For a Real Contract Fight – Prepare to Strike!

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

Over 3000 TWU Local members attended the day-long “general Membership Assembly” at the very expensive mid-Town Sheraton Hotel on Saturday, December 1. Many of them hoped it would be the start of a united fight against MTA attacks, democratically controlled by the members themselves.

Instead, they found a bureaucratic spectacle to push the Toussaint regime’s plan to give the MTA a “Regional Bus Company (RBC),” in return for a temporary increase in funding for the Health Benefit Trust (HBT). They found no votes on anything, not even speaking procedures. They found 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 “anti-terrorist” police-state measures, she claimed to be our friend from the podium given her by 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. They gorilla’d me as I distributed Revolutionary Transit Worker, as well as people distributing at least 2 other pieces of literature: a leaflet exposing Senator Clinton’s attack on our strike movement in ’99, and the second issue of Rank and File Advocate, which cast gentle doubt on the leadership’s scheme to give the MTA their desired “Regional Bus Company (RBC)“ in return for keeping our health benefits.

Toussaint & Co. found such opposition to the RBC/HBT trade-off that they quietly backed out of it. But their preparation for the 2002 Contract includes more “membership assemblies” where the members have no vote, and strong hints of far-reaching trade-offs.

Sellouts on the Way?

At a special meeting about the HBT on Feb. 6, Mark Kagan (Car Maintenance and Grievance Committee Chair and long-time Toussaint associate), pushed for Local members to “consider” health insurance plans requiring sizeable pay-check deductions.

Toussaint & Co.’s mail-in “Survey” of members’ feelings about Contract 2002 also featured a push for HBT givebacks, phrased as an innocent-sounding question: “Would you pay more as an active [member] to have better retiree benefits?” Retirees should have full, free coverage. But one option Toussaint & Co are not preparing is mobilizing the members to fight for health care for active and retired members at no increased cost, with mass action up to and including a strike. The Survey does have a box to check for those prepared to strike. Given the leadership’s hints of trade-offs and lack of any strike preparation, however, this Survey option comes across as posturing.

Further, Toussaint, at the Dec. 1 meeting and various union meetings since has urged “prioritizing” our contract demands, i.e., announcing to the MTA which ones we don’t take seriously. He has also speechified often and at length about the overriding importance (even, he hints, over wage hikes) of “dignity,” that is, better discipline and grievance procedures and more respect on the job as contract demands.

Revolutionary Transit Worker, like all members, would support efforts to oppose the “plantation justice” system of discipline used to intimidate workers. But “dignity” on the job will not come from asking the bosses to be nice. Rather it will come from mobilizing the power of the workers to force the bosses to back off. When we demonstrate to the bosses that we are serious and that we are ready to take action, including striking if necessary, then you’ll see how quickly we get treated with some respect.

Let’s Unite and Fight for Higher Wages, Dignity, All Gains!

As Toussaint himself says, what determines the contract round’s outcome is the relationship of forces between the MTA and the workers, not the justice of our demands. It follows that the contract fight is not just about winning immediate and necessary gains such as higher wages, non-contributory health insurance for active and retired members, and so on. This is an opportunity to turn things around, to beat back the attacks that have hurt us in recent years and to build a real fighting union that the bosses will respect and fear.

A serious contract fight means letting the bosses know that we’re prepared to strike to defend our union and our jobs. We saw what happened in the last contract fight when Giuliani and the bosses went crazy over the threat of a strike. They were afraid of us despite the fact that the James leadership was sabatoging the struggle and had done nothing to build a strike. If that effort got the bosses to back down from their planned attacks, imagine the power we would wield if we were united and prepared to strike to win.

Toussaint and Co.’s preferred method of depending on capitalist Democratic and Republican Party politicians, “community organizations” and the “riding public” is the same as the old guard’s, even if Toussaint is more energetic about it. The politicians are our enemies and, since we’re in the public sector, our employers. “Community groups” are generally social worker and lawyer outfits set up to pressure the same capitalist politicians. Toussaint’s outreach to the riding public is the same kind of lobbying and pressure-group tactics.

The “riding public,” however, is the working class of the metro area. They have the same interests as we do. To win them over we should, at a minimum, put forward contract demands for No Fare Increases or Service Cuts. More important, transit workers, because of our central position in the region, can show the way forward for all workers to defend themselves against the growing capitalist attacks. When we strike, the region shuts down. It logically raises the idea of the General Strike of all workers – especially if transit workers or others explicitly urge it. It short-circuits the typical capitalist divide-and-conquer tactic of blaming “greedy” strikers for inconveniencing the rest of the working class.

For Democratic Meetings – Let the Members Decide and Vote!

The members will not be able to mobilize and fight unless we fully understand our options. This requires full, free, open debate and discussion, with the members making the decisions themselves. When the majority arrives at and decides on our tactics, we’ll be able to carry them out solidly. This requires freedom for all members to present their ideas openly, in speech and/or print – unlike the dictatorship at the Dec. 1 Assembly.

Members who want to fight for a better contract should demand that all meetings be voting, decision-making meetings, not sounding boards for a leadership terrified of losing their grip. This applies to the Departmental meetings in late March/early April as well as to real General Membership meetings, which we badly need.

RTW urges all members to fight for freedom of speech and press at all union functions. Unity in action requires freedom of criticism!