The 20/50 Pension Bill has passed the New York State Assembly and Senate, and now goes to Pataki to sign or veto. Toussaint’s machine is campaigning hard for it. They are taking advantage of the members’ just desire for earlier retirement to push a 20/50 retirement with a 5.5% pension contribution increase. Neither the membership as a whole nor even the Executive Board (EB) decided on the 5.5% figure.
Toussaint imposed it unilaterally, in order, as he explained at the Mar. 30 EB meeting, to spare the MTA from increasing their pension contributions. That’s certainly in line with his declared “partnership” between the union and the bosses! Toussaint’s contract sellout stuck us with a wage freeze for the two years that will see inflation actually cut our wages. Now he wants to stick us with a further 5.5% wage cut. That’s upwards of $100 more from each paycheck for many members!
Toussaint & Co. aren’t even mentioning our original contract demand this past fall for 20 Years And Out, Non-Contributory -- which they voted for! Maybe they will now say that the demand was “unrealistic.” How realistic is it to start with a giveback as high as 5.5% which will only encourage the MTA bosses and politicians to demand more? We should demand nothing less than 20-year and Out at Full Pension, Non-Contributory: Make the Bosses Pay!
More to the point, how can we expect to get any improvement if we don’t fight for it? We got the Tier 1 pension (20/50 non-contributory) in 1968 because the bosses were afraid Local 100 would strike, as the Local had done victoriously just two years earlier. After 1968, the Legislature in Albany passed a law taking public sector pensions out of the contract and giving it to the state legislature and governor. Nonetheless, we got the current 25/55 at 2% total contribution (the first net improvement in 31 years!) tied to the 1999 contract because the MTA and the politicians were afraid of our growing strike movement.
Every other pension change came from lobbying the politicians, and we lost each time. Each change raised member contributions and age and/or length of service requirements, reduced pension pay-outs, or otherwise took away past gains. Toussaint’s latest proposal is more of the same.
The suggested 20/50/5.5% pension not only hurts workers, it’s a big favor for the MTA. The TA is looking to reduce the work force. Many high-seniority, high-paid workers would likely opt into the new pension scheme and run out the door. The MTA would retain the lower-paid, lower-seniority workers. Many of the latter might opt in as well. New hires would be forced to join the 20/50/5.5% scheme. Characteristically, though, the MTA is opposing the bill, saying that it should be part of collective bargaining. In other words, this gift isn’t enough for them: they want to able to hold it over us at negotiation time. But they haven’t actually lobbied against it, suggesting that their opposition is not too serious.
On March 25, Toussaint & Co. led hundreds of TWU Local 100 members to Albany for “Lobby Day 2003.” Heading the begging list was the 20/50/5.5% pension plea. The list also contained over 13 other items. Some are supportable, like a 3/4 disability pension Bill, a pension credit bill for prior municipal employment, some special medical disability retirement bills, and an MTA public hearing bill. Almost all of these have been floating around Albany for years in one form or another. Various unions have lobbied heavily for bills like them for years or even decades.
There are also some real stinkers in the list, like the 25/55 refund bill and the “MTA Voting Bill”. The first would in theory allow workers who had been forced to overpay into NYCERS to get their money back -- in no fewer than 4 installments, in no less than 4 years! Why not fight for all our money now? The second would allow the NYS AFL-CIO to name a voting member to the MTA Board. Union members would have no say in the choice, just leading bureaucrats. This lone labor bureaucrat’s vote, when in the minority, would serve as window-dressing for the MTA’s dictatorship. When with the majority, the union hack representative would add weight to the TA’s attacks on Transit workers and the working class of the whole region. That’s exactly the function that Barry Feinstein of Teamsters Local 237 served when he was the unofficial, non-voting Union representative on the TA board in the 1980s.
Predictably, both Democratic and Republican legislators addressed the 800 or so TWU Local 100 members who lobbied in Albany, praising them for their civic spirit and promising that election votes from members of such a powerful union would surely win our demands. What would the politicians say: “So long, suckers”?
The TWU Local 100 leadership for the most part spends little time explaining why their kind of “political action,” i.e., voting every few years for capitalist politicians, is supposed to be so fruitful for us. They just assume that we accept this discredited approach. Many members don’t accept it and don’t vote, but see no alternative. This leads to cynicism and despair.
However one bureaucratic publication did take the time to explain why the electoral circus is supposed to work for us. The Track News, usually written entirely by Local 100 Track Division Chair John Samuelsen, uses most of the March 12 issue’s five paragraphs to this end. In a style seemingly aimed at second-graders, the bulletin states:
...The politicians only understand one thing. All they care about is votes....
If every Trackworker, TEM and RRTC who wants a 20/50 pension shows up to Albany on March 25, we will win this fight.... When the politicians see a huge turnout, they see a huge amount of votes. This will sway them to see things our way and vote to give us a 20/50 pension....
...If we do not turn out in large numbers for our own pension bill, then we have ourselves to blame when the bill gets shot down....
To the point and absolutely wrong. If it’s true that “all [the politicians] care about is votes,” then why not demand 20 and Out, Non-Contributory? (The Track News article mentions that the proposed pension is contributory but dishonestly neglects to mention the actual, 5.5% contribution.) To ask the question is to answer it: votes are not all the Democratic and Republican politicians care about. They mostly care about robbing the workers for the benefit of the bosses. And, as Ed Watt as much as admitted, the TWU leadership custom-tailored this bill to help them do so.
Seen in this light, the proposed pension change stands exposed as the shabby, cynical fraud it is. The union leaders sabotaged last fall’s strike movement and rammed a sellout contract (if sugar-coated) down our throats. This betrayal, on top of decades of such, further discourages and demoralizes transit workers, motivating many to say, “F--- it, just let me get out at any cost.” The Toussaint machine takes advantage of this desperation which they caused to try to get us to pick our own pockets yet again.
Despite the proposed pension bill’s generosity to the TA and Wall Street (through which NYCERS invests our money), Pataki could still veto it. The world economy is plummeting into recession, and the City and State of New York face unprecedented budget deficits. The banks, corporations and individual capitalists who hold public debt, that is, bonds, fear that this endangers the huge interest payments they receive. They demand that their servants, the Democratic and Republican politicians, cut back on government benefits for workers to shore up their bonds. The politicians are eager to please them.
For example, the hospital workers union, 1199, got a sellout contract disguised as a victory through the same lobbying game as the TWU runs -- only much bigger and more impressive. Now they face massive layoffs, cut-backs and hospital closings. We can lobby and vote till we’re blue in the face: the 5.5% pension contribution increase probably won’t be enough for the politicians’ Wall Street masters.
But there is another way. Workers mass action, especially strikes, have won gains in the past. The original TWU organizing drive took place during a nation-wide wave of mass strikes and sit-down strikes. In 1937 the TWU Local won its first contracts with the IRT and BMT, gaining an immediate 10% wage hike -- from companies which were completely bankrupt, in the depths of the Great Depression! In 1966, the TA and the NYC government said that there was no money for improvements. The Local went on strike, won gains across the board and smashed the strike-breaking Condon-Wadlin Law, to boot.
We are at the start of a world-wide wave of mass workers struggles and general strikes. They’re already happening in Europe, South America and Asia. The US working class is behind because our leaders are even more shamelessly tied to the capitalists and their corrupt, bankrupt system than in other countries. But they feel the wrath of the working class. Toussaint had to fake a strike motion to head off our anger. Had we struck, we could easily have set off a wave of strikes across the region and beyond.
It will happen. There will be strikes and general strikes, even here in the US -- the capitalists’ attacks will force this on the working class. But the longer the working class is held back from struggle by its bureaucratic misleaders, the worse our living and working conditions will become. The bureaucrats like Toussaint & Co. restrain us because their power and privilege depend on the capitalist system. Mass struggles are not just a threat to the capitalists, but to the bureaucrats’ position in the capitalist system. The only leadership that can be trusted not to hold back our struggles in the interests of capitalism is a leadership that stands for overthrowing the system: that is, a revolutionary socialist leadership. A revolutionary socialist party must be built throughout the working class, in the unions and outside to lead the coming struggles.
We revolutionaries seek to put forward the best way to unite all workers in defense of our interests in immediate struggles like the current one for pension reform. At the same time we want to convince the most militant and politically conscious of our fellow workers of our broader revolutionary socialist strategy for the working class struggle. With the capitalists’ attacks on the working class escalating, there’s no time to waste. If you’re interested in discussing these ideas more, get in touch with us!