized by the militant new leadership of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, which has lead the union since January. The current leadership was swept into power at the head of a rank-and-file movement called New Directions. Local 100 represents some 35,000 subway and bus employees who work for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).
The protest began with a spirited rally at the Brooklyn headquarters of the MTA subway subdivision known as New York City Transit (NYCT), the site of employee discipline hearings. A 20-feet-tall inflatable rubber rat, symbolizing the workers’ hatred of the discipline process, was erected by the TWU just outside the glass enclosed offices. Each year one in four transit workers are subject to the sting of management discipline, which often includes suspensions and dismissals.
Addressing the health benefits crisis, Local 100 President Roger Toussaint said to the crowd, “Ridership is up, service is up, productivity is up, and they want to cut service and take away health benefits for us and our families. There is no way in hell that is going to happen!”
The union soon marched over the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall in lower Manhattan, chanting all the way, “We are the union. The mighty, mighty union. The community union. The rider’s union. The fightback union. The kick-ass union!”
At City Hall Toussaint addressed the crowd, “NYCT should not take anything for granted while our health benefits are being threatened. We move seven million every day-and these bastards in the NYCT and the MTA dare threaten our health benefits. Transit workers, surface workers are being denied respect on the job. Brothers and sisters, these things go together!”
Toussaint warned the transit authority, “The union of Mike Quill is back in business!” The reference to the legendary first president of Local 100, Mike Quill, drew especially loud applause. Quill, who was close to the Communist Party in the early years, went on to lead the highly successful 1966 transit strike.
Sellout contract paved way for crisis
The health benefits crisis is seen as part of a sell-out contract negotiated in December 1999 by the despised former Local 100 leadership. The 1999 contract changed management’s contribution formula to the Health Benefits Trust (HBT) and pegged it to unrealistically low projected health care cost increases. Letters between management and former union officials back up charges made by the current leadership that there was a conspiracy to under-fund the HBT.
Despite the contract changes, however, the union says the authority is still liable contractually to maintain employee benefits. If the shortage is not corrected, members will be forced to pay up to $1000 in out-of-pocket expenses over the next 18 months or else lose benefits.
The 1999 contract also contained work-rule concessions known as “broadbanding,” which severely undermine seniority rights. Broadbanding is bitterly resented by the affected workers in the Car Equipment division.
Management maintained that broadbanding was necessary to save money needed to fund the HBT. Currently, NYCT is pressing for even deeper work-rule concessions to fund the current shortfall, a demand the union rejects.
While the crowd on June 20 was in a fighting mood and of respectable size, the turnout was noticeably smaller than the previous demonstration for the same issues on March 28. That rally drew upwards of 10,000 workers and was a milestone in the history of the long dormant union.
The impressive size of the March 28 event was credited with compelling management to forestall health-care cuts almost certain to have been implemented by the end of the month-a victory for the strategy of mobilizing the membership to fight!
In negotiations since March, however, management has not yet agreed to increase its contribution to the HBT. Without an increased management contribution well before the end of the year, benefits are certain to be curtailed.
A democratic discussion by the ranks on what to do next in the struggle is vital. Clearly, serious consideration must be given to job actions or a strike if transit is to be compelled to pay its fair share.
The TWU has added to its arsenal the completion of an ambitious shop stewards training program in which over 450 new stewards graduated. Veteran union activists say the size of the TWU program was a record for a New York City union.
Transit workers, however, face great obstacles. As employees of New York State they are covered by the Taylor law, which prohibits strikes or job actions. The law was passed by both Democrats and Republicans in the wake of the 1966 transit strike. Punishment includes withholding two days pay for each day of violations. Even so, the onerous fines can be overcome by well-organized, militant action-as other unions have shown.
All four politicians running in the Democratic Party mayoral primary election race, to be decided in September, have openly backed use of the Taylor law against transit workers in their campaigns. Incredibly, this has not prevented these same pro-boss phonies from actively seeking the votes of TWU members at union events and rallies! The union’s relationship to and possible endorsement of one of these candidates will be an important test for the union.
Socialists say that working people must decisively break with the politicians of management, the banks, and landlords and create a party responsible to the labor movement-a labor party.
The burning issues faced by Local 100 will be discussed at the first local-wide meeting since the new leadership took over, now scheduled for September. Local-wide meetings were non-existent in the local for a generation until New Directions forced them on the old leadership during the 1999 contract talks.
The local-wide meeting will be important for the membership to assess the union’s progress and problems. Moreover, to live up to the promise made by New Directions of a democratic union controlled by the rank and file, direct membership voting at local-wide meetings must be high on the agenda.