NY Transit Workers in Historic Contract Battle



NEW YORK-Transit workers here are gearing up for a contract battle that will pit 35,000 subway and bus workers of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 against the financial elite of the world. The contract deadline is Dec. 15, 2002. It’s either fight to win or be dealt a terrible blow.

Already, transit workers have mobilized in huge numbers. The largest action was a rally and march of some 15,000 transit workers on Oct. 30 at the MTA headquarters in midtown Manhattan. The union displayed a 30-foot snarling inflatable rat nicknamed “Ralph,” who symbolizes transit’s hated discipline policy.

The huge crowd then marched to Gov. George Pataki’s office several blocks away, chanting, “MTA, find a way!” and “We are the union, the mighty, mighty union. The people’s union, the kick-ass union!” But in an opening salvo in the class battle to come, police revoked the union’s parade permit to march in front of the governor’s office.

New York’s transit workers have struck twice in the past. The first was in 1966, led by Local 100’s legendary founder, Mike Quill. The strike was so successful that politicians-Republicans and Democrats-soon passed the anti-labor Taylor Law, which fines public workers two-days pay for each day of a strike or job action.

Local 100 struck again in 1980. The strike was sold out but nevertheless won real gains despite Taylor Law penalties. Since then contracts have contained ever more concessions. Wage levels lag behind private industry and other public transit workers in the region.

The struggle around the last contract, agreed to on Dec. 15, 1999, was overshadowed by the onslaught of the entire capitalist class against Local 100. Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the MTA levied two unconstitutional injunctions on the union and its members, which included huge fines for striking or even talking about a strike.

The contract won mediocre pay raises of 5%, 3%, and 4% but also included the racist, union-busting Work Experience Program (“workfare”), which exploits the free labor of welfare recipients, and concessions such as “broadbanding,” which destroys seniority rights.

Another major issue is the Health Benefit Trust (HBT), which was deliberately underfunded in the current contract. Symptomatic of the health care crisis for working people, the HBT will be in the red by December. The health of transit workers and their families are being held hostage by the MTA in an attempt to trade off health benefits for wage increases.

But, right on cue, the MTA, operated by Gov. George Pataki and his political appointees, are crying that it is billions in debt. So too is New York City’s billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose administration has little to do with the actual operation of the MTA but is directly affected by a strike.

Bloomberg and his fellow Republican Pataki are bewailing a post-9/11 capitalist crisis that, in reality, existed before the 9/11 attack. One can expect an orgy of flag waving directed against Local 100, particularly if President Bush’s insane war for oil profits in Iraq is launched soon.

Adding to the mix of propaganda is the possibility of a transit fare increase from $1.50 to $2. Their familiar, cynical game is to convince working-class riders that gains made by transit workers are to blame for fare box increases or other forms of new taxes.

What a lie! The true culprit is the lack of proper government funding, the result of tax breaks for the rich and a permanent war economy. Whatever is left of tax revenues earmarked for transportation (disproportionately paid for by workers), the first priority is not public transportation but paying the MTA’s rich bondholders, about 14% of its budget.

In addition, upstate racist politicians deliberately underfund New York’s transit system. NYC riders pay about 60 percent of the cost to ride-much higher than the national average of 40 percent. As socialists we say let the rich pay the cost of getting their employees to work. We say let them use the billions they make off workers to pay for a free transportation system!

In response, Local 100 has begun a “Save the Fare” campaign and has distributed many thousands of flyers to passengers.

Another part of the MTA’s offensive is a proposed restructuring of the MTA. “Many millions of dollars will be saved when it is fully implemented,” said MTA Chairman Peter S. Kalikow.

The MTA said the scheme could free up money for the health benefits fund by implementing “a dramatic change” in workforce size. The plan is similar to a “regional bus” system long opposed by Local 100 as “downsizing.” The MTA set the beginning date of Dec. 31, 2002, timed to add pressure on the union.

The MTA fears a confrontation with the newly awakened Local 100 membership. In December 2000 the old guard of Local 100, represented by former President Willie James, was booted out in a local-wide election by a fed-up membership.

The reform movement known as New Directions took over, with Roger Toussaint as president. New Directions promised to deliver militant leadership, union democracy, rank-and-file involvement, and political independence.

Since then, important reforms have been enacted, such as better representation at discipline hearings, improved services, and fight-back campaigns-such as stopping transit’s attempt to close token booths through automation or “downsizing.” In addition, several hundred new shop stewards were trained.

Simultaneously, however, organized support for Democratic politicians has increased, not decreased. Local 100 endorsed Hillary Clinton for senator and many other pro-Taylor Law Democrats. Clinton openly praised the Taylor Law on the day the injunctions were levied, in December 1999!

Moreover, although New Directions ran on a platform of regular local-wide meetings, there was only one in 2001 and none so far in 2002. A second is planned for next month.

The first real test of the new leadership has taken place in the struggle around the Private Lines bus lines contracts. In Westchester County, at Liberty Lines, a one-day and then a two-day strike resulted in wage hikes and other benefits in early 2001.

In January 2002, members at three private bus lines in Queens went on strike for one day, and again for two days in February. On June 17, they struck again, beginning a difficult 51-day strike. Though the strike itself was solid, no mobilizations of the rest of Local 100 took place other than a collection of $150,000 from members. The strike concluded with modest 4%, 4%, and 1% wage increases and an increase of over $3 million in health benefits.

However, one major issue, that of job security, was left unresolved. Local 100 Private Lines Vice-President George Jennings accused Toussaint of selling out the strike. He called for his members to form their own TWU local and led a walkout of hundreds of members at a contract meeting. Although Jennings finally supported the contract, he faces charges within Local 100 that some see as an attack on free speech.

Local 100 members’ expectations are at an all-time high. The local-wide contract rallies, when properly organized, have been large. However, while street rallies are an important part of the current level of mobilization, job actions or possibly a strike may be necessary to win a good contract.

Careful strike preparation is necessary. Laws such as the Taylor Law are designed by the rich and their politicians to keep workers down. The unions must include a willingness to defy anti-labor laws, if necessary, as part of their perspective if workers are to advance in this age of give-backs.

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