Westchester Bus Strike Ends in Mediocre Deal

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by Marty Goodman/ May 2005 issue of Socialist Action
 

On April 19 union negotiators representing 568 workers on strike for seven weeks at the Bee-Line Bus Company in affluent Westchester County, N.Y.,

finally reached a four-year tentative agreement. The financially strapped workers voted overwhelmingly the next day to accept the tentative deal and to go back to work.

 

For the workers—who began their strike on March 3 and held strong for seven grueling weeks—key union activists say the deal is a mediocre one at best. Even so, the contract is likely to be ratified by a mail-in ballot.

 

Bee-Line workers, mostly drivers but also mechanics and cleaners, are members of Transport Workers Union Local 100, which also represents over 36,000 subway and bus workers in New York City (NYC).

 

A key union demand was to lower the age of retirement from age 62 to 57 with no reduction in benefits after 20 years on the job, a right enjoyed by other private bus company workers. At Bee-Line, even a 30-year veteran driver seeking to retire at age 57, after working in a job that wrecks body and soul, would nevertheless face a whopping 24 percent reduction in retiree benefits.

 

A second contract goal was to maintain a company-funded health benefits plan to offset the skyrocketing costs of medical care.

 

The strike affected 55,000 mostly working-class riders, whose hardships during the strike were cynically manipulated by the capitalist press. But

judging by those who passed strike picket lines honking their horns or giving a thumbs-up, the strike had wide support.

 

Going into negotiations, the union was asking for a three-year contract and a 30 percent wage hike that, like other demands, was withdrawn at the negotiating table.

 

The tentative deal includes a phased-in reduced retirement age of 59 years without penalty, (the penalty at age 57 was reduced from 24% to 13%); a

modest 12.75% wage hike over four years; and changing the company-funded health care formula for one with less certainty for workers but greater  “flexibility” (read: profits) for bosses.

 

Typical of the profit-driven health-care crisis, the agreement includes increased worker out-of-pocket expenses for most doctor’s visits—up from $5 to over $15 by the contract’s end.

 

To put the wage package in perspective, the NYC region has the highest inflation rate in the nation at 4.1 percent since 2004, as well as a higher increase in the cost of living. Those increases will surpass the contract wage increases if trends continue.

 

Bill Mooney, an activist bus driver who was a principle negotiator in the last contract, told Socialist Action that the union was unprepared for the strike, unlike management. Says Mooney, Local 100 President Roger Toussaint, “gave us two black eyes, a bloody nose and a bloody lip. That’s what this

contract is.” Mooney added, “The result wasn’t worth the seven weeks that we were out.”

 

Bosses and top Democrat unite

 

Bee-Line workers hate management’s plantation mentality. There are no paid sick days. Sick workers must choose between their health (and the safety of

riders) and their paychecks.

 

Most drivers’ workweeks are 50 to 60 hours long. That includes an unpaid two to four hour split shift, or break between bus trips. Bosses use this criminal

system to avoid hiring more bus drivers to cover both the morning and afternoon rush hours.

 

Despite worker hatred of these policies, unpaid sick days and the split shift will remain unchanged in the tentative deal.

 

Westchester County, one of the 10 richest counties in the U.S., subsidizes the criminal Bee-Line bosses.  Andy Spano, the Westchester County executive and a Democrat, said strikers were “unreasonable” and made too much money.

 

The average Bee-Line worker has a base salary of about $49,000. Spano charged that there were workers that received more than $60,000 a year but neglected to say that it was earned driving extra hours, often working a sixth day.

 

At the beginning of April the local press exposed county government agreements to pay Bee-Line owners big bucks even during a strike, which included an annual $1.62 million “service fee” to operate in Westchester (usually such fees go the other way!) and $25 million a year for “net operating expenses.” The revelation produced no outcry over making too much money by Democrat and phony friend of labor Andy Spano!

 

A fighting strategy needed

 

 Beyond scattered strike fund-raising efforts in Local 100 to which workers donated generously, the leadership organized no local-wide solidarity rallies

and even refused to organize transportation to picket lines. Transit service remained business-as-usual in New York City, which is closely linked economically to Westchester County.

 

During the strike Bee-Line threatened to provide “replacement workers” for strikers and trained scab drivers. A combined total of 41 TWU members were

arrested for “disorderly conduct” in non-confrontational attempts to block trainee buses leaving a depot. However, a big Local-wide membership

presence on the picket lines could have reduced the strike-breaking threat and increased union leverage at negotiations.

 

Similarly, strike solidarity by AFL-CIO unions provided a token presence at pickets, which was used by bureaucrats as a smoke screen for capitulation to

Bee-Line, Westchester’s ruling rich, and the Democratic Party. In late March, in a show of weakness, Toussaint requested a federal mediator.

 

During the final negotiations, key elected Bee-Line union negotiators were purged from talks to eliminate officers closest to the ranks. The action recalls

Toussaint’s purge of the negotiating committee in 2002 during NYC subway and bus worker contract talks. The 2002 contract resulted in a first-year zero wage increase and a bad precedent for municipal unions.  The strike does not bode well for the contract battle next December between NYC subway and bus workers and the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

 

The strike came on the heels of the MTA’s vote last December to accelerate massive downsizing by automation. The MTA policy was scarcely resisted by

the union, which was instead mobilizing for pro-war Democrat John Kerry. The defeat demoralized a wide layer of workers.

 

Despite the courage of the Bee-Line workers (only one scab returned to work), President Toussaint admitted to the April 20 membership meeting that the union was not prepared for the strike. That astonishing admission will likely not be quickly forgotten.

 

Nor will the refusal of the Toussaint leadership, since its inception in 2001, to link the struggle of all private bus line workers in Westchester and NYC into a united struggle; especially during the MTA piecemeal takeover of most of the private bus companies over the last year, which left some 1500 workers in limbo.

 

Until labor is willing to use its power, workers will be on the losing end. 

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