First Class Contract or Strike!

by Eric Josephson, Local 100 Track Division, Vice-Chair

The time has come to make the MTA pay. They owe us a debt for years of disrespect. Strong and united, we’re going to collect.

The bosses have ruled the MTA like a plantation, persecuting us with a disciplinary machine that’s treated us like criminals. They’ve tried to hold our lives, and those of our families, hostage by underfunding our health benefit plan. They’ve kept our wages lower than those of workers in the MTA’s MetroNorth and Long Island Railroad systems. They’ve forced us to work harder and harder – and they still demand more productivity improvements. They’ve replaced union jobs with Workfare (WEP) slave labor. The bastards at MTA headquarters, and the politicians and bankers they serve, have it coming – and we’re going to give it to them!

Toussaint Echoes Ranks’ Militancy

Negotiations with the MTA for Contract 2002 formally began on September 20, at the Roosevelt Hotel in mid-town Manhattan. Hundreds of Local 100 Executive Board Members, Division officers, some Shop Stewards and other members, as well as some of the most hated MTA-NYCT officials, heard a long and angry-sounding speech by President Roger Toussaint. He said that we’re no longer going to allow the bosses to treat us like second class citizens. And he ran through the central demands that the Local has committed itself to winning, including:

Toussaint’s tough-sounding talk received much applause and a few standing ovations. After so many sellouts by previous leaders, most of the members and officers were glad to finally hear a Local President deliver what sounded like a militant challenge to the bosses.

But we know that management and the politicians aren’t suddenly going to decide that they’ve been unfair to us for all these years. They’re not going to gift wrap our demands and give them to us as early Christmas presents. We’re going to have to fight the bosses every inch of the way to win our demands.

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.

But the question remains: will Toussaint & Co. lead the union in taking the action necessary to win our contract demands?

“Do Whatever It Takes”

Our demands are just. We have every right to fight and win them for ourselves and show the rest of the working class how to stand up against the bosses. But make no mistake, it will take a massive, militant fight, up to and including a strike, to win our contract demands.

Recognizing this obvious fact, the media interpreted Toussaint’s speech as threatening strike action, even though he never once mentioned the word strike in his very lengthy speech. For example, NY1 television news commented that Toussaint’s speech gave voice to:

high expectations and renewed threats of a strike. Asked about the possibility of a strike, union officials told NY1 they re not trigger-happy, but getting a contract they want is their priority and they say, to that end, they are willing to do whatever it takes to get it.

President Toussaint took a similar stand in the most recent edition of The Chief newspaper, in which he refused to rule-out a strike (Sept. 27). The Toussaint leadership’s commitment to “do whatever it takes” to win our contract demands, including leading a strike if necessary, is more than welcome. But we need to hold the leadership to that commitment, since until very recently Toussaint was saying and doing the opposite.

During the Queens Private Lines’ strike, Toussaint did his best to keep the strike separate from the rest of the Local. One serious Local-wide protest in support of the strike would have given a tremendous boost to that struggle. The threat that the strike would feed into our contract campaign and increase the momentum toward a NYCT strike would have terrified the bosses and politicians and could have forced them to give in to the workers’ demands quickly. That could have spared the strikers the cost of a long, drawn-out strike and given a huge boost to our contract campaign. But Toussaint did no such thing, and even avoided holding a single NYCT contract mobilization for over four months from the May 10 protests until today’s rally at MTA headquarters. Instead, he allowed the strike to drag on for almost two months and end without winning some of the workers’ most important demands. The only possible explanation is that Toussaint was more scared of the Private Lines’ struggle feeding a powerful strike movement by NYCT workers, than he was of losing the Private Lines’ strike.

Following the end of the Queens Private Lines’ strike, President Toussaint seemed particularly concerned to make sure that the Private Lines workers’ militant strike did not raise NYCT workers’ commitment to striking. First the New York Times reported that Toussaint denied any intention of supporting a strike (Aug. 7). Then Newsday ran an article, which can be found on the Local 100 website, headlined “Transit Union Averse to Strike: Leader Downplays Possibility” (Aug. 25). The article quoted Toussaint as promising that his leadership “will do everything within our power to avoid [a strike].”

Toussaint & Co. Feel Pressure From Ranks

Workers are used to other people taking credit for what they do. After all, when our hard work makes the transit system run, management and the politicians take the credit and we get the shaft. The Toussaint leadership’s renewed commitment to a militant contract campaign will bolster its fighting image among NYCT workers. But credit for this militant stand should go to the ranks of Local 100, whose fighting spirit and commitment to a winning contract campaign has pressured the Toussaint leadership to take this stand.

The Toussaint leadership faced a rebellion from the ranks of Queens Private Lines workers. The strikers were much more committed to a militant fight against the bosses than Toussaint & Co. were. They went so far as to storm out of one mass meeting in protest of the first contract deal Toussaint proposed that they accept. The Private Lines workers were eventually forced to accept basically the same contract they had rejected earlier. But their challenge surely reminded the Toussaint leadership of the possibility that the much more powerful NYCT workers could similarly turn against them during their contract struggle.

Most importantly, Toussaint & Co. are more than aware of what happened to the James Gang after they betrayed our pro-strike movement in 1999 and forced on us the current rotten contract. They know that the spirit of ’99 lives on among the ranks of transit workers and that the same militancy that propelled them into office in the last elections could throw them out next time unless they at least appear to lead a real struggle against the bosses.

It is this pressure from the ranks of workers that has forced the Toussaint leadership to strike its currently militant pose. Certainly a commitment to do whatever it takes to win our demands is a big step forward from Toussaint’s previous commitments to do whatever it takes to avoid a strike. But Toussaint’s flip-flops show the need for workers to keep up the pressure on the Local leadership to lead a fighting contract campaign.

Hold the Leaders to Their Fighting Words

The MTA is in real financial trouble, with deficits over $650 million. The City is facing a $5 billion budget deficit and is looking to cut its funding of the MTA substantially in its next budget. The State also faces a budget crisis, the depths of which have been temporarily hidden by accounting tricks used to help Pataki through the November elections. After the elections we can expect Bloomberg and Pataki to announce a massive city and state-wide budget crisis and the supposed need for sacrifice by all workers. Far from being prepared to concede big improvements in our contract, the bosses and politicians will be demanding more givebacks than ever! So you can bet that we’re in for a hard contract fight. But we have a great example to follow: Local 100’s first agreement with the IRT and BMT in 1937, won a 10% wage hike, in the depths of the Depression when both companies were bankrupt!

No wonder Toussaint is dropping hints that a strike may be necessary. Other Local leaders have been more forthright, including Toussaint associate John Samuelsen, Chair of Track Division and currently the unelected “Acting Vice-President” of Maintenance of Way (due to the recurrent, unexplained disappearances of elected MoW V-P Julio C. Rivera). Samuelsen has freely said at several Track Division meetings that a strike may be necessary, even likely.

One thing for certain is: transit workers cannot go into this struggle unprepared. RTW makes no secret of our belief that a strike will be necessary to win our demands, and that the union must start preparing itself to strike now. But even those who think it’s only a possibility must recognize that the union has to be prepared to strike. All must agree that it would be horrible for the union to face a showdown with management and be forced to strike without any preparation. Preparing to strike now would be the best way to build our contract campaign and force the MTA to give in to our demands.

The Toussaint leadership’s current fighting words cannot be allowed to encourage the ranks of transit workers to have a passive, wait-and-see attitude. That will only find us sitting on our hands when the time for a decisive fight arrives. Instead, we have to demand that the Toussaint leadership really organize and mobilize the membership to do “whatever it takes” to win our contract demands, up to and including a strike.

Building the Fight by Preparing to Strike

There are several key steps in building our contract campaign that will also help prepare the union to strike.

1. Mobilize the Membership in a Series of Escalating Mass Demonstrations

At the beginning of the 1999 contract struggle, few transit workers supported the idea of a strike. But the corrupt, boss-loving James Gang leadership was forced by the ranks to call a series of contract campaign rallies. In those big and growing demonstrations, transit workers began to sense their tremendous power and, by the contract expiration date, were ready to strike, even in the face of draconian new anti-strike laws and police intimidation.

As we have explained, since the May 10 protests many opportunities to build up the ranks’ sense of power and fighting spirit have been wasted, and we can’t afford to let any more opportunities slip by. Militant workers must demand that today’s demonstration at MTA headquarters be just the beginning of a series of mass contract demonstrations, and that the union leadership use all its resources to ensure the biggest possible turnouts. In particular, with a Local 100 General Membership Assembly scheduled for October 26, we should press for another mass demonstration shortly before that date so that the ranks arrive at the meeting full of a sense of their collective power.

We have to beware of the danger that the leadership will pursue a strategy of calling some demonstrations but for the purposes of building support for lobbying politicians rather than building for even greater mass actions to win our demands.

2. Let the Members Debate and Decide on the Struggle in Division Meetings

If the membership is to be genuinely mobilized and united in struggle, it must have the opportunity to really debate and decide on the course of the contract fight. Even many workers who have complete confidence in President Toussaint recognize his “top-down” method of leadership. We must fight for the leadership to take steps to achieve the greatest membership involvement in the contract campaign.

The best place to start is by using Division meetings into real membership meetings where the conduct of the campaign is debated and decisions are made by democratic votes. Too often members don’t bother to attend Division meetings because they know that the union tops will make the real decisions.

So militant workers should press their Division officers to use Division meetings as real membership meetings where various ideas for the struggle are debated and decided on by the membership. Division officers should be called on to circulate announcements of Division meetings with agendas that focus on deciding how to fight for our contract demands.

As the struggle heats up, Division meetings should be more frequent to keep up with new developments. In this way, Division meetings develop toward being strike committees capable of being the organizational backbone of a successful strike.

Officers like Track Division Chair and MoW Acting-V.P. Samuelsen, who are talking about the possibility and even likelihood of a strike, should be especially pressed to build Division meetings to prepare the membership to strike, and to push for it in the whole Local. He could call Departmental mass meetings and demonstrations to this end. As someone with media contacts, he could get publicity for such mass strike prep mobilizations. That’s just what he will do if he is even halfway serious about his repeated strike talk. Members who want to fight should encourage Samuelsen to take his own words seriously and do things such as we suggest here. If Samuelsen refuses or wriggles out of such tasks, he will stand exposed as an obstacle to the strong and united fight we need.

This goes double for such critics of Toussaint as the supporters of Rank and File Advocate. They claim to be for strike preparation. Since they have leading elected officials in least one Department, RTO, they are well placed to actually do so: RTO is the TA’s key department, with the ability to halt the whole system immediately. In the past, militant Train Operators have had to do this in defense of their rights. Given the TA’s ongoing attacks and the current contract fight, now would be the time to look to this again, as well as taking measures like those outlined in the preceding paragraph. The RTO Vice-President, Tim Schermerhorn and EB Member Steve Downs must be challenged to put up or shut up: either use their positions on the Executive Board and Division Committees to oppose every sellout by the Toussaint leadership, or step aside for fighters who will. If they are really for a united struggle as they claim, they should push for joint strike preparation with Toussaint associates, like Samuelsen, who also say we should be ready to strike.

3. Let the Ranks Decide in Democratically Run General Membership Assemblies

The high point of the 1999 contract campaign came with the General Membership Assemblies of December 14. The ranks had been stifled for years by one corrupt leadership after another. But in those meetings, for the first time since 1972, the members of Local 100 got to debate and vote on the course of the union’s struggle. The meetings were tumultuous. And their dedication to striking was sabotaged and betrayed by the union leadership. But they pushed the union as far as it could go in the absence of an alternative leadership prepared to take the struggle all the way, and established a fighting tradition we are building on today (see Proletarian Revolution magazine No. 60 for more on the 1999 struggle.)

After the defeat of the 1999 strike movement and the ranks’ ousting of the James Gang from leadership, it would be a horrible retreat toward the bad old days of Local 100 if General Membership Meetings didn’t decide the ultimate course of our contract struggle. But that’s a very real danger.

Remember when Toussaint called his first General Membership Meeting on December 1 last year? Members arrived to find a bureaucratic spectacle arranged to push Toussaint & Co.’s plan to give the MTA a “Regional Bus Company,” in return for a temporary increase in funding for the Health Benefit Trust (HBT). We were not allowed to vote on anything, not even speaking procedures. We were faced with a pre-packaged line, drawn up in secret by the leaders and rammed down the members’ throats. This included the usual parade of politicians from at least one of the two major capitalist political parties. Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton was the “keynote” speaker. Despite her advocacy for slave-labor Workfare, cheering of Giuliani’s attacks on our ’99 strike movement and support for the current imperialist war and phony “anti-terrorist” police-state measures – she claimed to be our friend from the podium given her by the fawning Roger Toussaint. There was also a large Union “Security (that is, goon) Squad” stopping members from distributing literature critical of the leaders, and forcing out those who insisted on their democratic union rights, including this author.

Workers must press for democratically run General Membership Assemblies to decide on the course of the struggle: from whether we should strike, to whether we should approve a proposed contract. In those meetings, members must have full democratic rights to speak, raise motions and vote. Anything less, be it meetings in which members have no rights and are forced to sit as powerless observers of a bureaucratically arranged spectacle, or mail ballots in which workers are asked to decide on questions outside of meetings in which they feel the power of their fellow workers and can debate the issues, will be a sure sign the Toussaint leadership is pursuing a sellout.

Hold the Leadership to Our Demands!

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.

We’ve started our contract campaign with excellent demands on most questions, although not without some struggle. As we reported on in our RTW Supplement (Sept. 16), the Local’s Contract Policy Committee met on September 14 to discuss and adopt a proposed list of some 348 contract demands proposed by the Toussaint leadership. Many of the proposed demands were very good, such as ending Workfare and making all current Workfare workers CTAs (Cleaner, Transit Authority), winning a twenty-years-and-out pension plan, winning Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday, ending the sick control list and winning a Cost of Living Allowance (COLA).

But on our most important demands, the leadership’s proposals left room for a sellout. For example, on health care, the leadership proposed a “fully funded Health Benefit Trust [for] current and additional benefits,” plus “prescription coverage” and “Major medical or its equivalent for pre-Medicare retirees.” This sounded great at first glance, but the devil was in the details, or in this case in the lack of details.

An RTW supporter was able to speak at the meeting and pointed out that the demand didn’t say who should fully fund the HBT. This omission left the door open for increased payments from our pockets, which seems to be a sellout the Toussaint leadership is considering. To correct this the brother raised an amendment that our health care proposal be changed to clearly demand Fully MTA-Funded Health Benefits, with No New or Increased Membership Payments. Quick-thinking by another Local 100 member also caught that the demand proposed by Toussaint & Co. left open the possibility that retirees would not receive full health care coverage. To correct that he raised an amendment so that we now demand Full Medical Benefits for Retirees.

Also, while President Toussaint had spoken out against moves toward hiking transit fares, his perspective for opposing this seemed limited to lobbying politicians. No matter how loud and militant this campaign could turn out to be, it is no substitute for using the power of our contract struggle to force the MTA to agree not to raise the transit fare or reduce service for the life of our contract. In fact it runs the danger of diverting the membership from building the sort of mass struggle needed to win our contract demands. So the RTW supporter raised a motion that the demand for No Fare Hikes or Service Reductions be added to the list of official contract demands.

Probably because it would have been too embarrassing to oppose these demands before negotiations begin, when opposition to the new amendments and demands was asked for, none came from the Toussaint leadership. In all, over seventy new demands were passed at the meeting.

The adoption of these fighting contract demands was a tremendous victory for the membership. Unfortunately, one important demand raised during the September 14 meeting was defeated by the Toussaint leadership. In addition to supporting calls for the MTA to fully fund health benefits for all Local 100 members, Marty Goodman (Executive Board Representative from Stations) noted the Toussaint leadership’s vague call for a “substantial” raise. He argued that we should set a definite figure to fight for, and reminded Toussaint that he supported Willie James’s brief call for a 10 percent raise in the 1999 contract.

Toussaint, however, put his foot down on this question and openly opposed supporting a definite wage demand. He made the false argument that tying the leadership to the 10% figure would reduce their flexibility in negotiations. That’s b.s. The higher the wage demand, in general, the higher the settlement. At this point, while he talks a lot about the disparities between NYCT workers’ wages and those of other MTA workers, Toussaint seems to be planning to propose a much smaller wage raise.

In the end, the Toussaint leadership prevailed on this question, and the motion for a 10% raise failed. But that is certainly not the last word on the demand for a big raise. Members should take every chance from now until contract voting time to make clear that they’re going to fight for a big wage raise. If Willie Said 10% Why Won’t Roger? Let’s Win 10/10/10%! Wage Raises or Full Parity With Prevailing Wages – Whichever is Bigger!

But as the last line of “TWU Local 100 Contract Demands” reads, “Local 100 reserves the right to add to, delete from, amend or modify its proposals.” Without mass membership pressure, the leaders will delete a whole lot more than they’ll add. And any additions will be bad for us. With such pressure, however, we can make the union leaders fight for a 10% a year wage hike, and maintain the good demands we now have.

Leadership for a Winning Strike

Most transit workers still have some degree of confidence that the Toussaint leadership will lead a victorious contract struggle. For as long as the Local leadership is stepping forward in the struggle against the bosses, RTW will join Toussaint & Co. in a united struggle.

However we make clear to our fellow workers that we have no confidence in the Toussaint leadership. Pressure from the ranks can force Toussaint & Co. to talk and even act militantly, and they certainly have designs to be more militant trade unionists than the James Gang that went before them. But a whole series of acts by the Toussaint leadership since they took office already show that they are a fundamentally pro-capitalist leadership which will sellout the workers’ interests, sooner or later. From their proposal to accept the creation of a regional bus company in return for the MTA funding the Health Benefit Trust, through their support to Democratic Party politicians who support the Taylor Law, to their screwing of the Queens Private Lines strike, Toussaint and Co. have proved their willingness to sacrifice our interests when it benefits them.

Winning this fight is going to be tough. It is going to be especially tough because we have a leadership that we can pressure to fight but not trust. This means that we have to establish control over the union by the ranks.

Above all, we will fight for a new militant leadership to really represent us. Workers who already see the need for such a new leadership should contact RTW and join with us in building it. It is the best way to win our contract fight and win control of our union.