New York City Transit Strike

The wheels on the bus did not go ‘round and ‘round for almost three days and no one could take the A train if they desired. Though it barely survived three days, the New York City transit strike was national news. It may not be permanently placed in our collective memories like famous nursery rhymes and jazz songs, but it should be.

There were both important achievements and significant defeats in this struggle that affected tens of millions and had a whole city talking. Taken together, they provide an opportunity to move farther in the future. It is important to assess what was at stake in this strike and what were its limitations.

From December 20-22, 2005, over 33,000 transit employees of the Transit Workers Union Local 100 (TWU), including subway conductors and motormen, bus drivers, mechanics, booth agents, sanitation workers, and many more who maintain the vehicles, tracks, train stations and bus shelters, collectively faced down the whole establishment of elites in New York City.

Wall Street, politicians and the press coordinated a vicious attack on the transit workers, showing the kind of effort they usually reserve for rallying domestic opinion for imperialist ventures like the invasion of Iraq. The transit strike showed that just below the surface of public manners lie deep racial and class conflicts ready to explode the politicians’ myths of stability and civility.

There has not been a transit strike in New York City since 1980. Why would there be one now? TWU members voted to strike for a combination of ongoing workplace grievances and to defend against further job, pension and benefit cuts. Their grievances reveal a lot about larger trends and they hold great significance for working people throughout the nation and abroad.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) management stepped up their attacks on the shopfloor and their blatant disrespect became commonplace. They attempted to establish their prerogatives and see how far they could push workers. People were increasingly written up for trivial matters. Bosses had an attitude of micro-managing everyone’s time in the name of the rulebook. In response, transit workers just before the strike had their own “work-to-rule” slowdown.

Management tried to cut jobs through privatization and automation. They tried to push through a privatization scheme on some bus lines in Queens that ultimately failed because of poor service. They also attempted to create fully automated ticket booths and subway entrances, as well as introduce the first fully automated train. Finally, they were brazen in their attempts at cutting pensions, benefits and setting back the retirement age for new employees.

The important context for this is two-fold. Inflation is rampant in New York City with the downtown crowd living the high-life while working people struggle just to pay the rent. The MTA also had a billion dollar surplus they gave to riders in a cheap public relations gimmick of a one-month weekend dollar fare, while at the same time claiming they were facing a budgetary crisis and all must sacrifice.

Some of the details of the TWU strike illuminate broader trends in the political offensive by the rulers to further advance their interests. A couple of factors stand out.

MTA finances are controlled by the state budget. The ongoing attack on social infrastructure—including education, health care and transportation—was a central factor in the offensive against transit workers. We are told to do more with less as a matter of principle, while the economy booms for the rich. A crisis of social infrastructure is growing as a result, endangering the quality of life in our cities and towns. The rulers also want to break long-standing unions in key industries, as we have seen in auto, and public employees are next on their list. The erosion of pensions and benefits is continuing to these unions as they represent a barrier to normalizing such cuts across the whole economy.

If the transit strike represents wider conflicts and trends, then the strike action and its aftermath provide representative insights into the status of current union leadership in this country and the limitations of those unions to fight and win against the ongoing political offensive by the rulers.

Two issues present themselves here. In a time when many agree that union leadership is largely irrelevant, the head of the TWU Local 100, Roger Toussaint, emerged as a fighting union head who defied the national parent union and the elites. For many sick of cutbacks, concessions and rising inflation, he represents their own desire to fight the state and employers. However, we also need to assess how the strike was actually carried out. The fact that the strike achieved a relative stalemate on the immediate economic issues, but was devastatingly defeated politically is important. Ultimately, these two issues are interrelated.

By many accounts Roger Toussaint is a union leader of integrity and courage. His name is associated with the epic history of the Haitian Revolution—a revolution that overthrew slavery, fought all the imperialist powers, and was a beacon of light to African rebellions in the Americas and later the anti-colonial struggles throughout Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.

His past is linked to the Black Power revolts in the Caribbean. He was expelled from school for spray painting socialist slogans against the regime of Eric Williams. Toussaint was once fired for pushing a grievance, but eventually won his job back. He came to power as the leader of a rank-and-file caucus for greater union democracy and a more militant defense of labor.

As leader of the TWU, he has fought the politicians and management. Toussaint exposed racist attacks by the mayor, telling him to shut up while standing next to him on the speakers platform. He also confronted MTA management, which still maintains the Irish old boy network of yesterday. Yet as a leader of an overwhelmingly Black, Latino and Asian workforce, he is known to be a fair listener to white workers. It has even been said that white workers accused of racism come to him first, believing they will get fair treatment. With the recent announcement of the MTA proposed budget of fare hikes and large service cuts, Toussaint—still without a contract—said that MTA “suits” should be fired instead.

Preceding the strike, the union faced New York state’s Taylor Law, which was created to prevent municipal workers from striking with the threat of punishment in terms of jail, heavy fines on union treasuries and individual worker’s wages—a threat that was used by the state. In response, Toussaint said that the TWU was still “Mike Quill’s union,” a reference to the legacy of its most dynamic founder, an Irish former-communist who went to jail in 1966 rather than adhere to the state’s demands not to strike. As a result of the strike Toussaint went to jail for three days and the union was fined $2.5 million dollars and the suspension of automatic dues check-off.

Despite this display of integrity by a progressive leader, the strike ended badly. It was called off under immense political attack by official society, and the union returned to the negotiating table. In exchange for management’s rescinding the later retirement age for new workers, Toussaint offered cutbacks in healthcare, in which workers would make co-payments for the first time. He gave management a big hug at a press conference to seal the deal. A majority of transit workers were upset with his decision to call off the strike and wanted to fight more, rejecting it on a first vote. Toussaint, with management giving him hard stares, threatened union members that they must vote again and the result would have to be for ending the strike. A demoralized union membership accepted. Rank and file members worked another year without a contract, in a union that historically prided itself for a “No Contract, No Work” ethos, and Toussaint won TWU elections in December 2006 with support from less than half the membership.

Charismatic leaders can emerge that distract people from the political weaknesses of a labor movement. Through their representative performance they can strengthen the political control of the bureaucracy by infusing it with a popular legitimacy, while the rank-and-file members and the wider community are encouraged to be passive spectators.

When looking at how the strike should have been organized it is possible to see how disastrous this dynamic became. Support for the strike in the city and suburbs was largely divided along racial and class lines. The majority of working people supported the strike, but some had questions about why some of the best-paid working class people in the city seemed to be fussing over minor contract details while potentially stranding millions in their neighborhoods.

To politically organize such a strike in a time where there is no recognized labor movement is difficult enough. Nevertheless, there were opportunities to organize this strike more effectively. Yet this would have meant organizing against the union bureaucracy as well.

It will be a point of historical shame for future generations that a billionaire tycoon mayor, supported by a millionaire governor organized 30,000 police officers and thousands more city workers to assist in creating and running a massive alternative transportation system of car pools, cutting bridge and tunnel tolls as a populist ploy to use state power to smash the strike.

While Bloomberg went between lecturing transit workers like they were children and making racist comments about them as thugs and terrorists, he was extolling the public virtues of New York City citizens and workers in their media manufactured support for smashing the strike. For his part, he walked across the Brooklyn Bridge for photo-ops like former mayor and crank Ed Koch did during the 1980 strike, giving speeches that demonstrated his concern for fellow New Yorkers and their hardships that he claimed to share.

A great action in the nation’s history, the Montgomery Bus Boycott against Jim Crow segregation, made famous by Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., did exactly the same thing. Tens of thousands of people built an alternative transportation system of car pools. The difference was, theirs was an honorable anti-racist struggle organized through voluntary associations, forging a dual people’s power. Bloomberg’s was a patronizing attempt by a robber baron to convince New York City workers that he cared more about their need to get to work than the striking transit workers did.

Local 100 told its 33,000 members to picket in various locations, walking in circles. The union membership could have done exactly the same thing as the police but in a less authoritarian fashion, running the trains and buses for free until the state shut off the power. Then they could have helped organize the very same alternative transportation program, expanding solidarity and aspiring to provide a platform for raising other demands affecting all working people in the New York metro area. And if the state increased its attack through sanctions or violence, a general strike could have possibly been worked toward and mutual aid and self-defense organized.

However, this suggests an awareness of longer term and bigger stakes than purely economic demands around the short term vision of negotiating a contract of diminishing returns. Working class power is what is at stake and was the basis of all previous reform gains. This would be a struggle for democracy and autonomy, where people aspire to show who really should govern the city. It would be a different type of union organizing to aspire towards and it appears that many transit workers and everyday New Yorkers felt these political desires and saw that a new way was needed.

This would mean struggles to build autonomous organizations beyond the union bureaucracy within the workplace, across industries and within communities. This is a long term commitment, not a short term one. Historically, it is when thousands and eventually millions begin to establish their own independent power that real gains are won and advanced so long as this power can be maintained, consolidated and extended.

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