The following firsthand account of the contract fight in New York City Transit appeared in Proletarian Revolution No. 60 (Winter 2000). Unfortunately, since the article went to print, the sellout contract it describes was accepted by the ranks of TWU Local 100.
In mid-December, following two unprecedented mass mobilizations, thousands of New York City bus and subway workers voted unanimously at a tumultuous general membership meeting to strike. They did so in defiance both of New York State’s Taylor Law prohibiting public sector strikes, and of draconian injunctions obtained by Mayor Giuliani, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Democratic state attorney general. The ruling class and its media agents cowered before the strike threat, a show of working-class strength, warning of its threat to life, limb and profits.
For a brief moment, Transport Workers Local 100 reminded the capitalists and the workers themselves of the enormous power of the working class when it unites in struggle. This would have been no ordinary strike but a blow at Wall Street, the financial center of American capitalism. As tens of thousands of transit workers stood ready to shut down the buses and subways and cripple the capitalists’ Christmas profiteering and millennium celebrations, the ruling class engaged in a frenzy of denunciations and turned to the repressive power of the state to prevent a walkout.
With the transit contract running out at midnight on December 14, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Pesce signed two restraining orders. The harshest was demanded by the Mayor: it called for fining the union $1 million for the first strike day, with fines doubling each successive day. In addition, individual members faced daily fines starting at $25,000, likewise doubling each day. These penalties were to be incurred not just for actual strike action but for making any statements that could be interpreted as “directing, calling, causing, authorizing, instigating, conducting, continuing, encouraging, threatening, participating in, assisting in, or approving of any strike, work stoppage, sick-out, slowdown, refusal to work as assigned, sabotage, vandalism, picketing with the intent to encourage any of these acts, or any other concerted activity intended to or tending to interrupt the normal and regular operations.” Under this monstrous gag order, workers could not even say the word “strike.”
In the teeth of this blatant violation of free speech and union rights, thousands of workers told Giuliani, the judge and the bosses to go to hell. Defying the injunction and their own cowardly union leaders, above all Local 100 President Willie James and TWU national head Sonny Hall, the workers’ mass meeting adopted by acclamation – twice! – a motion that read:
That TWU Local 100 commence a strike at 12:01 am, Wednesday, December 15, 1999, if NYCT does not accept a contract which meets the following demands: 1. A big wage raise; 2. End of Workfare in transit; 3. No givebacks.
In passing this motion, the meeting bypassed an alternative motion by the main union opposition, New Directions, that did not call a strike but would simply have authorized James to call one. The workers were fed up with the leadership and wanted to take the decision out of its hands.
Unfortunately, the growing strike movement came to a screeching halt. The workers were saddled with the sellout James bureaucracy working hand-in-hand with Giuliani and the bosses. They looked to New Directions, with its large number of Executive Board positions and other posts, to carry out their unanimous strike vote. But New Directions vacillated in the face of the injunctions and ultimately betrayed the decision made by the ranks. It accepted the right of the James leadership to deny the will of the membership body. Consequently, there was no decent contract and no strike on December 15.
Despite the retreat forced on the transit workers, their courageous defiance of the bosses represents a tremendous gain by the working class. It points to a break in the recent history of passive demoralization and to a significant working-class fightback-in-the-making.
Attention now turns to the fight to vote down the sellout contract that the Executive Board agreed to. Defeat of the contract would be a major setback for Giuliani. And it would again open up the question of strike action. A sizable majority of “No” votes would also be a stinging rejection of Willie James and his contemptible leadership, a clear-cut vote of no confidence by the members.
Transit workers and all working-class militants need to take a serious look at the lessons of the December events. Our aim in this article is to show how the workers moved from indifference toward their union to strong pro-strike sentiment – and then into a near-rebellion against the capitalist state and the pro-capitalist union bureaucrats. We will lay out the events leading up to this confrontation, show how the movement was stopped – and deal with the crucial question, what next?
In doing this we must also describe our own role. For in fact the motion that was unanimously adopted on December 14 was raised by the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) and distributed in thousands of leaflets to workers inside and outside the hall. A small revolutionary workers’ organization was able to wield a decisive influence in the class struggle when the workers’ movement was at its peak. In contrast, bigger leftist but non-revolutionary forces tailed after events that changed workers’ consciousness, thereby contributing to the setback. These lessons too must be drawn.
For some time there were strong indications that transit would become a key battle in the class struggle in New York. As the first of a series of major public employee contracts to expire, the transit contract was seen by many workers as the best chance to overcome recent defeats.
This outlook was fostered by a growing anger and restlessness among workers throughout the U.S. It has been particularly strong in New York City. Two years ago, details emerged about how the corrupt bureaucrats of AFSCME District Council 37, the largest municipal union, criminally fixed the 1995 contract vote in order to cement their partnership with Giuliani. DC 37’s contract, featuring two years of zero raises, was used to set the pattern for all public employees. City workers now understood that they all got screwed.
Adding fuel to the fire was the police murder of immigrant worker Amadou Diallo and the eruption of street protests that followed. (See PR 59.) In a growing mood of hostility to the powers-that-be, workers began looking to the upcoming contract negotiations as a chance to win back some of the gains lost in recent years. At a mass rally on May 12, 50,000 workers marched in lower Manhattan demanding decent contracts.
Though not technically city employees (the MTA is a state agency with input from the city), transit workers also had reason to look ahead to a fight over the new contract. Despite their obvious power to shut the city down and their reputation for militancy, in reality transit workers had been taking it on the chin ever since the loss of the 1980 strike by the Local 100 leadership. With workers reluctant to strike in the face of Taylor Law fines, knowing their bureaucratic leadership would sell them out, every militant development among the ranks had hit a brick wall.
However, anger over the 1996 contract had begun to break down the fear of striking. In 1996, the MTA had threatened 2000 layoffs with the excuse of budget deficits. But shortly after James and his “Gang” pushed through a deal that included a zero wage-hike year and the slave-labor Work Experience Program (“WEP” or Workfare, which forces welfare recipients to clean subway cars and stations to receive their below-minimum-wage payments), transit workers learned that they had been duped. Instead of a deficit, the MTA had a budget surplus of some $200 million, which has grown since to around $1 billion.
This time, workers were looking for big wage gains to make up for the last contract and were increasingly opposed to Workfare. James, having won the last union election by a thin margin that gave him only a narrow majority on the Executive Board, knew he had to produce. But he didn’t realize the depth of workers’ anger until his members strongly voted down his proposed $60-a-head dues assessment to finance public relations for the upcoming contract negotiations.
Following this fiasco, James switched tactics. Over the summer, he adopted a militant-sounding stance, demanding a large raise of 10 percent a year over three years and dropping hints of a possible strike. On August 19, at a special Executive Board meeting, James violated the union constitution by unilaterally deciding to hire Ray Rogers’ Corporate Campaign to run the publicity drive. This move aimed to bolster James’s image and mute criticism from New Directions.
With developments pointing to the potential for a militant struggle, the union scheduled division meetings in September to discuss the contract. Local 100 is separated into numerous divisions, a device to keep the ranks fragmented. Usually contract meetings lead to an unwieldy laundry list of demands, which allows the bureaucracy to then do what it wants. Indeed, attendance at the meetings was extremely low. Was this a sign that transit workers, despite their increased strike talk, continued to be demoralized and expected little from the contract struggle?
While the meetings failed to show a rise in militancy, with three months to go many workers were taking a wait-and-see attitude. The union at this point had done little to mobilize anyone, except for organizing distributions of a 4-page leaflet designed by Rogers that attacked corporate “fat cats” who get public subsidies and tax breaks. The brochure barely mentioned the upcoming contract; rather, it urged the public to write letters to the mayor and governor to ask them to fund transit instead of big business.
Despite the lackluster efforts by the bureaucracy, the turning point came on November 17. The union held its first contract rally, which the leaders expected to be a pro forma affair. But some 3000 workers engaged in a spirited demonstration that revealed growing sentiment for a strike. Chanting slogans like, “No Contract, No Work!“ and “Shut it Down!“, workers talked and argued in the streets long after the bureaucrats called on them to go home. There was a growing sense that a solid strike could win gains and even force amnesty from Taylor Law penalties. James was clearly caught off guard by this outburst of militant sentiment.
But what about James’s opposition, New Directions? To understand its role in what has happened, we have to go back to the crucial time leading up to the explosion of strike sentiment. Over the summer, in preparation for the September meetings, the LRP had tried to initiate a petition drive to call a mass meeting of the entire local. Although other militants also circulated the petition, we were unable to build a broad committee around the effort, since many of the best fighters looked to New Directions for leadership. And New Directions declined to take up the petition drive; it only raised motions on the stacked Executive Board for a general membership meeting. Lacking the forces to build the campaign on our own, we had to drop this approach.
We then focused on countering the likely contract sellout by the bureaucrats. We said the union had to prepare to strike, and urged militants to concentrate on getting the separate divisions to adopt a few key contract demands – in order to allow the members to hold the bureaucrats accountable. While open to supporting other demands, we argued for the meetings to endorse specific proposals like the 10 percent annual wage increase and ending Workfare in transit. The first was aimed at stopping James from backing away from his own demand for a large wage gain. Our second slogan – “Same Job, Same Pay and Protection! End Workfare!“ – posed the need to fight Giuliani and James’s WEP program as an attack on welfare workers that undermined union jobs.
This effort also met with little success, given the low attendance at the union meetings. At this point we had to reassess the situation. The change in mood had not yet registered as active motion in the ranks. Our tasks were still largely ones of propaganda and education around the need for our fellow workers to mobilize for strike action, the only real way to win the gains needed. This was especially important, given the efforts of New Directions to avoid discussing a strike.
In fact, when the workers’ militancy first exploded on November 17, New Directions was dramatically caught off guard. It had conspicuously done nothing to promote strike sentiment, even when the workers were openly beginning to contemplate such action. Some of its leaders revealed its strategy by openly opposing a strike on the grounds that it would be led by James. In reality, New Directions was asking workers to wait until new union elections would take place – let James be saddled with an inevitably bad contract and New Directions would waltz into power. Rather than leading rank and file workers to act on their own militancy and recognize their own class power, New Directions was telling them to suck it up for the time being and wait for their saviors, once elected, to do better for them. It was no accident that at the November rally New Directions failed to arm its supporters with either placards or even a clear slogan that addressed actions the growing strike mood made possible. New Directions gave no direction to counter James’s strategy.
In contrast, the LRP was able to play a role in filling in the vacuum of leadership. Armed with a leaflet, “Let’s Prepare to Strike!“, we attacked the failure of James and New Directions to plan for a successful strike. In order to expose the gap between James’s rhetoric and his failure to fight the bosses, we raised the slogans “Willie Said 10% – Let’s Win 10%! No Slave-labor WEP! No Givebacks!“ In addition to mass leafleting, we handed out over 100 placards with these slogans. (Click here for copies of LRP leaflets issued during the struggle.)
Even we were surprised at the magnitude of the response. Workers eagerly took placards and leaflets. Unlike in past years, workers did not greet talk of a strike with skepticism. On the contrary, because the LRP alone was addressing the question of the need for a strike, workers were anxious to read our literature once they saw the headline, “Let’s Prepare to Strike,” or heard us call it out.
With even James talking strike and growing militancy among workers, New Directions had to take up the issue. The November issue of its bulletin Hell on Wheels stated:
If there is no acceptable settlement by December 15, the only real options will be either to keep talking or to strike. That’s the choice transit workers will have to make. New Directions is doing what we can to make sure that transit workers can make that decision from a position of strength not weakness.
New Directions is determined to win a good contract – without a strike if possible, with a strike if necessary.
In the present U.S. presidential campaign, George W. Bush habitually avoids committing himself to a firm stand on controversial vote-losing questions by using the old dodge, “That’s up to the people.” When leaders avoid leading by passing the buck, we know to watch our wallets. The tactic was no less a scam with New Directions. Of course it’s the membership’s right to decide, but under this pretext the New Directions pols said only that there should be a discussion of a strike – without committing themselves as to whether it would be a good idea.
Criticizing New Directions’ failure to take a clear stand, we wrote in our bulletin for November 17:
The League for the Revolutionary Party has consistently fought for a strategy of mass action. Unlike New Directions, we have not shied away from telling the truth: that a decent contract will only be won by a strike that mobilizes the entire membership. New Directions’s failure to put forward a fighting contract strategy allows the Hall/James leadership to retain the initiative, and thus the ability to stick us with another sellout contract. That would be criminal when there are now so many opportunities for mass workers’ struggle in New York.
Faced with the snowballing strike sentiment of an angry work force, New Directions began to hint that a strike might be necessary. They now pushed on the Executive Board for a mass membership meeting to deal with the contract struggle. Even James was now forced to accept this demand made by the ranks. But the ranks had already moved way ahead of their so-called leaders.
On December 8 the union held another rally, this time with 12,000 workers – one of the most militant workers’ demonstrations in years. Any doubts about the sentiment of the ranks was erased by the loud chants of “Strike, Strike, Strike!“ that echoed through midtown. Workers were especially irate to learn that management was offering a bare 9 percent increase over four years.
With New Directions sticking to its “Let the Members Decide” line and failing to come out for a strike, the LRP again took the lead in fighting for strike action. Our bulletin – “No Contract, No Work! No Sellout! Prepare to Strike!“ – and our placards with these slogans were again grabbed up. Our warnings against a sellout hit home with the workers, who were angered to learn that James, far from following through on his strike threats, had told the press he’d guarantee to keep the trains and buses running. While he was later forced by an Executive Board vote to retract, the damage had been done and workers were seething.
James’s weakened grip was shown by the fact that he had to accept the demand for mass membership meetings on December 14. He also had to endorse a march across the Brooklyn Bridge on December 15 that New Directions had called. But New Directions’ call for the march still didn’t mention a strike.
Following the militant action on December 8, the city was abuzz with talk about an imminent transit strike. Mayor Giuliani foamed at the mouth, while the press and television were filled with emergency plans drawn up by the frightened city fathers. The MTA warned of fare hikes if wages were raised, trying as always to divide the working class. The bourgeois media scoured the transit system, looking to interview any worker who opposed a strike; to their surprise, they found overwhelming pro-strike sentiment.
December 14 was the big day. For the first time since 1972, the TWU had to hold a general membership meeting (actually two meetings, to allow all shifts to attend). The excitement was electric as workers lined up at the entrance of Manhattan Center for the morning meeting.
No one really knew what to expect. Word had come out days before that James and his cronies were not going to show up and had ordered the Executive Board to stand by at union headquarters for a settlement. If James failed to appear, New Directions board members would run the meeting.
Despite the uncertainty about what would take place, the LRP came to the meetings prepared with a motion calling for a strike. In our leaflet we warned of the danger of a James sellout, and that the leadership would attempt to thwart the members’ will to strike for a decent contract. We also criticized New Directions for its wavering. We explained that our strike motion was counterposed to the New Directions motion to authorize the Executive Board to call a strike if necessary; this motion would take the decision out of the control of the membership and put it in the hands of a James-led Executive Board, which would accept a lousy contract and would never agree to a strike. We also argued that it would be a mistake to allow the contract expiration date to slip by, given the golden opportunity presented by the Christmas and New Year’s season to put pressure on the capitalists to make significant concessions at long last.
When over 1500 TWU members poured into the hall, the chair was Division Vice President Gil Rodriguez, who effectively stymied the will of the ranks to take a strike vote.
Rodriguez dropped a bombshell by starting to read the gag order issued by Judge Pesce. If he expected the members to cave in, however, he was mistaken. He got through the first sentence of the injunction before most of the audience started booing and cursing him loudly. “I don’t like to have to do this, but I have to,” he whined. “There are injunctions against us, and I have to read them. It would be irresponsible of me not to. It’s the law, and we have to obey it.” The uproar was almost constant, forcing Rodriguez to pause frequently, especially at the clause which seemed to forbid even mentioning strike, even on the phone, even to a non-member of the union. Then he opened the floor for discussion.
Again he had misjudged the mood. Every speaker denounced him and James. Whenever he tried to defend himself, that brought new shouts of outrage.
One of the first speakers said, “I thought we were supposed to hear reports on the contract negotiations so far, and you bring us this injunction! Why don’t you do your job and let us know what numbers the MTA is talking about?” Rodriguez said, “All right, I’ll tell you. So far, the MTA is offering a 4-year contract with 2 percent each ...” – and the screaming started again.
After a while Rodriguez said, “Look, you can call me whatever you like, but that’s what they’re offering.” Someone shouted, “I say we vote to reject!“ Rodriguez replied, “The injunction means we can’t vote on anything at this meeting” – and the screaming started again and went on for a while.
A woman from the floor started to read the New Directions motion, which began with a clause of the TWU Constitution on the proper procedure for authorizing strikes. She got as far as the word “strike” when Rodriguez stopped her: “Sister, you know that by the injunction you can’t say that.” The shouting began again, drowning Rodriguez out. People were incredulous: “You mean we can’t read our own Union Constitution?!“ At this point, hundreds of workers walked out in disgust.
In the chaos that followed, Rodriguez was calling on speakers out of order, forgetting to point to the several microphones in proper order. Workers jeered, “He’s supposed to negotiate our wage figures, and he can’t count six microphones?”
With the focus of the meeting now on the injunction, an LRP supporter got to speak and denounced the capitulation of the union leaders. He said that Rodriguez’s attitude showed that the James leadership actually welcomed the injunction. He pointed out that the civil rights movement in the South had broken Jim Crow segregation by massively and repeatedly breaking racist laws, and argued that workers should learn from this example.
At one point Mike Fitzpatrick, a long-time bureaucrat, was at the podium trying to make some point. A worker whom he had been talking to went up to the podium and asked, “Can you take a message from me to Willie James?” Fitzpatrick said, “Sure,” and the guy slugged him in the jaw.
Near the end of the morning meeting, Roger Toussaint, chair of the Track Division and a New Directions leader, took the podium and said that we should have some results from the proceedings; we should at least resolve to keep all our options open to act for a good contract, and we should instruct our negotiators not to negotiate as long as the injunction is in effect. This was then made into a motion which passed unanimously by voice vote.
The evening meeting was more than twice as big. Outside Manhattan Center, dozens of press and TV reporters were interviewing any worker they could grab, and almost every left group in the city was passing out literature. Hundreds of cops harassed workers, leafleters and passers-by alike. LRPers distributing our leaflet and strike motion got enthusiastic responses even from non-transit workers just getting off work who were outraged at the injunctions and who wanted to see someone stand up to Giuliani.
Inside, the mood of the ranks now was fighting determination; most had heard about the injunction. There were no James Gang officers at the start; John Simino, a New Directions Board member, chaired. This time there was open and relatively orderly, if very passionate, discussion.
One of the first speakers was a New Directions leader and E. Board member with a summary of the injunction in hand. People in the audience yelled out, “Tear it up!“; he did so, to wild applause. He also mentioned the December 15 march and said that many other unions and community groups supported transit workers’ opposition to the injunction and would “come out with us.”
This time, the LRP supporter got to speak early. He presented the motion for a strike vote to rousing applause, warning against leaving the decision in the hands of the pro-James majority on the Board. He added, in line with what had been said about other unions, that we should think seriously about a general strike, a truly effective defense against attacks and a way to gain what all workers need.
The next two speakers spoke in favor of the motion. One said, “I think that it’s what we all need. We can’t wait, tonight’s the time. Am I right when I say that this is what we all want?” At this invitation, everyone shouted as one, “Yes!“ The speaker then said, “That means it’s passed.” Everybody cheered, pumped their fists and chanted “Strike! Strike! Strike!“
The rest of the meeting was less focused. Discussion continued, with all speakers agreed that now was the time to strike. But the New Directions chairs allowed the discussion to wander aimlessly, avoiding any attempt to organize for a strike despite the clear decision that had been made.
Four of James’s vice-presidents and other officials arrived with a police escort to give reports on the Divisional negotiations. Corinne Scott-Mack, a former New Directions member, took the podium and started to speak, to a chorus of boos. “You can boo if you like, but I know I’m a fighter, and I’m here to tell you the truth,” she lied. “Your leadership stood firm and faced the TA off!“ She tried to go on, but the booing was unrelenting and forced her to stop.
Gary Hansjergen, the union Director of Stations, tried to give a similar speech, but the Stations workers yelled, “you split-shift motherfucker!“ and threw wads of paper at him, so he stopped. (Many categories of transit workers face worsening working conditions; Hansjergen had tried to get the token clerks in Stations to swallow split shifts.) Carefully avoiding mentioning the overall negotiations, each bureaucrat claimed that they had given nothing back in their respective divisions. Each officer talked very briefly indeed and then walked briskly backstage and out. The members, however, weren’t having this, and shouted and cursed more loudly with each report. The barrage of garbage kept up.
At one point there was a commotion with shouts that “There are cops on the stage!“ Workers chanted “Cops out! Cops out!“ Finally, the security guys said, “The cops are gone. There were about 20 of them here to escort Corinne Scott-Mack in.”
By this time the proceedings were in chaos. New Directions officers took the podium and one after another said, “We soon have to go to an Executive Board meeting at the union hall to get a report on the negotiations. If any of you want to come, you can. Or you can wait here.”
Another New Directions leader formally read out their motion to authorize the Board to call a strike within 24 hours. Although this motion sounded OK to many at first, it became obvious that it was bad on two counts. Delaying the strike for 24 hours would be sabotage, at odds with the clear understanding that “No Contract, No Work” was the right strategy. Second, authorizing the Board to call a strike meant there would be no strike at all. Reaction was confused. The chair said, “We’ll now vote on the proposals.” Once again, the strike motion introduced by the LRP passed, this time by unanimous voice vote. Given this, New Directions couldn’t even press for a vote on its own motion.
Shortly after, the crowd started heading out, half to go home and the rest to go to the union hall but with no clear aim or leadership. New Directions on the podium ignored the clear will of the body to implement the adopted motion immediately; then it left leadership to the Board – that is, to James. Because of its timidity and bureaucratic instincts, New Directions betrayed the mandate of the meeting. While it was pushed toward expressions of greater militancy than ever before, New Directions never really changed its strategy of avoiding mass action and then sticking James with the blame for an unpopular contract – hoping to sail into office after the difficult days of the contract fight are over.
As the crowd angrily stormed out, scores of workers marched to the subway to go to the union hall. Chants of “strike” and “shut it down” echoed throughout the station – to the amazement of subway riders, many of whom expressed solidarity with the transit workers.
A crowd of transit workers surrounded the union hall, which was “protected” by cops. A number of workers wanting to know if James was inside entered the lobby only to find the elevators weren’t running. Most stood outside, agitated but determined to find out what was going on with the negotiations. Things grew tense as the police began putting up barricades. Angry shouts of “this is our union hall” upset the quiet of the neighborhood. Soon the cops were preventing outraged members from entering their own union hall.
After more than an hour in a cold drizzle, Toussaint came out to speak to workers gathered outside. He indicated that there was a report of a settlement of 3 percent per year for three years. Workers began to shout him down in anger as he tried to explain that he was only reporting what he heard, that the Executive Board was in the dark waiting to hear from James and that he was against any such deal. But again New Directions offered no leadership.
Slowly, the crowd broke up. As it turned out, the agreement was not reached until early in the morning: the Executive Board voted to approve a contract, 24-20, with one abstention. One New Directions member voted for the deal. New Directions did not introduce any motion for a strike, nor did it assert that the membership meeting had pre-empted the Board by itself voting to strike.
The city awoke on the morning of December 15 to the news that a contract deal had been reached. Transit workers were to receive a 12 percent increase over three years, plus a possible 3.3 percent reduction in pension contributions for many workers if the New York State legislature and governor approve. Republican Governor George Pataki, however, has successfully vetoed every such bill in the past three years, for everyone from transit workers to teachers (except for prison guards who, like other cops, are not workers but hired guns of the ruling class). This has not stopped Willie James from “guaranteeing” passage of the legislation.
While the raise is significantly higher than recent city and state contracts, it was far below the union’s demands. Given the scrawny increases last time, the 12 percent over 3 years really amounts to 15 percent over 6 years, no bargain at all. Worse, the contract continues Workfare with its superexploitation, and includes concessions and murky clauses that could devastate seniority rules and working conditions.
For example, the proposal provides for extensive “broad-banding” (merging of tasks and job categories, so that each worker does more jobs) and speed-up among subway car maintainers and bus mechanics. But news of this provision sparked an incipient rebellion in the Bus Divisions, the traditional base of the old leadership, so Sonny Hall had to intervene to re-negotiate the already-concluded deal. A stacked meeting of the Executive Board approved a modification which only postpones broad-banding in the Bus Divisions.
James’s contract also provides for merging two bus divisions, after discussion by a joint TWU-MTA panel. Workers are expected to vote for the merger without knowing the details, but management’s plans are clear. It wants to saddle all bus workers with the conditions of the worst off: weaker seniority rights, less vacation pay and fewer sick days.
The contract was greeted as a victory by the New York labor bureaucracy, hoping they could use the wage gains as a pattern for their own unions. They were especially grateful that there had been no strike, which in defying James would have challenged all of them, too. They made no serious protest against Giuliani’s police-state injunction that forced Local 100 to bargain at gunpoint. At the time, Central Labor Council head Brian McLaughlin and United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten issued what the civil service paper The Chief called a “tepid” protest. Only after the deal was done did Weingarten denounce the injunction as unconstitutional. Union leaders were notably absent from the December 15 demonstration, which they had endorsed.
No doubt the other union leaders were taking their cue from Willie James, who welcomed the court order that served to protect the leadership from the militancy and anger of the membership. When given the opportunity to appear before Judge Pesce, TWU lawyers criminally declined even to request the lifting of the injunction. At any rate, Giuliani withdrew it on January 22, one day before it was to expire.
Much has been made of the fact that Giuliani’s injunction, especially the ban on workers’ even discussing a strike, violated existing bourgeois law and would likely have been overturned on appeal. Such details don’t trouble Giuliani, who has lost dozens of decisions in the courts but continues to challenge the law in order to give the ruling class strong leadership. His racist regime has repeatedly trampled on civil rights in attacking the working class and especially people of color. Only days before the injunction, he had threatened to arrest homeless people found in the streets and take away their children.
Even though the government already has the anti-union Taylor Law which fines workers two days pay for each day on strike, the mayor’s injunction essentially created a new law on the spot designed to smash a working-class struggle. Giuliani’s vicious attack on transit workers was supported by so-called “friends of labor” in the Democratic Party. New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer filed the MTA’s injunction; Hillary Clinton, running for U.S. Senator from New York with lots of union support, backed the injunctions. The court moves were also endorsed by the bourgeois media, supposed champions of free speech. A rare exception was Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez, who drew this conclusion at the end of a pro-worker article:
In court, Giuliani had put a gun to the head of an entire labor union, and the union’s own leaders had not raised a single word of objection. Willie James was using the mayor’s injunction to keep his own members in line. When they go to vote on a contract, the transit workers will remember that. (Dec. 17.)
Even after the agreement was announced, Giuliani continued his offensive. “There are people who want to cause anarchy,” he declared at a City Hall news conference. “Marxism unfortunately is still alive in parts of New York City.” A force of 3000 cops was assigned to subways and buses to intimidate militant workers who might think about a job action. Workers now had to work fast enough to please not only the MTA bosses but the cops as well.
Unfortunately, Marxists were all too few. That afternoon, the planned march across the Brooklyn Bridge fizzled out; perhaps 600 people marched. After the loud, militant meeting on the previous evening and the impasse that followed, this reflected the paralysis of New Directions and its periphery. The New Directions leaders had no signs or leaflets of their own. A few supporters decided that the best way to counter Giuliani’s red-baiting was to carry American flags and signs like “God Bless America.”
When pressured by a mass meeting of thousands of workers, New Directions had talked militantly of defying Giuliani. But the next day they were capitulating to the court order. Obeying the injunction, New Directions even put a message on their hotline telling workers not to engage in any job actions, doing exactly what they had denounced the James Gang for the day before. The hotline on December 15 did not even mention their own rally called for that evening.
At the rally, an LRP speaker defended New Directions against the City Hall attacks. Giuliani’s specific attempt to target New Directions is aimed at propping up the sellout James leadership, he pointed out, in order to prevent militant struggles. It demonstrates that government intervention in the trade unions is a reactionary attempt to contain working class militancy. The capitalist state – the cops, the courts, and the whole political establishment – is the enemy of the working class. Whenever the state is under attack, democracy is thrown aside and the bourgeois class dictatorship becomes more visible. The brief speech ended with a thinly veiled statement (due to the injunction) of the need for a general strike, given the expiration of so many city workers’ contracts. Although the speech received applause, there was no way to energize the dispirited and directionless rally.
We defend New Directions as fellow workers from the government’s attacks. Ironically, Giuliani’s attacks have for the moment bolstered the group’s reputation as a militant opposition in transit. But its diversion of the militant strike sentiment, even at the decisive mass meeting it ran, shows that any such reputation is undeserved. In fact, it has played a rotten role in inviting state intervention into the unions. Following the tactics of its friends in Teamsters For a Democratic Union (TDU), New Directions has repeatedly called on the courts to intervene in union affairs. (Only a few weeks before the injunctions, New Directions went to court to force James to put them on the contract negotiating committee.) The reality is that while the state intervenes under the guise of defending democracy or “cleaning up” the unions, its real purpose is to extend capitalist control over labor. Like Ron Carey and the TDU, New Directions got snared in its own trap. (See PR 56: “Government Out of the Teamsters!“)
New Directions’ wavering was not simply a mistake but the culmination of a long-term process. As New Directions has achieved electoral successes and moved closer to power, the conservative character of its “rank-and-filist” approach has emerged ever more sharply. They counterpose no fighting program to James and the leadership. Even their emphasis on union democracy is betrayed by their willingness to bring in the government to settle their disputes. It was no accident that New Directions ignored the strike decision by the rank and file and defended the right of the bureaucracy to decide. More and more, their message to transit workers has been that simply voting New Directions into power will fix things.
New Directions of course opposes the proposed contract. Their January Hell on Wheels bulletin has long and detailed critiques of the proposed contract and other James Gang shenanigans, but with barely a word about their own role in the struggle. While the court injunctions may make some caution necessary, New Directions’ abbreviated account of the mass meetings and their own role still speaks volumes.
This is typical of their approach. For over 14 years, New Directions has remained the loyal opposition in Local 100, criticizing loudly and promising that if they only had a majority on the Executive Board, they would do wonderful things. Now they have a few ideas for following up a contract rejection. “Send the negotiators back to the bargaining table to get rid of the givebacks” – but that means Willie James again. “Join the Municipal Labor Coalition” – the boss-loving bureaucrats who did nothing when Giuliani pulled his injunction. And “wait patiently for some other union to set a better pattern” – that’s what the hapless bureaucrats of the Civil Service Employees Association have been doing since last spring. This amounts to New Directions’ open advertisement that they are not Giuliani’s fire-breathing radicals but are rather would-be bureaucrats talking a bit tougher than those they hope to replace.
Hell on Wheels also suggests letting the contract hang until Local 100’s elections next December – this may be “the biggest threat we have to force the TA to make ... concessions.” Really? The TA will not be afraid of people willing to wait 11 months with an expired contract without building for mass mobilization and a strike! Everyone knows it was the real threat of a strike that won even the meager gains in James’s contract.
While it would be better not to have the boss-loving James in the driver’s seat, he has to be fought in action – to wait means to accept attacks that further erode the workers’ class interests. Especially if one keeps in mind the needs of the whole working class, then New Directions’ narrow electoral perspective is petty at best. Demobilizing the ranks of the working class in order to give the tops the space to operate – of course, all in the interest of the members – is an old fairy tale often spun by labor bureaucrats. Reality proves time and again that whatever gains workers make come in proportion to the threat they present.
Class struggle is a great teacher. The experiences of the transit battle provide important lessons, not only for the immediate fight for a decent contract but for the development of the revolutionary working-class movement.
1. Working-class consciousness is transformed through the mass activity of the workers themselves.
Marxists know that practice gives birth to consciousness, not the reverse. Momentum for a strike skyrocketed when transit workers had the opportunity to come together in rallies and meetings and feel their collective power.
The relation between mass action and militancy in the transit struggle reinforces the revolutionary understanding that class consciousness must be assessed dynamically, not statically. In projecting for the future, we must look at the objective conditions that will transform today’s consciousness. Capitalism is a system unable to solve its fundamental problems and is facing a serious crisis that will produce mass working class explosions. The smug pundits who comfort themselves with the notion that workers have been bought off and are no revolutionary factor will be in for a surprise.
The working class is objectively a revolutionary class. Its liberation can only take place by overthrowing all class rule and creating a classless society, communism. When the level of struggle lags behind objective reality, workers’ consciousness of their revolutionary role has remained confined to a few. As mass struggles inevitably break out against capitalist exploitation and oppression, growing numbers will develop revolutionary consciousness and create a mass revolutionary party. The activity of the revolutionary party and the mass struggles will in turn transform potential revolutionary consciousness into a reality and set the stage for a revolutionary transformation of society.
2. Under heightened conditions of class struggle, even a small revolutionary group can play an important role.
For many years the LRP has fought to overcome the demoralization that led many militants to reject the strike weapon in transit. We have put a great deal of efforts in revolutionary propaganda and educational activity on the need for a transit strike. Our positions have been far from popular, and we have been attacked as far-out by vacillating leftists and reformists in New Directions and other groups.
Revolutionaries understand that the masses of workers, once engaged in struggle, are far more radical and militant than they appear in quiet times. For the reformists and fake lefts, the majority of workers are too “backward” to hear the revolutionary program until some indefinite future.
The New York transit struggle shows that we had it right. The tens of thousands of ordinary transit workers who marched, rallied and assembled to demand a strike were miles ahead of the New Directions and much of the “left.” If rank-and-file militants, bruised by running into the new barriers hastily erected against their struggle, revert to their previous bitter resignation, it’s not their “backwardness” that is to blame but that of their misleaders.
The best militants, however, are drawing and discussing the lessons of the struggle: that the government serves only the bosses or, as more transit workers are now saying, the capitalists; the Democrats and Republicans are the parties of the capitalists; mass strikes, not lobbying, are the way to smash anti-labor laws and win gains; and that when the whole working class faces attacks together, we should fight back together. The general strike is a tactic now getting serious consideration.
Aside from those who have been influenced by our work over the years, many transit and other workers drew these lessons themselves. The LRP intervened in the struggle as open revolutionaries, speaking and leafleting for a transit strike, propagandizing for a general strike and saying clearly that these movements would ultimately have to lead to workers’ socialist revolution. Far from recoiling, tens of thousands of transit workers grabbed, read and discussed our literature and voted for the strike motion we put forward. Workers who previously would never have used such terms were speaking of the “working class,” the “ruling class” and “capitalists.”
3. Marxism represents the objective interests of the working class.
We played a role but do not claim credit for the growth of class consciousness that led to the strike movement. Big shifts in consciousness are the result of objective circumstances and the class struggle. What we do take credit for is our ability to point to the direction of objective circumstances, based on our revolutionary Marxist outlook, which enables us to help prepare other advanced workers and fighting militants to lead as the class struggle develops.
Contrast this to New Directions, which includes various “socialist” tendencies. Not only did it lag behind the growing strike movement; it acted as a drag on the development of class consciousness. Its emphasis on the courts and union elections has had a conservatizing influence on the struggle, feeding into workers’ false sense of powerlessness. The message is that workers cannot really defeat the sellouts and sabotage through mass action and the creation of a new workers’ leadership through the class struggle.
4. The crisis of leadership is the decisive question facing the working class.
In 1938 Leon Trotsky wrote that “the world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” The same crisis was verified by the transit struggle. Objective circumstances were ripe for a strike struggle that would have had a dramatic impact on class relations in New York and the country as a whole. A New York transit strike would not only have shut the city down; it would have electrified workers throughout the country, to an even greater extent than did the United Parcel Service strike in 1997. What was lacking was a leadership capable of taking the struggle forward and generalizing it.
All too often, reformists blame the failure of struggles on the workers. Yet here, workers were pushing for a strike and standing up to the bourgeois state. What held them back was not their willingness to fight but the fact that the biggest opposition force with its “left” leadership proved that it represents backward class consciousness. The New Directions socialists may believe that they can play the traditional labor game now and shift to a revolutionary stance at the next stage. In reality, you reap what you sow.
The LRP sees its central task as building the revolutionary party of the working class. This mainly involves propaganda and educational work to develop the best fighters into revolutionary cadre, the future leadership of the revolutionary workers’ movement. Despite our small size, we try to seize every opportunity the class struggle provides, knowing that mass struggles are the best schools for revolutionaries.
The LRP will continue working to consolidate the best militants in transit and the working class as a whole, not leaving to chance drawing the many lessons of this struggle. We know that the workers will rise again, despite this setback. We intend, as always, to offer effective leadership in the day-to-day struggles; and to show how winning gains and keeping them requires workers socialist revolution and a workers revolutionary party to lead it.