The following article was published in Proletarian Revolution No. 66 (Winter 2003).
A transit strike in New York City could have shut down the center of world capitalism at a time of growing anti-working class attacks here and intensifying imperialist aggression abroad. Therefore the struggle around the TWU contract presented a decisive test of those groups in the city that lay claim to the banner of revolutionary socialism.
A number of socialist groups have supporters in the ranks of Local 100. But of those, the LRP is the only one that openly promotes revolutionary socialist politics. The Solidarity socialist organization, for example, is the force behind the Rank and File Advocate (R&FA) group, but they keep their socialist views a secret and act purely as trade unionists. This helps explain why, as we show in our main article on the struggle, they not only fail to be revolutionary socialists but are also particularly cowardly trade unionists. While Solidarity prefers to hide behind a trade unionist facade, other more ostensibly radical socialists in Local 100 prefer to hide under their beds when it comes to the real class struggle.
Outside of the ranks of Local 100, a number of other socialist groups, mostly at the last minute, commented on the transit workers’ struggle. Their views were also tested by the events. We will show that they failed to offer any real alternative to Toussaint’s road of class collaboration.
The International Socialist Organization (ISO) likes to hide behind its reportage about the rank and file struggles without making its own views clear. They prefer to cheerlead struggles and tail their leaders rather than battle against the trade union bureaucracy. By doing so, they opportunistically reason, they will best impress their mostly student audience. But this time the ISO couldn’t decide just whom to tail after.
Covering the October 30 TWU rally, the ISO’s Socialist Worker wrote: “Many transit workers ... expressed support for the new leadership and sensed a strike might be necessary to win a good contract.” Thus the ISO backhandedly expressed its support for Toussaint. Then, in a typically rank-and-filist way, it endorsed the leaderships’ hollow call for the union members to take action themselves:
Now, union leaders are calling for members to take “direct action against” the MTA in all locations and workplaces. The rank and file need to act on this call by organizing now to enforce the present contract and prepare workplace-by-workplace to fight for the kind of contract they deserve. (Nov. 8.)
No mention that Toussaint & Co. were keeping mum about how the union should fight and were not preparing for a possible strike. This would have been a set-up for blaming the workers for any defeat suffered under Toussaint – except that the ISO then changed horses.
In its December 13 issue, Socialist Worker distanced itself from Toussaint and moved closer to the R&FA oppositional faction:
TWU Local 100 President Roger Toussaint was elected after criticizing the old-guard union leadership for failing to stand up to management threats – and he hasn’t ruled out a strike. But Toussaint has also backed away from his earlier militant positions – and he’s under serious pressure from city officials to accept a concessionary contract.
... A network of transit workers, called Rank and File Advocate, distributed a leaflet at the mass meetings arguing the union should prepare to strike and begin electing picket captains in each workplace and set up a strike headquarters immediately. These are the kinds of activities that can prepare the rank and file for a walkout – but the network needs to grow much more.
Yes, these were the type of actions that could have prepared the way for a strike. But the question was not the size of the R&FA network but whether R&FA’s supporters would fight in the mass meetings to win the ranks to this perspective. The ISO doesn’t mention that R&FA is not just a network of workers but a substantial section of the union leadership. It was thus better placed than any other group to fight Toussaint’s denial of the ranks’ democratic rights and to fight for motions committing the leadership to back such actions. And as we have shown, they did no such thing.
Following Toussaint’s sellout, the ISO encouraged workers to “vote no ... and send union leaders back to the table.” But the argument that the same sellout leaders should simply be sent back to renegotiate the contract could inspire no one. Socialist Worker’s article on the contract (Jan. 3) explicitly raises the question, “Why did TWU leaders back down?” But it doesn’t even bother to provide an answer, not even a wrong one. The ISO’s proposal on the way forward was: use the Vote No campaign to build R&FA “on the shop floor” – the very group which failed to fight Toussaint’s betrayal of the struggle, didn’t build a real Vote No campaign and even rejected our proposal to build an organization of the rank and file opposed to the contract.
The Progressive Labor Party (PLP) plays no regular role inside Local 100. But outside, PL did pay some attention to the transit workers’ struggle at the end.
PLP habitually combines stormy rhetoric with mildly reformist proposals, and this struggle was no exception. The leaflet they distributed at TWU workers’ demonstrations in December – despite its blaring headline, “Fight for Communist Revolution!” – said nothing about the decisive strike issue but only that “Workers must organize a fight to try to force the bankers and the rich generally to give up some of the profits they steal off our backs.” (Challenge, Dec. 18.) What about a strike? Does “generally” imply a general strike? PLP does not say. After this vague idea, they more or less suggest a concrete proposal for dealing with the city’s huge debt to the banks: “What if a moratorium were declared on this debt, stopping payments to bondholders for a year or two?” Real communists would advocate repudiating the debt for good, not just for a moment. Nice of PLP not to be too hard on the capitalists.
In their newspaper Challenge (Dec. 18), PLP did speak positively of a strike:
A strike of the 30,000 mostly black and Latino transit workers to enforce safety measures could give leadership to all NYC workers during the bosses’ new fiscal crisis.
Very true, but why on earth does PLP suggest a strike on these issues rather than the main contract demands? In any case, they then dampened their call:
But with the bosses rejecting all union proposals, the contract expiring Dec. 15 and no strike preparations to date, chances for a sustained struggle against the MTA aren’t good.
There was some truth in this negative assessment, but people who call regularly for communist revolution ought to be able to propose ways to overcome those problems. That’s what revolutionary leadership means. For all its rhetoric, PLP never has a clue how to get from today’s actions to the consciousness and actions that a revolutionary program demands. This time they showed they don’t know how to take a strike struggle forward.
The Spartacist League has several supporters in Local 100, but you’d never know it. They hide their socialist views and play absolutely no role in Local 100 or any other union; their excuse is that if the government found out about them they’d get purged. Of course, fighting the bosses’ attacks rather than hiding from them is the real revolutionary perspective. But to cover their abstention, the SL does have a lot of militant-sounding things to say about transit workers’ struggles ... from the safety of their newspaper office.
The November 29 issue of Workers Vanguard proclaimed:
What transit workers need is a class-struggle leadership that fights for the complete and unconditional independence of the union from the capitalist state and its politicians.... [T]he enormous power of New York City’s transit workers must be mobilized on behalf of all working people and the oppressed.
But for all that, the Spartacists didn’t even call for a strike! SLers derided our motion to strike as “economist.” But when we asked them where their much more revolutionary motion was, they fell silent. Eventually they declared that they were “for the right to strike,” still declining to offer an opinion on the key issue the transit workers were facing at that moment. When we asked whether their supporters in the union were planning to take a stand for a strike that day, they finally responded, “we’re telling workers to build a workers party.”
But in the next Workers Vanguard (Dec. 13), the Spartacists came out “For a Solid NYC Transit Strike!” – a week after the workers had made their attitude unanimously clear.
After the contract was signed, the Spartacists advocated voting it down. A couple of senior SLers even showed up at the founding meeting of Transit Workers Against the Contract – but refused to go in and just hawked their paper outside! When asked what their supporters in Local 100 were doing to build a strike, what they had done in the mass membership meetings and what they were doing to oppose the contract, their answer was always the same: they said they didn’t know. Of course they did know: not a damn thing.
One thing the Spartacists got right: “workers need a class-struggle leadership.” They forgot to add: “But don’t look to us.”
The Internationalist Group (IG) is a split-off from the Spartacist League, with much the same politics and method of habitually slandering opponents on their left. A number of newer IG members had expressed interest in the LRP’s work in the struggle. So for the December 16 rally, the IG dashed off an 8-page manifesto featuring attacks against the LRP and RTW.
The IG bulletin said: “It’s not surprising ... that the latest RTW paper says nothing about the Local 100’s alliance with the Democratic Party, or about the imperialist war on Iraq. There’s nothing revolutionary about the RTW.” As the IG could easily check on our web site, RTW has printed special issues against the war in Afghanistan and the looming war against Iraq, as well as numerous articles against Toussaint’s support for the Democratic Party, thousands of copies of which have been distributed to transit workers. What’s more, at a union meeting where Hillary Clinton spoke, RTW supporter Eric Josephson was physically expelled by a Toussaint goon squad for distributing an edition of RTW attacking the Democrats.
So the IG, which has not done anything around the transit workers’ struggle for months, decided to attack us for not making every single revolutionary point in every single issue of RTW. (In fact, both Iraq and the Democrats were addressed in RTW 15, distributed the day their attack appeared.) Their aim was not to influence the struggle but to manufacture a pseudo-revolutionary attack on us.
Similarly, the IG attacks us for referring to the struggle against unsafe work conditions without, in one particular RTW, saying “a word about union safety committees to shut down unsafe operations.” This is a particularly obnoxious slander: LRP supporter Eric Josephson is a track worker who has worked the most dangerous jobs in the system for years and, as a shop steward and union officer, has personally shut down unsafe work sites countless times. The creeps who write such garbage are playing at class struggle on paper, not waging it in life.
In any event, the IG’s attack on RTW having nothing revolutionary about it is quite a stretch, especially considering that while RTW consistently argues for the need to build a revolutionary socialist party to lead the unions and the class struggle in general, they couldn’t bring themselves to do the same in their statement. Instead the IG calls for a “class-struggle workers party,” which can mean many different things, including a militant reformist party.
The IG gibes that our newsletter’s name should really be “Reformist Transit Bureaucrat,” specifically denouncing us for having called on Roger Toussaint (and his predecessor Willie James) to carry out the programs they promised workers they’d fight for. The IG leaders think they land a knock-out punch when they sum up: “So here we have ostensible socialists calling to carry out the alleged programs of Willie James and Roger Toussaint.” The IG also repeats the frequent Spartacist accusation that it was unprincipled for the LRP to give “critical support” to the New Directions slate (including Toussaint) when they ran for office in 2000. “At bottom,” concludes the IG, we aim “to pressure the bureaucracy, not oust it.”
But here, the IG only exposes a fundamental difference between our revolutionary approach and their sectarian method that lets the bureaucrats off the hook. First, to paint us as only pressuring the bureaucrats, the IG dishonestly omits that when we raise demands on leaders, we always warn our fellow workers that the leaders will betray their promises. We specify that our point is to prove this in practice and thereby win workers to our aim of building a revolutionary leadership to oust the bureaucrats.
Importantly, any socialist committed to working in the unions and fighting the trade union bureaucracy (rather than just talking about it from outside), knows that a decisive problem is workers’ illusions that the leadership will take the struggle forward. Lenin and Trotsky declared political war against sectarian socialists who said the answer was to simply lecture the workers from the sidelines. Rather, they advocated the “united front” tactic, through which revolutionaries challenge the misleaders to a united struggle, warn the workers that they will betray, and then prove it with the experience of the struggle. Trotsky summed up this method as: “With the masses, always; with the vacillating leaders, sometimes, but only so long as they stand at the head of the masses.” This is exactly the approach we used, inspiring frenzied attacks on us by James and Toussaint and going a long way to exposing the latter. By rejecting these Leninist tactics, the IG and SL let the bureaucrats off the hook.
The IG throws in some other lies. They assert that “although the LRP occasionally criticizes New Directions ... for suing the unions, it does not reject this class treachery on principle.” They quote a Proletarian Revolution article saying that such measures can be resorted to only in “exceptional and extreme” situations. You’d never guess from the IG’s statement that the quote is from an article in which we argue that it is a revolutionary principle to oppose bringing the state into the workers’ movement; we were arguing against South African socialists who did just that. You’d never guess that we strongly opposed New Directions every time they brought the courts into the unions; in fact, not once in the history of our organization did we support using the courts in a struggle inside the workers’ movement. Instead the IG misleadingly cites our point that there are extremely rare and dangerous times when revolutionaries can considering doing so – for example, when Trotsky used the French police and the Mexican state to deter Comintern assassination attempts against his family and comrades.
Finally, the IG denounces Eric Josephson for telling a TV reporter in 1999 that then-Mayor Giuliani’s vicious injunctions against a transit strike were “police state measures, reminiscent of Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany, and to my mind flagrantly unconstitutional.” The IG labels us “Stalinophobic,” forgetting that Stalin as well as Hitler used countless illegal police state measures against the working class. The IG adds that the LRP uses “as its measuring rod the bourgeois U.S. constitution!” That too is ridiculous. Does the IG not believe in using the Bill of Rights to defend the working class?
These characters show total disdain for working-class consciousness. Against their left opponents they grab any weapon at all, even when they shoot themselves in the face.
None of the organizations surveyed here consistently called for a strike strategy, despite the transit workers’ fighting mood and readiness to go out. Thus none offered an alternative to Toussaint. And none even mentioned the idea of a general strike, the mass-action way for workers to move from the beginning of class consciousness that the anti-worker attacks is awakening, to a fuller understanding of working-class power to politically challenge the state – and thereby prepare themselves for building the proletarian party to achieve the socialist revolution.