The following article was originally published in Proletarian Revolution No. 77 (Spring 2006) and in Revolutionary Transit Worker No. 36.
April 22, 2006
The subway and bus workers of New York City’s Transport Workers Union Local 100 re-voted in April on the contract they had rejected in January. This time the deal was accepted by 71 percent of the more than 20,000 voters out of 38,000 union members. The turnaround was no victory for the workers. It marked a serious setback. Even though a majority have now voted for the proposed contract, most transit workers know it is a rotten deal, the result of their leadership’s betrayal of their strike last December. They had shown their commitment to fighting for a better contract by rejecting it the first time around; even though the margin then was only seven votes, many who had voted for the contract hated it. But three months of attacks from management, politicians and the courts, as well as a fear campaign by the union tops that threatened an even worse deal if the workers rejected it again, led to the “Yes” vote. Yet even this contract is not guaranteed. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) bosses had already withdrawn the contract offer following the workers’ initial “No” vote. As we go to press, the TA is threatening to ignore the new results and send the deal to arbitration, where the workers are sure to get a worse deal. At the same time, the courts have hit the union with millions of dollars in fines and are preparing to suspend its automatic dues checkoff. They also handed the local’s president, Roger Toussaint, a ten-day jail sentence for calling the strike. And each individual striker has been hit with a penalty of two days’ pay for every day out, in accordance with New York State’s anti-union Taylor Law that bans strikes by public employees. All these attacks must be fought: the transit workers’ struggle is not over yet.
With their strike, Local 100’s ranks had heroically stood up to the bosses’ and politicians’ threats to use the Taylor Law, and to the bourgeois newspapers’ screaming for even harsher penalties against strikers. Faced with intransigent demands for cutbacks by the MTA, the workers chose to fight back and forced a reluctant Toussaint to call the union out. The majority Black, Latino and immigrant workforce showed the awesome power workers have when they unite in struggle. In December, during the pre-Christmas holiday shopping season, the capital of U.S. commerce and world imperialism was brought to a crawl.
But after slightly less than three days, with support for the strike growing in the city’s working class despite the inconvenience it caused them, Toussaint sent the union back to work without a contract. While transit workers reacted with dismay and outrage, Toussaint held secret negotiations with management to resolve the dispute.
The deal that was finally announced eliminated the MTA’s initial demands for huge concessions on pensions, but it gave back even more in other areas. A main feature was a new 1.5 percent paycheck deduction for retiree health benefits; Toussaint hid the fact that this seemingly small deduction is set to rise automatically with health care costs, the most inflation-prone sector of the economy. On wages, the 10.5 percent raise over three years would still leave workers’ pay behind inflation – even before the new paycheck deduction and Taylor Law fines hit. The deal also surrendered the union’s December contract expiration date that had given it leverage over holiday shopping profits. As in every contract, there were sweeteners to help the leadership claim victory and get a “Yes” vote – notably a promise to reimburse the many transit workers who had overpaid into their pension fund, amounting to several thousand dollars each. This last feature was an attempt to bribe workers with their own money into accepting the deal.
Toussaint threw all the union’s resources into a misinformation campaign designed to cover up the contract’s worst features. The fact that he lost, even by a small margin, shows that the ranks weren’t fooled and were fed up with a leadership that had followed them into battle and then chickened out.
Unfortunately, within the union there was no coherent opposition leadership that could lead a fight for a better contract or effectively challenge Toussaint to do so. The most prominent opponents of Toussaint’s deal included two union vice presidents, John Mooney and Ainsley Stewart, who have not attempted to build an alternative leadership to Toussaint and have no political program that workers could be confident in. The remnants of the traditional “New Directions” opposition in the local, now calling themselves Transit Workers for a Just Contract, were weakened and demoralized by their previous uncritical support for Toussaint. (An exception was Marty Goodman, an Executive Board member who played a positive militant role throughout the struggle.) Worse, some opponents of the contract were aligned with the right-wing International TWU leadership which had openly scabbed on the strike. They were happy to see the bad contract in the hopes that it would weaken Toussaint’s grip and bring them to power. Likewise, other opponents of the deal who were in a strong position to lead a fight, like the leaders of the Local’s track division who had recently broken with Toussaint, confined themselves to verbal opposition, biding their time until they could challenge him in the next election at the end of the year. (See RTW 34 for more information on the opposition.)
We in the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) have a long history of work inside Local 100. Through our supporters both in and outside of Local 100, and in particular with our newsletter Revolutionary Transit Worker, we played an important role in building support for a strike and enthusiastically participated in its picket lines. All along we warned our fellow workers to be on guard against the union’s pro-capitalist leadership and be prepared to fight to take the struggle forward if they betrayed. Subscriptions to RTW have increased substantially. (All recent issues of RTW are available on our website at www.lrp-cofi.org/TWU100/RTW.)
Following Toussaint’s sellout, we threw ourselves into campaigning against the proposed contract. Our literature was by far the most visible exposing the union leadership’s lying sales-pitch for the deal. We joined with others inside the union, including the Transit Workers for a Just Contract group, some dissident union officers and other militants to form the Vote No Coalition to work with fellow workers in a united campaign against the deal. But we were far from strong enough to lead the majority of workers in a fight against the bosses and Toussaint’s betrayals.
The failure of the officials with power in the union to lead a fightback allowed Toussaint and his cronies to regain control of the situation. Toussaint & Co. claimed that the membership’s rejection of the contract was based on misinformation spread by a conspiracy between management, the Republican Party, the bourgeois media and union “dissidents.” With this big lie, Toussaint began to lay the basis for calling for a re-vote rather than a renewed struggle.
Toussaint’s main weapon to push the ranks into accepting his deal was the bosses’ new attacks. Following the January vote, the MTA withdrew its contract and raised outrageous demands for further givebacks by the workers. Toussaint’s response was not to respect the ranks’ vote and promise a renewed struggle. Instead, he threatened in effect to let the new attacks go through if the members didn’t re-vote to approve the original deal.
This approach succeeded in pressuring the workers of two smaller transit unions, who had joined Local 100 on strike, to approve the proposed contract. Thus Amalgamated Transit Union Locals 726 and 1056 approved similar contracts by big margins.
As demoralization set in within Local 100, behind the scenes Toussaint engineered the circulation of a petition for workers to sign claiming that they “regretted” supposedly voting against the contract and wanted to vote on it again. Toussaint soon claimed that a “substantial” (though never disclosed) number of members had signed the petition. He then held a press conference at City Hall, flanked by 16 City Council members and other politicians, to call for a re-vote.
Toussaint finally went to the Local 100 Executive Board and had it approve the re-vote. This meeting featured an extraordinary appeal for a re-vote by James Little, the newly appointed president of the scabbing TWU International. (Former President Michael O’Brien had recently retired supposedly for health reasons, but more likely because as the public face of the call for scabbing his continued presence was too much of an embarrassment.)
The Board motion also demanded that everyone on the Local 100 payroll speak only for a “Yes” vote. Since the official position of the local at the time was still against the contract, based on the membership majority vote, this gag rule was arguably contrary to the union’s constitution and was certainly a fitting addition to Toussaint’s contempt for the membership’s democratic rights. Twelve Board members voted against Toussaint’s motion, over twice as many as usual, but it passed nonetheless.
At that meeting Toussaint set the tone for his re-vote campaign, arguing that if the contract was rejected again it would inevitably go to arbitration, where all of its gains (notably the pension refund and modest improvements to retiree health benefits) would be lost and even worse conditions would be enforced. Binding arbitration, in which a supposedly “independent” but in reality pro-capitalist official casts the deciding vote on contractual terms, would no doubt be a disaster for transit workers. But any arbitration decision was at least months away – plenty of time to mobilize for another struggle to win the local’s demands.
Toussaint and his cronies also continued their claims that his opponents were lying to the ranks about the proposed contract. They focused on Ainsley Stewart’s mistaken comments that the new paycheck deduction would add up to 4.5 percent by the end of the contract, whereas the escalation clause that Toussaint concealed would likely make the 1.5 percent grow to about 2 percent. Toussaint’s scare campaign did more than anything else to circulate Stewart’s otherwise little-heard comments.
Just days before re-voting ended on the deal, Toussaint’s lies about the great gains in healthcare and other benefits in the contract were exposed by none other than his own appointed health benefits coordinator, Mike Jerome. The latter belatedly broke his silence on the contract, issuing an open letter to the membership explaining that the facts of the contract were being “intentionally hidden” from them. Among other things, he confirmed that the new retirement health care paycheck deduction was indeed going to steadily grow – for benefits all but a small fraction of members already received. But Jerome’s exposure was too little and too late to affect the vote.
Like many transit workers, the LRP and RTW condemn Local 100 leadership’s betrayal of the strike struggle and its contemptuous ignoring of the ranks’ first contract vote. The re-vote was an outrageous travesty of union democracy – setting a precedent for other union leaders to tell workers who vote against their proposals to “keep voting until you get it right.” However, given the results of the re-vote, we have no choice but to join with other workers in demanding that the MTA accept the decision.
But as we have said, the fight is not over. The MTA had already withdrawn its proposed deal, and the Toussaint leadership can do little more than beg it to accept the deal rather than send it to arbitration. It is possible that the TA will agree to the contract rather than risk provoking a fightback. But pressure from a ruling class anxious to press ahead with their anti-working class attacks and teach rebellious workers a lesson, and in particular from ambitious politicians like Presidential-wannabe Governor George Pataki, may push the MTA to play hardball and reject the deal. If it does and presses ahead with arbitration, militant workers will have to demand that the local leadership withdraw all concessions and prepare another strike for the local’s original contract demands.
The December strike was an inspiring example of working-class power and courage. It had the potential to turn around the decades of relentless capitalist attacks and spark a fightback by all workers. That is also why it was betrayed so quickly by the union leadership.
Roger Toussaint, like the rest of the privileged bureaucracy that dominates the unions, didn’t sell out the workers because of personal cowardice or corruption – though he and they are both cowardly and corrupt. Rather, it is because they have accepted the capitalist system and seek to keep workers’ struggles within limits it can afford. This corresponds with their privileged position as brokers between the workers and the capitalists. The only leadership that workers can trust to lead their immediate struggles to victory is one that will not restrain them from threatening the system: a revolutionary socialist leadership.
The strike and initial rejection of the sellout was the culmination of years of rising militancy among transit workers. In 1999, a powerful pro-strike movement had grown among transit workers only to be betrayed by the “old guard” Local 100 bureaucracy. (See PR 60.) The ranks took their revenge in 2000, voting them out of office. In their place they elected Toussaint as president at the head of the New Directions (ND) ticket. ND was the long-time union opposition grouping initiated by socialists from the Solidarity organization and others.
ND followed the approach typical of most non-revolutionary socialists in the unions, sacrificing their purported anti-capitalist politics for a minimal program of trade union democracy and militancy. By the time they had built a movement that could challenge the bureaucracy, would-be bureaucrats faced no political opposition to using them as a vehicle to power. As Toussaint used ND, so Ron Carey used the Solidarity-backed Teamsters for a Democratic Union movement. These two reformist “rank and file” groups led to disaster. (Our next issue will include an examination of the left’s role in the current TWU struggle.)
The reformists have learned nothing from these experiences, and have simply gone back to repeating them. But revolutionary-minded workers cannot afford to make the same mistake. There are no short-cuts to building an alternative leadership in the unions other than by consistently stressing the importance of anti-capitalist, revolutionary socialist politics, while at the same time offering practical leadership in workers’ immediate struggles. Revolutionaries seek to unite the broadest possible number of workers in struggle against the bosses and the betrayals of the union bureaucracy.
The LRP is enormously proud of our of work in Local 100 over many years, in particular in building support for the transit strike and opposition to its sellout. While transit workers have suffered significant setbacks, there has been no crushing defeat and there are greater struggles yet to come. Many workers are discussing the lessons to be learned. The LRP has won a broader audience and following among transit workers than ever before. We are confident that the example we have set and our continuing role in struggles will see our ranks grow both within Local 100 and beyond, as more workers see the need to join in building the vanguard revolutionary party our class so desperately needs.