Transit Workers Reject Raw Deal

by Mary Goodman / February 2006 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

*Marty Goodman is a station agent and Executive Board member of Transport Workers Union Local 100.

The week before Christmas, 33,000 New York subway and bus workers stunned the city’s bosses and politicians, and inspired workers around the country, by launching the first system-wide strike since 1980. For three days we held firm in the face of vicious slurs from
politicians and media, and threats of massive Taylor Law fines and even jail time.

We ended the strike, heads still held high, when TWU Local 100 President Roger Toussaint got his Executive Board to vote 37 to 4 to call off the strike in favor of a mediator’s proposed settlement—the details of which remained secret until members were back at work. On Jan. 20, it was announced that transit workers had done something even more shocking: we had rejected that proposed settlement by seven votes, 11,234 to 11,227.

Immediately, howls arose demanding binding arbitration. New York Post columnist John Podhoretz demanded that “if New York’s transit workers dare to strike again they should be arrested by the thousands and fired en masse.” “Experts” in the media said there would be no second strike, and that a new deal would just reshuffle money currently on the table.

This hysteria is a sign that our double dose of determination—first the strike and then the contract rejection—has terrified the bosses.

The week after the vote, the MTA filed for arbitration, and put on the table a new offer with all
the worst parts of previous ones, including the pension takeback for new hires that had provoked the strike and the health-care takeback that had led to the contract rejection.

It also re-raised wide-ranging job combinations and one-person train operation; removed the pension refunds (the main motivation for those who had voted yes); and even took back the Martin Luther King Day holiday. Wage proposals stayed the same but the expiration date was pushed two months further back. The MTA clearly hopes that a weak leadership, which
dragged its feet in calling the strike, will agree to any deal out of desperation. Proof that they know who they’re dealing with came quickly after the MTA issued its new offer. Toussaint ally and Local 100 Treasurer Ed Watt was still saying, “The previous deal was a really good deal.”

In contrast, Division VP John Mooney said, “If they want to go to battle, we’re ready. We need to have a union-wide membership meeting. … The membership should strongly consider going on strike again.”

Why the workers rejected the deal

Not many would have predicted the contract’s rejection, given the demoralization that usually
follows a premature return to work. That dynamic helps explain the closeness of the vote.

But the narrow margin is not necessarily a sign of weakness or division. We beat an outrageous pension demand with a strike, and then beat a hastily substituted, equally outrageous health-care concession with our “no” vote. Now’s the time to stand strong on
both pensions and health care!

One of the biggest factors in the “no” vote was the new health-care premium—which would have saved the MTA five times as much as the new-hire pension payments that we had killed with our strike. Starting at 1.5% of wages, the premium would go up as the MTA’s claimed
health-care costs go up. Members also resented the premium percentage being based on gross pay, including overtime.

By rejecting the health-care and pension takebacks, TWU members struck a blow for New York City municipal workers: Mayor Mike Bloomberg crowed after the strike that he would force the same demands on his employees. We’ve also struck a blow for workers around the
country facing the same takebacks.

Division VP John Mooney told the press: “They didn’t go on strike so they could start paying
health-insurance premiums.” Workers interviewed by Newsday said that talk on the job before the vote was all about health care, including fears of climbing premiums.

Other reasons the contract went down included:

• Despite a billion-dollar surplus, raises were just 10.5% over 37 months, less than projected inflation, and failing to regain ground lost to inflation in the last contract due to its first-year zero increase and only 3% in the second and third years.

• The new expiration date of Jan. 15 gave up the leverage of a holiday season strike.

• “Dignity and Respect” was a prominent theme before the strike, with 15,000 write-ups in 2004 alone (almost one out of every two workers), but the contract only provided a toothless “Committee to Review Disciplinary Process.”

• The contract’s biggest selling point—pension refunds due thousands of members for overpayments—was money already owed. But Pataki threatened to veto legislation paying for them, and members were skeptical that the MTA Board would honor a secret side
agreement pledging to pay in case of a veto. Knowing this, Toussaint initially demanded that the Board approve the contract before members voted, but then backed down.

Members could gauge how bad the contract was by the praise for it in the same media that had viciously attacked us. The Post called the health-care giveback “groundbreaking”: “The MTA will net millions of up-front dollars. … Workers will kick in much more money for health coverage than they stand to get from pension rebates. … The health-insurance payments will
continue—and grow—over time, while the pension givebacks are a one-shot deal … the health-care contributions are a benchmark concession that city and state labor negotiators can use in future deliberations with public-employee unions.”

The Times revealed that the contract would cost the MTA 16% less than its pre-strike offer.

While selling the deal Toussaint faced a barrage of questions and criticism. Cable channel NY1 reported that even those voting “yes” were doing so reluctantly. One driver who had voted “yes” said, “I’m glad that we finally got the guts to say no to what the MTA puts in front of us.”

The close vote shows we can march forward together if we stand up on both the health and pension fronts, uniting around the issues that led to the strike and those that killed the tentative agreement.

Officials push bad deal before and after rejection Toussaint claimed that the mutually agreed-upon blackout hampered his ability to sell the deal. Yet as soon as the strike was over he launched a propaganda blitz costing tens of thousands of dollars, with flyers, phone, and media appeals orchestrated by Hollywood spin doctors Ken Sunshine Associates. Meanwhile, he threatened to fine officials who criticized it, declaring, “any officer who engages in such campaigning against the proposed contract will be pay docked.”

Toussaint blamed the rejection in part on Pataki’s veto threat and also complained about the MTA’s chief negotiator crowing over the health-care takebacks (it’s not surprising this angered Toussaint, who was working hard to convince members the premiums were no
big deal).

During negotiations Toussaint slandered dissidents who argued for more militant strategy and demands, labeling us agents of the boss. After the rejection Ed Watt claimed dissidents were part of a “COINTELPRO”-type conspiracy with the bosses to defeat the contract. (COINTELPRO was a 1960s FBI disruption program used against socialists, Black activists, and other critics of government policy.) “Some people whose only goal is to disrupt the union,” said Watt, “were working with the governor’s office and the MTA.” How ironic, considering it was Toussaint who worked out the deal behind close doors with the MTA, and
wouldn’t tell his own Executive Board its details when he demanded they call off the strike!

The same day the MTA issued its post-vote offer, Toussaint spent as much time on the radio trashing contract opponents as he did criticizing the bosses:

“Right-wing forces encouraged the opposition to turn workers against the union … to bring about the collapse of the contract. The MTA was telling members the contract was bad for us.”

Sorry, Roger, but the bosses badly wanted the contract put over. Pataki may have been stupid enough to think he could impose the health-care takeback and disavow the pension refunds. But after the rejection Pataki realized his mistake: “Suddenly,” said The Times,
“Pataki’s aides were saying … the pension payout was ‘guaranteed’ all along—through the very signed agreement that the governor slammed as a giveaway. … They want everyone to believe the governor didn’t blow the deal with his tough talk.”

Before the strike Toussaint met with the CEOs who make up the Partnership for New York City, telling them he wasn’t a strike-happy radical. After the “no” vote, Partnership head Kathryn Wylde commiserated with Toussaint for his loss: “Everything we’ve been hearing
about chronic labor-management problems is coming home to roost. It’s a sign of substantial problems between union leaders and members. From the standpoint of the business community, nothing is worse than uncertainty.”

The “no” vote was a big setback for the bosses. But just when he should have been praising the members’ determination, and steeling nerves for the next battle, Toussaint instead echoed management claims that no more money would be found.

VP Mooney had it right: “Roger’s just showing a sour-grapes response. He doesn’t understand that the members have the ability to think and read and make a choice—and if they make a choice he doesn’t like, he blames other people.”

Amnesty from Taylor Law fines!

The bosses showed their anger at the rejection by resurrecting all the concession demands. Threats of fines and jail will multiply in an effort to force us into arbitration or to accept another rotten deal. The Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) is also moving to use the Taylor Law to cut off the union’s ability to collect dues.

It will take mass pressure—maybe even more days on the picket line—to win a decent contract. The first step in our counterattack can be organizing the Local and our supporters to demand amnesty from Taylor Law fines. We can ask unions that supported us to pass
resolutions and attend mobilizations demanding amnesty.

The day after the MTA’s latest demand for health and pension takebacks, Bloomberg declared he would force the same on city workers—which teachers’ union head Randi Weingarten labeled a “declaration of war.” The first front in that war is the battle against Taylor
Law fines on the TWU—fines city workers will themselves face if they go on strike.

Toussaint and other officers were originally scheduled to appear in court to face possible jail time over the strike the day it ended; a January hearing on the charge was postponed so as not to provoke more “no” votes. If the bosses sense they’re not playing along, it’s possible the judge will toss them in jail. We should prepare now to turn out huge numbers to stop this. All labor must demand: “Hands off Local 100!” Arbitration or mobilization?

After the rejection, the union leadership took its time heading back to the table. Toussaint said, “There will be nothing happening in the next few days. … This will take some time to figure out.” Management, however, lost no time declaring an impasse and asking the PERB to impose binding arbitration.

Toussaint rejected arbitration before and during the strike, insisting correctly that only the members could decide their fate. After the rejection, he maintained this stance, pointing out that in arbitration gains won in negotiations around health and pensions are not mandatory subjects of bargaining. But the pressure on him will be far greater now.

“Strange as it may sound,” said The Times, Toussaint “may have little desire to negotiate an agreement that is far more generous to the workers … because it might make him look weak—as if he had negotiated too stingy a deal the first time around.” If arbitration is
imposed we need an emergency membership meeting to vote on a strike authorization.

Rudy Giuliani’s former deputy mayor, conservative lawyer Randy Mastro, said, “It would be unprecedented to have binding arbitration ordered for the transit workers’ union contract. It’s never happened before.” And after the MTA filed for arbitration, Richard Ravitch, MTA president during the 1980 strike, called arbitration threats “theater,” adding that he didn’t
expect arbitration as long as both sides were talking. Just because the MTA—and eventually perhaps Toussaint—say arbitration is inevitable doesn’t make it so!

A better contract Is possible!

The bosses now claim we can’t get more; sometimes because they don’t have it, other times because they won’t give it. Said a former city labor relations director: “In this type of situation, the parties normally try to figure out if there is a way to reach a solution that both sides could live with within the same cost structure.”

Toussaint echoed these claims, telling The Times: “The opposition promoted the mistaken idea that by rejecting a contract you get value added, which kind of defies labor history.”

But workers have always made their strongest gains precisely when they feel they can stay out, or go back out, until they get what they want. The Minneapolis Teamsters strikes of 1934, which shut the city down tight twice, are just one of many proofs of this. Here in New York, a firefighter “no” vote in 1992 forced the city to reduce the contract duration by six months (an important precedent as we seek to preserve our December expiration date).

The media claims that the last time transit workers rejected a contract, in 1992, only a little more retroactive pay was gained. But they neglect to mention that we also changed a first-year lump-sum bonus into a percentage wage increase—without even flexing our strike muscle.

Nobody expected management to sound conciliatory after our “no” vote, and these days bosses in general are feeling their oats. But that’s why our strike surprised and scared them so, and that’s why if we stay united we can make gains and beat off the MTA’s concession demands.

When filing for arbitration, MTA chair Peter Kalikow claimed the money on the table is all they could afford. Yet the same week the MTA quietly revealed its surplus was even larger than the previously admitted billion dollars, having “found” $51 million more in tax revenues and interest rate savings (this reprises the sudden discovery after the 2002 contract of a $500
million surplus).

And let’s not forget the hundreds of millions thrown around between the MTA, real estate interests, politicians and lobbyists in deals and favors; the hundreds of millions in cost overruns on MTA headquarters; the tax money withheld from transit by Pataki; and the self-created pension “crisis” caused by the MTA’s underfunding.

Then there’s the billions taken from transit workers and riders and donated by the MTA to rich bondholders (and the millions to bankers for bond underwriting), which the TWU leadership has supported.

But while we’re going after the money we know is there, we’ve also got to be clear what we’re fighting for. Even some contract opponents are saying a flat fee or a capped percentage would be preferable to the 1.5%-and-up health premium. Some use as an example the
$23 paid by supervisors.

We pay no premiums now, and that’s how it should stay! Our benefits have been won by struggle and paid for in the past by lower wage increases. If we open the door to any kind of premium it will never shut. If management can impose a flat fee of $23, why not twice that when they claim costs rise? Plus, if we fall into the cap trap we’ll discourage workers who’ve been inspired by our health-benefit fight.

Opposition is organizing

Contract opponents met three days after the rejection was announced. Originally called Transit Workers for a Just Contract, and then the Vote No Coalition, we renamed our group the Committee for a Better Contract (CBC).

There was a call—unfortunately not adopted—to demand wage hikes of 10, 10, and 10 percent each year, which some of us had pushed before the strike. But all agreed the rejected agreement’s increases were inadequate.

In fact, the week of the meeting, a study showed that real wages had fallen 2.9% between 2002 and 2005 in every borough except Manhattan, and in the last three years New Yorkers’ fuel prices rose 27% and housing prices 14.7%, compared to 19% and 8.4% respectively
nationwide.

The CBC is calling for the next round of negotiations to include VPs and divisional officers, and proposed that representatives be elected in each division to sit in on Executive Board discussions of the negotiations.

The CBC also proposed that the union call a mass demonstration at MTA headquarters, and the CBC will demand that if binding arbitration is imposed, the union call an emergency membership meeting for a strike authorization vote.

The CBC organized a public meeting for all members on Feb. 2 around a call for unity in the fight for a good contract regardless of how people voted on the rejected proposal. At the first Executive Board meeting after the rejection, Toussaint again railed at dissidents and said nothing about how to organize members to get a better contract—but he did manage to send some of his supporters to disrupt the Feb. 2 meeting called for just that purpose.

This is a new and historic juncture for the union. We’ve shown our power twice, and a new wave of mobilization can blow away the bosses’ post-vote bluster. Management knows their colleagues around the country are watching, but so too are our fellow workers. We can show them we haven’t lost our fighting spirit, and we can forge even stronger ties of solidarity with those who have a direct stake in our fight.