As contract negotiations with the MTA begin, Local 100 members have plenty to be mad about. That anger can turn into action. We can wage a contract struggle against the bosses’ attacks, defend our jobs and win. We can defend the transit system from service cutbacks. But leading a winning struggle is the last thing on Local 100 President Roger Toussaint’s mind. At this point he isn’t even planning to hold a mass Local 100 rally. It is clear that he is planning a sellout.
The situation is far from hopeless, however. Militant workers can join together to force Toussaint to lead more of a fight than he wants. Such a struggle would bring a rising sense of power and growing confidence to the most militant workers. It could lay the basis for taking the struggle out of Toussaint’s hands altogether. It’ll be an uphill battle, but every step can help us resist a sellout and there’s no time to waste. The struggle begins with a clear look at the stakes for this contract.
New York City transit workers have a lot of catching up to do. Local 100 President Toussaint’s 2002 Contract stuck us with wages 4%-5% behind inflation, and GHI co-pay increases of 50%. Private contractors are doing massive station renovation jobs while the MTA assigns over 150 Local 100 Structural Maintainers to cleaning and track work. The MTA has closed hundreds of Station booths and reassigned Station Agents to multi-task “roving” work. The arbitrator stopped the MTA from implementing one-person “robo-trains,” for the time being. But neither Toussaint, nor most of his Local political opponents, put forward any strategy to stop robotization -- except more arbitration. Toussaint and Co. assured us that the MTA’s takeover of the former Private Bus Lines (PBL) would leave the old contracts in effect. But the MTA is unilaterally re-writing those contracts, staying a few steps ahead of the Toussaint crew.
Now Toussaint & Co. have come up with a laundry list of contract demands. Many are acceptable. But Toussaint refuses to specify a figure for the “Substantial across-the-board wage increases in each year.” The MTA’s admitted surplus approaches $1 billion. One-half of that, $500 million, divided among TWU member NYCT employees, would come to about $15,625 for each member or about $5,200 per year for each member, or between roughly 15.25% and 9% raises per year, depending on base rate (over 50% for part-time Traffic Checkers!). But Toussaint refuses to set a figure on the grounds that it will only turn the public against “greedy” transit workers. If Local 100 made clear that it was fighting to take the lead in winning higher wages for all workers, it would win great support. The real reason Toussaint won’t commit to a wage demand is that he doesn’t want to raise transit workers’ expectations.
Most important, management has been investing in automation to prepare the way for massive layoffs. That’s why they got rid of our no-layoff clause in the last contract round. The union must make it a top priority to win a no-layoff, no-attrition clause that guarantees no reduction in Local 100 jobs for the contract’s duration. Instead, Toussaint’s current list of contract demands accepts the MTA’s right to lay off “excess employees,” after first transferring them. He only requests rights to transfer back. Not only that: he implicitly accepts work-force reduction by requesting that the MTA make CBTC (robo-trains) safer. There’s no need to bargain away some of our demands to win others -- transit workers have the power to win all our demands. But nothing we gain from this contract will be secure if it doesn’t guarantee our jobs.
Past contract rounds featured mass membership rallies. In downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan we stood and marched together, tens of thousands strong. We felt the power and confidence that come from unity. And we showed the MTA our resolve to fight. Not least, it gained us the respect the rest of the area’s working class, as we took on the MTA, one of the most hated agencies in the region.
But Toussaint refuses to call a single mass rally during this contract round. Instead, he plans to plead for the sympathy of the “riding public” from mid-October through mid-November, and then have a “Day of Action” on TA Property on November 15. The latter will apparently consist of mini-demos, mini-informational pickets, mini-shop gate meetings, etc. by members carrying signs reading “Just Practicing.” As part of a mass mobilization strategy, such “Days” can help prepare for a bigger struggle. But by itself, Toussaint’s “Day of Action” will only make us look and feel weak.
The same goes for Toussaint’s “Committee of a Thousand” to mobilize for the contract. So far the “1000” have been only a pile of file-cards at the Union Hall. Toussaint apparently expects the members who signed up to wait passively for orders ... to give mealy-mouthed leaflets to riders. Here, too, he shows his fear of the membership: if the “Committee of 1000” actually got together to plan a fight-back, they might get militant and challenge Toussaint. They might even upset Kalikow and the politicians and Toussaint will have none of that!
This fits with Toussaint’s stated strategy of TWU “partnership” with the MTA. The union is a very junior partner, indeed. The MTA makes all the decisions; the TWU is allowed to object, and on rare occasions, to gain partial, temporary reversals of MTA policy. Toussaint & Co. occasionally “mobilize” against particular MTA attacks, like the Station booth closings, but only to the extent of leafleting the “riding public” with requests to write or phone in protest to the MTA and the politicians.
Toussaint fears that if we transit workers stand and fight together, we might get out of hand. We might even feel strong enough to strike, god forbid! This could wreck his relations with Democratic Party “friends of labor” -- who support the strike-breaking Taylor Law and screw the working class at every turn.
Our contract struggle comes at a time of increasing anger throughout the working class. Frustration with stagnant wages and rising prices has been growing for some time. Opposition to the bloody occupation of Iraq has been rising. Most recently the working class has been confronted with the murderous, racist, anti-working class response of all levels of government to the flooding of New Orleans. All the post-September 11 patriotic blather about America standing united and free has been exposed as the lie it always was.
There is tremendous potential for a massive outbreak of struggle that challenges the ruling class’s years of attacks. But union and community leaders hold the working class and oppressed in check, preventing struggles that may threaten the system and their privileged place in it. By challenging the Toussaint bureaucracy that stifles our struggles, transit workers could lead the way for the rest of the working class. A powerful contract struggle by transit workers, especially a strike, could win widespread support from the working class and spark an even broader struggle. Our power to shut the city down by striking best places transit workers to lead a fightback.
Transit workers have revolted against bureaucratic sellouts a number of times since 1991. A wave of militancy in 1999 culminated in our strike movement and led to the ousting of Willie James & Co. the following year. But since then Toussaint’s dictatorial stranglehold on the union and sellouts have demoralized many Local 100 members. While many transit workers find management’s attacks intolerable, most feel powerless to stop them. They believe that no successful contract fight is possible under Toussaint. They figure that we may have to eat another lousy contract and wait till next year’s Local 100 elections to vote Toussaint and his cronies out. We sure need to replace Toussaint & Co., but passive waiting would be self-defeating.
Make no mistake: Local 100 will have to strike to win its demands. The Taylor Law is a major obstacle to public-sector workers’ struggles, but it can be beaten. The TWU struck and busted the equally anti-strike Condon-Wadlin Law in 1966 -- then refused to go back without amnesty. We should make amnesty from Taylor Law penalties a strike demand. But the biggest barrier to a strike movement right now is the feeling of powerlessness encouraged by the union bureaucracy.
But that mood may be changing. As the contract deadline approaches, more and more workers are expressing their frustration. Transit workers who already support a strike can build on that sentiment. We can use TWJC’s “No Layoffs” petition to organize ourselves and gain support from broader sections of the membership. Workers who still aren’t sure about going on strike can still support strike preparations as a way of pressuring management for concessions.
We should demand mass rallies and demonstrations. Local members should petition and vote in their Divisions for a series of such demonstrations. If we have demands worth fighting for, like those RTW suggests, we’ll be motivated to come out and raise hell in mass.
We should demand General Membership Meetings throughout the fall, not just at the last minute in December: no more one-man-show where Toussaint rams through his pro-MTA agenda! At these meetings, all members should be able to speak, make motions and have binding votes.
Further, the Local should go directly to the members and leaders of other unions, urging them to support our demands and join our mobilizations. We should make the point that if we strike, it will aid their fight against their bosses. Other public sector workers especially will benefit from a successful strike against the Taylor Law. The “riding public,” that is, the NYC area working class will support us if we make No fare hikes or service reductions a contract demand which we’re willing to strike for. This is in contrast to Toussaint’s begging for riders’ sympathy.
The petition, rally and meeting calls must be placed as demands on Toussaint. Though his pro-MTA leadership is the problem, Toussaint is susceptible to pressure from the ranks. It was such mass pressure which forced Toussaint to hold a strike vote in 2002. Toussaint had no intention of striking, of course. He judged, accurately, that he retained credibility with most members who wanted to fight. Only after his literal and contractual embrace of MTA Chair Kalikow did larger numbers of combative workers see the need to organize in opposition to Toussaint.
The efforts of RTW and others to build a broad opposition to the contract sellout started promisingly but were ultimately unsuccessful. Remnants of New Directions (now mostly in Transit Workers for a Just Contract) passed out leaflets denouncing the proposed contract and calling for a “No” vote but refused to organize a serious campaign against it. The Toussaint machine’s massive contract sale campaign overwhelmed members’ disgust with the deal.
This time things are different. Toussaint’s “militant” reputation is long gone. His base is mostly union and electoral office-seekers, butt-kissers and supposed “leftists” who long ago gave up on the ranks whose interests they claim to represent.
There are militants in the Local who feel cheated of our chance to prepare a powerful strike and win substantial gains. They will come out when they see a credible alternative strategy and leadership starting to challenge the MTA and its union flunkies. Revolutionary Transit Worker will join with any Local members who want to work for a contract fight. We urgently suggest the demands and strategies in this bulletin as the basis for joint action, but they are not pre-conditions for getting together.
Although mass pressure on Toussaint can force him to fight the bosses more than he’d like, his leadership is an obstacle to struggle. Nor can any mass fight depend on a small circle of leaders. Effective mass mobilization requires a new leadership. That’s why RTW, as in the past, puts forward mass contract struggle committees of the best fighters, elected by their co-workers throughout the system. In the course of a mass, militant fight, such a committee could mobilize every member and insure communication. Most important, a mass struggle committee would serve to recruit and train a new generation of working-class leaders. If they faced leadership which blocked the fight against the bosses, they would pressure the sellout leaders while they had to and oust them when they could. Fighting workers who understand this will also understand that the fight to oust and replace Toussaint begins now, during the contract fight; don’t wait for next year!