The following article was published in Proletarian Revolution No. 66 (Winter 2003).
This December, New York City’s subway and bus workers of Transport Workers Union Local 100 came close to making history.
At two general membership meetings on December 7, thousands of transit workers voted unanimously to authorize a strike. The capitalist politicians and media responded to the strike vote with a storm of threats of fines and jail if the workers dared to violate the Taylor Law, which bans strikes by New York’s public workers. The New York Times called for vigorous enforcement of the law, the Daily News demanded a “war” to “smash” the union, and the New York Post added a typically racist twist, labeling the strike vote a “terrorist threat” and warning that Local 100 President Roger Toussaint was waging a “jihad.”
The ruling class was driven to make these threats because they, perhaps better than the workers themselves, understand the tremendous power transit workers have to shut the city down and bring profit-making to a halt. At a time of devastating budget cuts and tax hikes in New York and layoffs and similar attacks everywhere, a transit strike could have sparked a long overdue mass working-class fightback.
In the end, however, the ruling class did not have to follow through on their threats. They were saved from a transit strike by the workers’ own leaders, principally Local 100 President Roger Toussaint, who cut a sellout deal with management that was later narrowly ratified by the membership. Following the deal, the Post shifted from labeling Toussaint a terrorist to praising him as “worthy of the city’s unqualified respect.”
With the MTA taking a provocatively hard line in negotiations, Toussaint had come under tremendous pressure from the ranks to organize a strike. To maintain control of the situation, Toussaint moved at the decisive general membership meetings to authorize the Local’s Executive Board, which he dominates, to call a strike if it decided one was necessary. But this was a trick designed to buy more time to avoid a strike and negotiate a deal. And so it was that Toussaint allowed the contract to expire without a strike and shortly after announced a sellout agreement.
Particularly through our transit workers’ bulletin, Revolutionary Transit Worker (RTW), and the work of supporter Eric Josephson, the elected Vice-Chair of the Local’s Track Division, we in the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) played a prominent role in building the pro-strike movement. But we warned all along that Toussaint would betray the struggle. On the day the contract was set to expire we warned that “Toussaint & Co. are preparing to sell out our struggle.” We urged workers to demand that a strike be called and to tell “Toussaint and the rest of the Executive Board that they shouldn’t even think of trying to sell us a deal that trades modest improvements on non-economic issues for a lousy wage deal and other concessions.” (RTW 14.)
But Toussaint cut exactly such a deal, although its concessions were worse than anyone imagined. The window dressing of improvements in the disciplinary system and maintenance of health care coverage is there, but the givebacks are a potential catastrophe for transit workers.
Most importantly, Toussaint gave up the union’s no-layoff clause -- at the same time that he granted the MTA the power they need to begin massive layoffs and speedup: unlimited introduction of new technology (like computerized trains that will eliminate conductors, and Metrocard machines that replace token-booth clerks), continued use of non-union contractors without the union having the right to legally challenge such outsourcing, continued use of welfare recipients as sub-minimum wage Workfare slave-laborers in cleaning jobs, and the restructuring of the transit system beginning with the merging of the major bus divisions. The contract also freezes wages in its first year, offering instead a one-time payment of $1000 to most but not all workers. The three-percent raises in its last two years will not keep up with the combined hits of inflation and the ruling-class politicians' tax hikes. (For more details on the contract, see RTW 16.)
The LRP played an even more prominent role in campaigning against the sellout contract. Thousands of transit workers responded strongly in support of RTW’s explanation of the contracts’ givebacks and its call for workers to vote it down and renew the struggle. Josephson joined with other workers to launch a new group, Transit Workers Against the Contract (TWAC), to broaden the campaign. TWAC produced two leaflets urging a vote against the contract, which were distributed extensively throughout the system.
Toussaint & Co. launched their own campaign -- of lies, misinformation and intimidation -- in defense of the contract. They issued leaflets that lied about the giveback of the no-layoff clause, falsely claiming that the old no-layoff clause gave no real job protection and represented no loss. And they attempted to intimidate the membership, saying that if the contract were voted down it would go to arbitration and the union would get a worse deal.
An overwhelming majority of transit workers were opposed to the contract. But given Toussaint’s sellout leadership, the fear of getting stuck with an even worse deal led many to vote in favor in the false belief that it would be better to wait to fight another day. Ultimately, Toussaint & Co.’s efforts succeeded, with 60 percent of workers voting for the contract in a mail ballot.
While Toussaint claims the ratification of the contract as a vote of confidence in his leadership, transit workers know better. A majority clearly wanted a better contract but saw no alternative leadership capable of taking the struggle forward. In the coming months they will continue to look for such an alternative -- and they will have to. Before the contract vote was even counted, management announced that it was moving to close token booths, though it said it would not lay off any workers but rather move them into other jobs. The attacks will only get worse now that the contract has passed.
In the course of the contract fight, a small but crucial layer of workers has been radicalized. They want to understand why Toussaint sold out, how to take the struggle forward and avoid such defeats in the future. In this effort they come up against others for whom the experience has reinforced the cynical belief that there is no alternative to the betrayals of union leaders. But such betrayals are not inevitable. At every point the LRP and RTW not only warned of Toussaint’s impending sellout, but also put forward proposals to prevent it. By reviewing the lessons of the struggle we can begin to show the way forward, not just for transit workers, but for militant workers everywhere who are looking to advance their class’s struggles and avoid betrayals by their union leaders.
The transit workers’ December 7 strike votes were a high point in a long struggle. In 1999, transit workers built a powerful movement for a strike, to which then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani responded with injunctions threatening workers with massive fines for even using the word “strike” in conversation, and jail if they put such words into action. The LRP played a key role in building that strike movement, which culminated in a mass meeting of thousands of transit workers voting unanimously in favor of a motion raised by Josephson to strike in the face of Giuliani’s threats.
But that movement was sabotaged by the leaders of the Local, the corrupt “old guard” led by Willie James, who worked with Giuliani to enforce the anti-strike laws. It was also betrayed by the “militant” opposition group in the Local, “New Directions” (ND), whose most prominent members in elected union posts had the power to lead the struggle forward but refused to do so. (See Showdown in New York Transit in PR 60 for detailed analysis of these events.)
In the absence of an alternative leadership that could take the struggle forward, the workers were forced to accept a sellout contract. But they longed for the time when they could throw out the leaders who betrayed them, replace them with leaders who they hoped wouldn’t sell them out and finally strike back against the MTA.
ND’s years of posing as the militant alternative to the entrenched bureaucracy had built them a reputation as reliable fighters. After months of equivocal statements, ND had at the last minute come out in favor of the strike; but it then refused to use its posts in the Local to act on the members’ strike votes. But the James Gang’s betrayal was so outrageous that it blinded most workers to ND’s treacherous refusal to lead the struggle forward.
ND’s undeserved militant reputation was further enhanced when Roger Toussaint replaced the group’s perennial presidential candidate Tim Schermerhorn at the top of their ticket. Schermerhorn’s political softness and sleepy personality had always been a burden for ND. While Toussaint was a late-comer to ND, he had a much more militant style. He had started his political career as a left-wing Stalinist, but had at least openly advocated his communist views -- unlike the closet socialists in ND. And while he had given up on socialism by the mid-1990’s, he had earned a reputation as a militant in the Track Division. He surrounded himself with a loyal grouping of supporters who joined ND and voted for him as ND’s Presidential candidate.
When the next election for the Local’s leadership took place in 2000, militant workers rushed to support ND, mistakenly viewing them as militant fighters and a real alternative to the old guard. This support gave ND a big victory and raised workers’ expectations in the new leadership even further.
But a deeper radicalization had taken place. As an open socialist and supporter of the LRP, Josephson had won a broad respect among militant workers for his role in the 1999 struggle. We did not have the forces to challenge ND union-wide. But Josephson did run for union office in the Track Division. He proudly explained his revolutionary socialist views and called on workers to support his program of mass struggle against management attacks. Against both old-guard and ND candidates, he won election to the post of Vice Chair of the division.
In the Local elections overall, we could not stand aside from our fellow workers’ struggle and simply lecture them that ND was no alternative to the old guard. Rather, we joined with workers in voting for ND, in order to put them to the test of office and prove our warnings. Following ND’s election we redoubled our efforts to hold ND to their promise of a militant struggle against the bosses, all the time warning that they would fail to lead the mass struggles against the bosses that would be necessary and that a new leadership would have to be built.
Transit workers had become accustomed to a union leadership which, when it wasn’t cooperating with the bosses, exhibited the most shameless laziness. So when the new leadership took power and the Local headquarters was transformed into a hive of activity, workers were impressed. Divisional leaders were generally more aggressive in enforcing work rules and defending workers against disciplinary charges. A new body of shop stewards was created and training classes for them begun.
Toussaint & Co.’s response to management’s next attacks on the union also raised expectations that they would prove to be reliable fighters. Thanks to a giveback clause in the 1999 contract, the MTA reduced funding for the workers’ Health Benefit Trust (HBT), threatening their health care unless the union agreed to more givebacks. Toussaint eventually responded by calling a series of protest rallies.
Many workers were initially impressed when political guests at the first rally included Rev. Jesse Jackson and other Democratic Party politicians. The workers didn’t necessarily care what the politicians said, but their attendance at Local 100 events seemed to show that the union was gaining powerful friends. In reality, Toussaint was beginning a strategy of avoiding mass action and encouraging workers to direct their energy toward electing Democrats, in the hope that the politicians would return the favor with labor-friendly policies.
But the Democrats, like the Republicans, are no friends of the working class. Every last one of the politicians Toussaint paraded at the rallies, including Senator Hillary Clinton and the mayoral candidate he later backed, Fernando Ferrer, supported the Taylor Law.
In RTW we warned that relying on the Democrats rather than on workers’ own power to fight back would set up workers for defeat. We fought for general membership meetings in which the ranks could discuss and decide how to fight management’s attacks on the HBT, and could hold the leadership to a definite course of action by binding votes. We argued that the attacks on the HBT were cause to re-open the contract that the MTA, Willie James and Giuliani had forced on us and that the union should prepare to strike.
Having earlier stated his willingness to re-open the contract, Toussaint soon backtracked. He floated the idea of concessions to management in return for funding the HBT -- namely agreeing to the MTA’s creation of a regional bus company that would mean speed-up, attacks on seniority rights and job losses. The members immediately rejected this idea, after which Toussaint’s strategy turned to delaying any struggle with the MTA until after the mayoral elections, when he hoped a Democratic administration might offer him a better deal as payback for throwing the union’s support behind its candidates. (See RTW No. 4.)
As the reality set in that the union’s rallies were being used to boost the Democrats rather than build the union’s struggle, workers’ attendance fell off. But for as long as the MTA didn’t force the HBT into bankruptcy, most workers continued to take a wait-and-see attitude toward the Toussaint leadership. Many responded to our criticisms of Toussaint & Co. by saying that we weren’t giving them a chance to prove themselves. They continued to hope that Toussaint would prove to be the militant fighter he claimed to be.
Toussaint, however, knew better. While he had renounced his socialist views years earlier, he had concealed just how far to the right he had shifted. His support for the Democratic Party he once hated was a sign that he had come to really embrace the capitalist system. He had adopted the standard outlook of the union bureaucracy.
While not, at least for now, as highly paid and financially corrupt as other union leaders (although he still makes more than any transit worker), Toussaint and his ilk enjoy a highly privileged position. They traded their work clothes and tough jobs for suits and office chairs, and get a rush from rubbing shoulders with bosses and politicians. These privileges depend on their position as brokers between the bosses and the workers. While they have to try to defend the workers to maintain their positions, they also seek to accommodate the interests of the capitalist bosses, whose economic system they now rely on for their comfortable lives and social status.
The problem for the bureaucrats is that with capitalism slipping into ever more acute crisis, profits can only be saved by intensifying the exploitation of the workers, and that means taking back past concessions and weakening the unions. To maintain their privileged position, the bureaucrats have to constantly perform a balancing act between the workers and the bosses; but their fundamental loyalty is to the capitalist system. They try to mobilize the workers as little as possible, to avoid the danger of workers developing a real sense of their power and interests that would inevitably threaten the bureaucrats’ positions. This Marxist understanding of the class nature of capitalism and the role of the trade union bureaucracy enabled us to predict clearly the Toussaint leadership’s inevitable betrayal. Toussaint’s sellout was not the result of his being personally corrupt or weak, though he is both, but of the specific class interests of the trade union bureaucracy and the capitalist class generally.
Under these conditions, Toussaint knew he would have to eventually cut deals with the bosses that sacrificed the workers’ fundamental interests while hopefully securing enough less-important concessions to help him get re-elected. He also understood that workers would fight against this, and that he would have to surround himself with a strong bureaucracy to enforce his policies and weaken his militant opponents.
Toussaint first moved to shore up a core of bureaucrats loyal to him. He bought the allegiance of a number of the more corrupt Executive Board members by appointing them to staff positions, making them dependent on him for their higher salaries. He hired a large number of staffers from outside the union to work in education and other programs. The new shop stewards remained mostly unelected and trained to convey the leadership’s views from the top, rather than represent the ranks from the bottom.
At the same time, Toussaint began an offensive against his left-wing opponents. First, knowing that there were members of ND who would not accept his sharp turn to the right, Toussaint moved to shut down ND. He stacked an ND meeting with loyalists who were never really part of ND and got motions passed that would in effect prevent ND from ever meeting again or publishing its newspaper Hell On Wheels. NDers opposed to this gave in to Toussaint’s coup and went on to start a new publication, Rank and File Advocate (R&FA). Then Toussaint moved to ban the distribution of oppositional literature in union meetings: he had distributors of RTW, the dissident newsletter The Station Reporter and others physically thrown out of union meetings. The resulting outcry and public relations disaster made Toussaint partially back down: opposition literature is allowed on lobby tables at Local 100 functions outside the Local’s hall, as long as no one hawks it.
Then came a series of attacks on militant opponents at the divisional level. Divisional Chairs are entitled to “release time” in which they are able to travel around the system enforcing work and safety rules and conducting other union business on company time. Toussaint & Co. began a campaign of removing oppositionists from elected release-time positions on trumped-up charges. This began with Eric Josephson, who was deprived of his release time on the preposterous grounds that he had backed down to the bosses.
The most outrageous of these attacks came when R&FA supporters tried to run a slate in elections for delegates to the International Union Convention against Toussaint’s handpicked slate. Toussaint had the opposition slate barred from the elections and prominent R&FA supporter Naomi Allen brought up on charges that she forged the signatures of candidates on an election application. Toussaint’s rubber-stamp Executive Board upheld the charges only to have them overturned on appeal to the International union. Boss-loving International President Sonny Hall no doubt had his own cynical reasons for overturning Allen’s conviction, but when the International forced Toussaint to run a statement in Local 100’s newspaper decrying the “shocking violation of [Allen’s] basic rights,” one could not disagree.
Following Toussaint’s election, the attention of most members was focused on the December 2002 expiration of the Local’s contract with the MTA. But a preview of what could be expected was provided by their conduct of contract negotiations starting in January 2001 with seven different private bus companies which supplement MTA services in the outer boroughs of the city.
As employees of private companies, these workers are not covered by the Taylor Law and so can legally strike. Private lines workers’ top concern as they entered contract negotiations was winning an Employee Protection Plan that would guarantee their jobs and working conditions if the companies were sold to other owners -- as was being planned.
Toussaint & Co. had a perfect opportunity to organize a simultaneous strike against all of the private lines companies, not just to win those struggles but to prepare the rest of the Local for a potential strike against the MTA later in the year. But Toussaint & Co.’s biggest concern was to avoid the private lines strikes radicalizing the rest of the local and raising their expectations of a strike against the MTA. So they pursued separate settlements with the different companies and preached reliance on the politicians.
A one-day strike against the Liberty Lines company won a seemingly decent contract, and Toussaint adopted the strategy of “pattern bargaining,” hoping that contract would set the standard for the others -- without strikes. This strategy immediately failed as the Liberty Lines Express workers were forced to accept a below-inflation wage “raise.”
Toussaint & Co. were then forced to call one half-day and then another two-day strike at three of the remaining companies in the borough of Queens in early 2002. These strikes were very effective at shutting down bus transport in Queens, and the workers felt confident they had the bosses on the ropes. But Toussaint immediately called off the strikes, arguing that they had gained the politicians’ attention and that friendly Democrats on the City Council would pass legislation that would answer the workers’ needs. Of course, the politicians found one excuse after another not to pass such legislation.
After a year and a half without a contract, Toussaint could no longer hold the workers back from striking. But throughout the 7-week strike from June to August by Queens private lines workers, Toussaint & Co. were at pains to keep the rest of the Local’s members away from the strike. In spite of promising to “mobilize the rest of our Local in support of Private Lines members” (TWU Express, Dec. 31, 2001), Toussaint did not organize a single real demonstration of Local 100 members in solidarity with the private lines workers.
After over a month out on strike and picketing in the burning summer sun, the workers were summoned by Toussaint to a meeting where he presented them with a proposed contract that secured the workers’ health benefits but omitted the Employee Protection Plan. When workers discovered this, they were outraged. Leaders of the private lines workers, remnants of the corrupt Sonny Hall-Willie James bureaucracy, took advantage of the anger by leaping to the head of their protests. But instead of challenging Toussaint to organize real solidarity with the struggle, they instead led a mass walkout from the union meeting and threatened to split from the Local.
The strike dragged on for almost another month until Toussaint again presented the workers with the same contract, and this time the old-guard leaders recommended approval. Seeing no alternative to the rotten contract, the workers accepted it and went back to work defeated and bitter.
The private lines workers had been caught in the crossfire of the power struggle between the Toussaint leadership of the local and the Sonny Hall bureaucracy which maintains control of the international union. Hall saw the strike as an opportunity to set the workers against Toussaint. He and his flacks spread propaganda through the strike complaining that Toussaint was not backing the strike, but didn’t do a thing to help the struggle himself. For their part, Toussaint & Co. were happy to hang the private lines workers out to dry to protect their power in the rest of the local.
This dispute continued after the strike. Toussaint disowned the strike, telling the media he’d been against it all along, and then brought Hall’s allies George Jennings and Michael Curran up on charges of trying to split the union. The latter denied the charges, but then Hall and his aides conducted a petition campaign to split from Local 100 the three Queens private lines that had struck. This action was despicable, and RTW opposed Toussaint’s charges against Hall’s team as well as their attempts to split the local. We argued that the local should remain united and that replacing the Division leaders was something that only the workers they represent should decide.
The private lines workers ultimately voted overwhelmingly in favor of remaining in Local 100, but the struggle between Hall and Toussaint remained a factor in the MTA contract struggle. If Toussaint led a strike against the MTA in violation of the Taylor Law, Hall would no doubt look for an excuse to bureaucratically oust Toussaint and put Local 100 in receivership and thus under direct control of the International. A powerful strike could have beaten back such attempts and dealt a death blow to Hall’s control of the International. But Toussaint had no intention of leading such a struggle and thus feared that any misstep could lead to a clash with Hall that he couldn’t win. The threat of receivership became a weapon for Toussaint to use against Local 100 members’ demands for strike action.
Ironically, Toussaint’s success at separating the private lines struggle from the rest of the union meant that most members remained unaware of the betrayal and defeat of the Queens strikers. As a result, transit workers’ expectations that Toussaint would lead a militant struggle against the MTA remained high.
Toussaint understood that given his commitment to cutting a deal with the MTA, he would have to perform a balancing act. He would have to try to not disappoint workers’ expectations of a winning contract struggle and if possible lower those expectations over the course of the negotiations. At the same time, he would have to pressure the MTA for the concessions he would need to stand a chance of getting the contract approved and winning re-election, but without mobilizing the membership so much that they would demand a strike.
Throughout the campaign, Toussaint & Co. vacillated between militant declarations echoing the ranks’ fighting mood, on the one hand, and efforts to lower the ranks’ expectations, on the other. For example, over a year before contract negotiations began, the leadership conducted a survey asking members to prioritize their most important contract concerns, including maintaining health care coverage, reforming the oppressive disciplinary system, and wage raises. This survey was full of leading questions calculated to instill in workers’ minds the idea that they may have to accept improvements in some areas and not others. The survey later provided Toussaint with an opportunity to blame the workers for his contract compromises and givebacks. But workers didn’t necessarily buy into the idea of a trade-off. And the same survey indicated that almost a third of members were in favor of strike action, before the campaign had even begun.
Toussaint then went to the media in an attempt to dampen expectations of a strike. First the New York Times reported that Toussaint denied any intention of supporting a strike. (Aug. 7, 2002.) Then Newsday ran an article, which Toussaint & Co. posted on the Local’s website, headlined “Transit Union Averse to Strike: Leader Downplays Possibility.” (Aug. 25.) The article quoted Toussaint promising that his leaders would “do everything within our power to avoid [a strike].”
But word spread among transit workers of Toussaint’s anti-strike declarations, and management adopted a provocatively hard line in negotiations. This forced Toussaint to perform an about-face and drop his anti-strike statements. He declared that he would not rule out a strike and that the union leadership was prepared to do everything possible to win its contract demands.
The transit workers’ contract campaign posed a classic problem for revolutionaries. We had to participate in a struggle in which our fellow workers held illusions in a leadership that we knew would betray them. Standing on the sidelines of the struggle and lecturing our fellow workers that Toussaint would sell out, a formula used by a number of other socialist groups, was never an option for us. It is the approach of sectarians who prefer to write the obituaries of struggles rather than fight in them.
Rather, we employed the method learned from Lenin and Trotsky. We coupled clear and repeated warnings that Toussaint was preparing a sellout with tactics designed to build the struggle, maximize the workers’ self-organization and put their illusions in the Toussaint leadership to the test by fighting to hold Toussaint to his promises. We were confident that by fighting side-by-side with our fellow workers, the experience of the struggle would prove to them that we were right and that they would have to prepare to oppose a sellout and lead the struggle forward. In the issue of RTW explaining our overall strategy for the struggle, we wrote:
RTW makes no secret of the fact that we have no confidence in the Toussaint leadership’s preparedness to lead a winning contract struggle. On the contrary, we are convinced that they are already preparing a sellout. To those workers who still hope that Toussaint & Co. will lead a winning struggle, we say that we are ready to join with you in a united campaign to push the Local leadership to do what it takes to lead the struggle to victory. We predict that they will betray. But we’ll let the struggle prove who’s right, and be ready to show the way forward in the event of an attempted sellout. (RTW Supplement, September 13, 2002.)
We argued for the greatest possible membership involvement and democratic control as the best way to build the struggle. In particular we called for the creation of strike preparation committees and demanded that the union leadership support them. We added that such democratic control would prove essential to resisting a sellout, and that we would make every effort in the course of the struggle to organize the most militant workers into the nucleus of a new leadership that could lead the struggle forward in the event of a sellout.
Central to our strategy for the transit struggle was our recognition of its potential to spark a much broader working-class fightback against the capitalist attacks, particularly at a time of severe budget cuts, tax hikes and layoffs in New York and the ruling class’s union-busting rhetoric. So we made a point of spreading the idea of a transit strike leading to a general strike of all the city’s unions. We pointed out that a general strike would be the best way to defeat the ruling class counterattack that would surely come in response to a transit strike. We explained that a general strike would mean a head-on confrontation with the bosses’ state power and advance workers’ class-consciousness towards socialism. As we wrote in RTW 15: “A general strike would also show the working class the power that it has not just to defeat the rulers but also to run society in the interests of the vast majority of society, the working people.”
So we sought to join with other militant workers to build a new leadership in the union committed to going all the way in a transit strike, and we began to link-up with other workers wary of a sell-out. But the potential for a transit strike to unleash such a massive challenge to the capitalist system meant that the need for a revolutionary socialist leadership was particularly urgent and that the struggle would provide the opportunity to convince workers of this perspective. We explained:
An all-out struggle for our demands, let alone against all the anti-working class attacks, will deal a body blow to the capitalists. The Toussaint leadership is committed to working within the limits of what capitalism can afford. Therefore we should expect them to betray us eventually. Only a revolutionary socialist leadership can be relied on to lead an all-out contract struggle because only it is dedicated to the system’s overthrow....
In the course of the current transit struggle RTW and its supporting organization, the League for the Revolutionary Party, hope to get in touch with other transit workers who are thinking along these lines. Together we can not only play a decisive role in the contract fight. By joining to build a revolutionary socialist party we can prepare to lead even greater struggles in the future.(RTW 13.)
At the beginning of the contract fight, Toussaint & Co. adopted the slogan “Second Class No More” as the locals’ campaign slogan. It referred to the fact that transit workers suffer more oppressive working conditions and significantly lower wages and benefits than workers in other transit systems. We knew that Toussaint would later try to downplay that slogan’s reference to lower comparative wages and focus on the need to reform the “plantation justice” disciplinary system that treats workers as “second-class citizens,” and we noted that the slogan did not commit the union to any specific action to end transit workers’ second-class status. But we saw Toussaint’s slogan as an opportunity to tie him to specific demands and pressure the leadership for the action necessary to win them. RTW explained:
For our contract campaign, the Toussaint leadership has adopted the slogan: “Second Class No More!” This has to mean that we’ll fight to win the respect that we’ve been denied, as well as all the wages, benefits and working conditions that go with it. But we all know that we can’t just demand respect, we’ve got to command it. In this society, the only thing that commands respect is power, and in this city no group of workers has more potential power than transit workers. We make this city run, and by striking we can shut it down if the MTA and politicians won’t give in to our demands. (RTW 10.)
Therefore, we adopted as our contract campaign slogan First-Class Contract or Strike! To focus workers’ demands, rally their pro-strike sentiment and pressure Toussaint to deliver on his promises, we distributed over a thousand placards at contract rallies with the slogan on it as well as a list of the most important demands to fight for. Beneath the main slogan, our placards spelled out what a first-class contract means:
- Full Health Care Coverage With No Increased Payments!
- A Big Wage Raise Well Above Inflation!
- End Plantation Justice!
- End Workfare (WEP) Slave Labor! Full Union Wages, Benefits and Protection for Everyone Doing Members’ Work on the Property!
- No Transit Fare Hikes or Service Reductions!
- No MTA Regional Bus Company!
- No Give-Backs, Trade-offs or Concessions of Any Kind!
- Amnesty From All Taylor Law Penalties!
Because we aimed not just to promote revolutionary politics but also to build the strongest struggle possible, we did not advertise the LRP or RTW on these placards. We wanted every worker who agreed with the demands to be able to carry one without demanding that they support us. The placards proved very popular -- we could never produce enough to meet workers’ demands. The placards presented a real challenge to Toussaint. At rallies where he was trying to lower the workers’ expectations, he was confronted with a sea of placards demanding a contract he had no intention of winning and a struggle he had every intention of preventing.
Enraged, Toussaint launched a slanderous and threatening attack on the LRP, RTW, and Josephson in particular. First, in union meetings he attacked RTW supporters for “putting up strike placards and headlines and other bullshit rhetoric everywhere.” Then, in a personal letter to Josephson, Toussaint unbelievably claimed that we were engaging in “deceit and trickery” by trying to pass off the placards as official Local 100 placards (despite the issue of RTW clearly explaining the opposite), and acting as “agents-provocateurs.” The letter implied that Josephson could face internal union charges or worse.
If Toussaint thought that he could intimidate us, he was in for a shock. We quickly responded with an open letter to Toussaint, exposing his lies and explaining the importance of our slogan in pressuring him to make good on the promises he planned to betray. While disagreeing over the strategy for the struggle, we urged unity against the MTA, demanded that Toussaint withdraw his false charges and threatened to hold him personally responsible for any physical attacks that his letter could have inspired. When thousands of copies of our response were distributed and it gained much support from transit workers, Toussaint backed down and never mentioned his allegations again.
Our struggle to hold Toussaint to his promises continued in meetings to adopt the local’s official contract demands. As Vice-Chair of the Track Division, Eric Josephson was part of the Contract Policy Committee. At the Committee’s single meeting, called at the last minute by Toussaint, the leadership presented a long list of demands, but there were serious problems.
In particular, the demand for a “fully funded Health Benefit Trust [for] current and additional benefits,” “prescription coverage” and “Major medical or its equivalent for pre-Medicare retirees” seemed good at first. But it left open the possibility of increased members payments as well as of retirees’ getting less that full health benefits. Also, with the MTA threatening a fare hike and service cuts, Toussaint had launched a campaign in alliance with liberal pressure groups to beg the politicians to save the fare. But he was anxious to avoid this becoming part of the contract struggle, and no demands on these issues were included in his proposals.
Josephson moved to adopt the demands for “fully-MTA funded health benefits with no new or increased membership payments” as well as for “no fare hikes or service reductions” to be an official contract demand. Another worker raised “full medical benefits for retirees.” Other improved demands were also proposed. For Toussaint to oppose these demands before the struggle had even begun would have been too embarrassing, so he remained silent when they were debated and passed unanimously.
The one proposal Toussaint opposed concerned wages. Marty Goodman, an Executive Board member from the Stations Department, noted Toussaint’s vague call for a “substantial wage raise” and reminded Toussaint that he had supported Willie James’s brief call in 1999 for yearly raises of 10 percent. Toussaint didn’t oppose specifying a 10 percent raise demand explicitly. Rather, he said that he was opposed to including any specific percentage raise because it would limit the leadership’s flexibility at the negotiating table. Of course, it would have limited Toussaint’s flexibility to lower the union’s wage demands, but he made it sound like it might prevent him from demanding a bigger raise or other gains. Toussaint had enough support on the Committee to defeat Goodman’s motion, but we continued to pressure Toussaint to make concrete the union’s wage demand, seeking to popularize the slogan “If Willie Said 10%, Why Won’t Roger? Let’s Win 10%!” (See RTW Supplement, September 16, 2002.)
We also warned:
Of tremendous importance is that the members hold the Local’s leadership to our contract demands during the course of the negotiations. We know that in almost every contract negotiation, if the workers allow the union bureaucracy to get its way, the leadership comes up with an initially strong list of contract demands only to sell them out as the negotiations proceed. (RTW 10.)
It did not take long for confirmation to come of the importance of our warnings. The New York Times (Nov. 30) reported that in interviews with the media Toussaint “gave hints of moderation, noting that the results of the [negotiations] would be “conditioned by the current circumstances,” saying that if the deficit-plagued authority [were] more accommodating on non-economic issues, most notably safety and discipline,” the union could be open to reaching an agreement.
Toussaint’s argument that hard economic times mean that workers cannot expect to win big wage raises is obviously crucial. The capitalist economy is indeed in deepening crisis. It is the desperate need to raise falling profits, not just personal greed, that drives the capitalists’ escalating attacks on the working class. Tremendous struggle is required for the working class to just maintain its current living and working conditions, let alone improve them. Revolutionaries fight for every reform that will even temporarily improve our class’s living conditions. Moreover, through such struggles the working class builds its organization and sense of power. And only by testing the possibility of reforming the system will it ultimately learn that there is no solution to the crisis under capitalism and that the system must be overthrown.
It is possible for workers to win wage raises even in much worse economic times -- if their struggles threaten to cost the capitalists even more. In fact Local 100 won its first contract, with the original IRT and BMT transit lines in 1937 in the depths of the Great Depression, when both companies were already bankrupt. Then, Local 100’s fight threatened to inspire the rest of the working class at a time of rising union struggles.
While the New York and U.S. economies are in deepening crisis, they have certainly not reached the depths of the depression, and the capitalist politicians would certainly find the money to fund wage raises if a transit strike threatened a bigger class struggle. Moreover, the MTA is notorious for keeping two sets of books: one to keep track of their real finances and another to screw transit workers and defraud the public. During the union’s 1996 contract fight they claimed a $350 million debt in order to demand concessions; but a week after transit workers narrowly voted to accept that contract the MTA announced a projected budget surplus of $256 million!
This time around they lied even more brazenly. In 2001 they reported a $300 million surplus. In 2002, with contract negotiations looming, they reported a projected deficit of $663 million for 2003. Only one week later they claimed a $1.1 billion deficit for 2003 and a $1.6 billion deficit for the following year. It turns out that they are actually still running a surplus and their claims of a deficit were based on not counting $1.4 billion in standard government subsidies. Further, the MTA will indeed be in debt in the coming years because it funded capital investments through loans at high interest rates rather than from government funding -- a sweetheart deal to line the pockets of Wall Street bankers with extortionate debt payments.
All this was used as justification for the MTA’s demand that transit workers accept a three-year wage freeze, with raises permitted only where they could be tied to productivity gains. But Toussaint did not use the contract struggle to demand that the MTA open its books or that the state increase funding of public transportation. His acceptance of the capitalists’ profit crisis as limiting workers’ ability to fight for wage raises was further evidence that he had sacrificed the working class’s interests in favor of the capitalists’.
Toussaint & Co. had scheduled general membership meetings for December 7. As the day approached, Toussaint’s campaign strategy had gotten nowhere. His talk of compromise and his failure to take any steps toward preparing for a strike had encouraged the MTA to take a hard line in negotiations. Seeing this, the ranks came to the meetings in a fighting mood, ready to vote to strike to win their demands.
We knew that this would be a decisive moment in the struggle. And Toussaint no doubt feared that if the members were allowed to democratically debate and decide the way forward, there could be a repeat of 1999 with a massive vote to strike. We tried to introduce motions that would do exactly that.
We circulated a leaflet in thousands of copies that proposed a three-step plan to take the struggle forward by:
We knew it would require a fight on the floor of the meetings just to secure the members’ right to discuss the issues. We approached Rank and File Advocate supporters for an agreement to join together to fight for the ranks’ democratic rights in the meeting, but got no commitment from them. We did reach such an agreement with a number of independent militants.
The issue of RTW that we also distributed at the meetings explained the situation to our fellow workers. In particular, we warned that Toussaint might try to avoid a real strike motion by raising one of his own that would tie him to nothing and keep all power over the struggle in the hands of his rubber-stamp Executive Board. We wrote that the ranks’ militancy would force Toussaint to adopt a militant posture: “He may even move for a strike authorization vote. If President Toussaint takes steps forward in the struggle against the TA, we will support him. But given his recent hints of a bad compromise, we can’t afford to go along with a vote that gives Toussaint and his Executive Board a blank check to call a strike if they wish, or call one off for an unsatisfactory contract.” (RTW 13.)
This prediction proved absolutely accurate. At the first meeting (there were morning and afternoon meetings to allow all shifts to attend), thousands of workers listened to reports from various division leaders on their negotiations. The stories of management’s refusal to positively respond to a single union concern and their continued demands for massive concessions had the members furious by the time Toussaint took the microphone. Since microphones had been set up on the floor at the front of the room, it seemed that there would be an opportunity to ask questions and raise motions, as there had been in 1999, but such illusions in union democracy were soon to be dispelled.
Toussaint gave a rousing speech against the MTA and the racist Post editorial, and asked the workers to show whether they were in favor of a strike. The hands of every worker in attendance immediately rose, and chants of “Strike!” rang through the hall. When order was restored Toussaint explained that the decision was unanimous to authorize the Executive Board to call a strike if it decided one would be necessary, and that this did not mean a strike was automatic.
To make matters worse, Toussaint announced that a rally of New York unions in solidarity with Local 100 would be taking place on December 16, marching over the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall. This rally had originally been planned for December 11; moving it to December 16 meant that it would occur the day after the contract expired and could not happen if there was a strike. Toussaint was thus signaling to the MTA his commitment to work past the contract expiration date.
The ranks’ excitement that the leadership seemed to have finally come out in support of a strike blinded them to the trick Toussaint was pulling. Toussaint ended the meeting soon after, with no opportunity for questions, let alone discussion of other motions.
During the break before the afternoon meeting, we prepared ourselves to fight again for our strike motion. Josephson joined with Marty Goodman to issue a joint motion that would tie the leadership to the same three-step motion we had circulated earlier. And we adjusted the motion to Toussaint’s tricks. Had we insisted that the strike go ahead at midnight on December 15 when the contract expired, Toussaint could have made us out to be sabotaging the December 16 solidarity rally. So we instead moved that a strike must begin at midnight on December 16 if the MTA had not gone a long way toward satisfying the Local’s most important demands.
Unfortunately, Toussaint was able to succeed with the same tricks in the afternoon meeting. What made it particularly easy for him was the fact that the supposed “militant oppositions” from Rank and File Advocate on the stage with Toussaint -- Recording-Secretary Noel Acevedo and Vice President Tim Schermerhorn -- went along with Toussaint’s trampling of the members’ democratic rights without a peep of protest. Schermerhorn was handed a perfect opportunity to advocate for the ranks’ right to discussion when he was given the microphone by Toussaint, but he chose instead to give the same canned speech reporting on divisional negotiations that he had delivered in the morning meeting.
With the ranks’ one opportunity to directly determine the course of the struggle thwarted, we knew we would have to encourage the much more difficult struggle of workers to pressure the Executive Board from the outside.
The bosses’ media and politicians responded to the apparent strike votes of December 7 with hysterical threats of fines, jail and the smashing of the union in the event of a strike. They demagogically painted a transit strike as a blow to the city as potentially devastating as the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Shockingly, Toussaint & Co. echoed the idea that a transit strike would be a horrible thing that had to be avoided. The union issued tens of thousands of leaflets to the public calling on Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki to “Stop a Crippling Transit Strike!” Toussaint’s idea that such rhetoric would pressure the politicians to direct the MTA to offer the union more to avoid the strike was idiotic. His accommodation with the ruling class’s anti-strike propaganda only undermined the workers’ resolve to strike. As everyone expected, Bloomberg and Pataki escalated their legal threats against the union. In an admission of how hopeless his strategy had been, Toussaint showed a moment of fight when he told Bloomberg to “shut up.” After eight years of racist Mayor Giuliani bullying anyone who got in his way, it was an inspiration to many to see a Black union leader appearing to standing up to the new Mayor. But as was to be expected, Toussaint didn’t follow his loud talk with action.
Toussaint & Co. continued their attempts to reach a deal by acting weakly. Toussaint announced that the union was lowering its wage demand from 8 percent a year to 6 percent, in the hope that management would respond with an offer of at least some modest raise. Instead, the MTA responded as it had to every other sign of weakness, with a toughened stance. It reaffirmed its insistence of a wage freeze, withdrew some contract offers it had already made and even refused to turn up at some negotiating sessions. Toussaint then declared that he would never accept a “zero” raise in the contract, not simply because it was unacceptable to transit workers but also because it would set a precedent for other city workers. But he backed down on this too.
As the contract expiration at midnight December 15 closed in, it seemed possible that despite their best efforts to reach a sellout agreement, Toussaint & Co. might still have been forced to call a strike in the face of continued MTA intransigence. Under the headline No Sellout! No Contract Extension! Transit Workers Have the Power to Strike and Win!, RTW urged workers to demand that the Executive Board break from their strategy of offering concessions in return for nothing and instead set a definite strike date for definite demands. With a Joint Expanded Executive Board meeting (consisting of all elected union officers and open to all interested members) scheduled for the morning of December 15, we encouraged all workers committed to fighting for a strike to attend. Josephson and Goodman were again ready to raise their three-point motion to set a definite strike date and launch a strike committee. But Toussaint limited the meeting to a quick report by him and a couple of harmless questions. He called for transit workers to rally outside the negotiations that afternoon, announced an Executive Board meeting for that night and declared the meeting over.
At the hastily called protest that afternoon, about one thousand transit workers rallied against the MTA. There we again urged workers to condemn Toussaint’s moves toward a sellout and to demand the Executive Board set a strike date for definite demands that night, where Brother Goodman was again ready to raise such a motion. But Toussaint again succeeded in preventing any motions from being heard.
With just hours to go before the contract deadline, the MTA offered some concessions, including reform of the hated disciplinary system. But it had not budged from its wage freeze demand and was refusing to discuss the question. Toussaint held a press conference to announce that he remained hopeful that a deal would be reached and promised that he would do everything to avoid the “catastrophe” of a strike. By this time, the writing was on the wall: no matter how hard the MTA pushed, Toussaint would refuse to call a strike. As TWU negotiator Basil Paterson revealed in an interview with the New York Post (Dec. 17), Toussaint’s strike talk had been more intended to trick transit workers into thinking he was serious about a strike than it was to pressure the MTA. In an article entitled “Strike Talk Was Hollow Threat, Says Negotiator,” Paterson is quoted explaining:
No one ever said, “I’m getting the hell out of here.” It might have come close [to a strike] in the public’s eye, but never in the room. The strike card was never played.... The MTA always believed Roger was serious, but never serious about a strike.
Accordingly, before the contract expired, Local Secretary-Treasurer Ed Watt announced that the union had “stopped the clock” and would negotiate past contract expiration without a strike.
On the evening of December 16, thousands of transit workers and supporters gathered at MTA headquarters in Brooklyn and then marched over the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall. Confusion reigned, as rumors of a sellout circulated; yet hopes continued that Toussaint might break from the negotiations and call a strike. Our second RTW in 24 hours proved very popular. Under the headline No Sellout Deal! Forward With the Strike! we again urged workers to pressure the Executive Board to reaffirm the union’s contract demands and call a strike.
But soon after, Toussaint and MTA Chairman Kalikow emerged from negotiations smiling and announced that a deal had been reached. In a disgusting display, Toussaint even hugged the boss in front of the media – the same man who had lodged Taylor Law charges against every union member. Toussaint announced that the deal laid the basis for a new era of cooperation between the union and management. Late at night at union headquarters, the Executive Board passed the sellout contract by a vote of 31 to 9, with 2 abstentions.
The LRP and RTW immediately moved to build the broadest possible campaign against the sellout, and were the first to sound the alarm that Toussaint’s giveback of the union’s no-layoff clause was the key to the contract. We attended a meeting of union officers opposed to the contract initiated by Rank and File Advocate supporters. But R&FA was horrifyingly soft on the contract. The deal should be voted down, they said, but it was wrong to call it a sellout -- it was just that the bad things in the contract outweighed the good. As if Toussaint breaking his promises of no zeros and no concessions was not a sellout. As if a contract with some improvements that laid-off workers would never enjoy was not a sellout!
Worse, it was clear that R&FA’s most senior leaders were intent on simply going on the record against the contract rather than launching an all-out campaign against it. Our arguments succeeded in pushing them to place more emphasis on the giveback of the no-layoff clause. But they rejected our call to launch a committee to organize workers against the contract, and Steve Downs and Tim Schermerhorn announced that they were going on a short vacation!
While R&FA conducted much of their opposition to the contract in the media, the LRP and RTW swung into action. Josephson attended numerous union meetings to denounce the sellout and argue for a No vote. All supporters were mobilized to distribute 10,000 copies of a new RTW opposing the contract throughout the system. We received an overwhelmingly supportive response from workers eager to read a knowledgeable discussion of the decisive question facing their union.
Josephson then joined with Marty Goodman to sponsor the founding meeting of Transit Workers Against the Contract (TWAC). R&FA boycotted the meeting, slandering it as an attempt to build an LRP front group. Despite their efforts, about thirty workers attended. TWAC’s first meeting featured a long discussion of the contract, with a Toussaint representative trying to defend it. But the overwhelming majority of workers present voted to form the committee and adopted a statement against the contract and of no confidence in Toussaint, of which thousands were distributed in the coming week.
Directly through RTW, and with other militants through TWAC, we did all we could to defeat Toussaint’s sellout. But not enough militant transit workers had been won to the task of building an alternative leadership in the union, one that could win workers’ confidence to take the struggle forward if the contract was defeated. Toussaint thus succeeded in ramming through the contract, but the struggle continues.
In the coming months the MTA will undoubtedly take advantage of its contract gains and escalate its attacks on the union. Toussaint’s betrayal of the struggle underscores the importance of building a new leadership for the union. We will be ready to join with every worker committed to fighting for mass action to defeat the bosses’ attacks. We expect that militant workers who joined with us in TWAC, as well as others who have become subscribers and distributors of RTW, will want to work more closely with us in the future. For our part, we will also work to convince our fellow workers that the only perspective that can really answer the demands of the struggle is that of building a revolutionary socialist party leadership to lead not just transit workers’ struggles to victory, but those of the entire working class.
[See also Left Strikes Out in TWU Struggle.]