By MARTY GOODMAN
NEW YORK-For the third time this year, 1500 bus drivers and mechanics went out on strike June 17 at three privately owned bus companies in the borough of Queens. The walkouts at Triboro Coach, Jamaica Buses, and Queens Surface disrupted the daily commute of some 115,000 passengers. The workers have been without a contract for 18 months.
The strikers are members of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100. The local also represents 34,000 employees of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and its subway and bus subsidy, New York City Transit (NYCT).
The private lines negotiate a separate contract and receive about 10 percent less in wages than their public sector counterparts.
The union is focusing its attack on the role of the billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, owner of the Bloomberg News empire. Over half of the operating budgets of the companies are subsidized by the city to the tune of over $150 million a year. The city also owns many of the buildings and facilities used by the private lines, and leases them to the companies at nominal rates.
The TWU accused the mayor of reneging on a tentative agreement reached with the companies in March. That agreement was on par with a recent deal with city workers in District Council 37, which provided raises of 4 percent in 2001, 4 percent in 2002, and 1 percent in 2003, plus an 18 percent increase in funding for health benefits.
The deal collapsed when the city reversed itself and reduced increased funding of health benefits to just 3 percent. Says the TWU’s Mike Curran, “At that rate, our health insurance fund will go broke.” The cost of the initial 18 percent offer is estimated at less than $1 million a year. That’s less than the money lost at the fare box during the first three days of the strike!
A second unresolved issue is job security. The union has pushed an Employment Protection Plan (EPP) that would guarantee the jobs of employees should the companies be sold to new owners.
The TWU has distributed to riders a quarter-million leaflets, headlined, “Mayor Bloomberg to Queens: Drop Dead!” Feeling the sting, the mayor announced talks with the MTA to take over the private lines. Unfortunately, as of June 30th, no progress has been made toward a final settlement. The TWU says it’s prepared for “a prolonged struggle.”
The strike takes on great significance with the looming contract struggle of Local 100, whose contract expires Dec. 15. Being tested is the reform leadership of the New Directions Caucus, which seized power after winning over 60 percent of the vote in a three-way election in December 1999.
Shortly after taking over the union, the leadership conducted a one-day strike of 750 private lines bus workers in Westchester County, north of the city, and in the Bronx. The strike won substantial gains, particularly wage parity with New York City bus workers over a four-year contract, a precedent for the Queens workers.
Earlier this year, Local 100 conducted a one-day private lines strike in Queens on Jan. 7 and then a two-day strike in late February.
All Local 100 members can identify with the health care crisis faced by the Queens workers. Part of the crisis of health care under capitalism, the health benefits of the local is also criminally under-funded. A union-sponsored rally on April 24 drew over 10,000 members to the MTA’s midtown headquarters, chanting “shut it down!”
The nearly bankrupt Health Benefit Trust was temporarily rescued in mid-June when the TWU gained a hard-won $6 million infusion from the MTA, a fraction of the some $20 million needed for skyrocketing costs. The MTA is certain to pit health care funding against wages in the new contract.
Although the union has succeeded in educating Local 100’s public bus drivers against scabbing, the system continues to run, undermining the strike.
However, the transit system is funded by New York state, and workers are subject to fines for striking under the state’s severe Taylor Law. Supported by both Democrats and Republicans, the law was passed after the successful 1966 transit strike. Socialists maintain that unions must organize to defy capitalism’s anti-labor laws.
The TWU organized strike support rallies at City Hall on June 27 and July 1. The rallies drew several hundred members, but bigger rallies are needed. Whatever the outcome, the strikers remain strong and determined. They know their futures are on the line.
To learn more, visit www.twu-100.org.