April 24 Rally Must Kick Off Militant Struggle!

No Health Fund, No Work! Prepare to Strike!

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

Once again the MTA is threatening our health benefits in order to force concessions down our throats. The Health Benefit Trust is bankrupt. The MTA could cut benefits and/or raise member payments overnight, leaving us and our families one curable illness away from destitution or death.

How dare these bloodsuckers hold the health of our families for ransom! Enough is enough. This is literally a matter of life and death, and the union needs to act accordingly. More of us all the time see that we need to face down the MTA attack with mass action. Workers in all Divisions are saying that if the MTA cuts our health benefits or raises our contributions or pushes for givebacks, we should strike! We should all join together and say: No Health Fund – No Work! Prepare to Strike!

The April 24 rally and serious on-the-job organizing can start us mobilizing for the inevitable confrontation. Given the MTA’s intransigence, Local 100’s leadership must explicitly plan these and other mass actions as strike preparation. This includes a democratic membership vote to strike immediately at any attempt by the MTA to cut benefits or increase member payments.

Are Our Leaders Prepared to Strike – or Are They Preparing to Sell Out?

The Local 100 leaders seem to want a big and assertive rally and march on the 24th which would affect all pedestrians and commuters in Mid-Town West that evening. That’s a good start. But the posters and other publicity for the rally lack any concrete program except denunciations of the threatened cut-backs and exhortations to attend the rally. Toussaint and the other Local 100 officers have to say clearly: are they prepared to lead a strike?

But all signs from the Toussaint leadership are that they want to avoid a strike, and would prefer a sellout. Local 100 members know that the HBT crisis has been brewing for a long time. The Toussaint leadership has called us out to two rallies over the last eighteen months to protest the MTA’s attack on the HBT. But as we have explained in the pages of RTW, they have not used these rallies to build for even greater mass action to defeat the attacks. Rather, they used the rallies to allow workers to let off steam and to create the impression that they’re for a struggle, while they pursued the weak means of the grievance procedure, arbitration, and appeals to capitalist politicians (both Democratic and Republican). This approach has allowed the MTA to bankrupt the HBT.

In November, 2001, President Toussaint hailed a “breakthrough” in the struggle to defend our HBT. This was the notorious “Regional Bus Company” sellout. At the time Toussaint crowed, “There is no deal yet, but we are close enough....” When the membership, especially in Surface, denounced this deal, Toussaint & Co. hastily backed away, even claiming that they’d been against it in the first place!

Since then, Toussaint & Co. have been signaling that they plan to “save” the HBT by offering givebacks. At a special meeting about the HBT on February 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’ opinions about Contract 2002 also featured a push for HBT givebacks: “Would you pay more as an active [member] to have better retiree benefits?” Of course retirees should have full coverage – won by our own struggle, not paid for out of our own pockets. Toussaint’s opposite approach raises the suspicion that he and his machine are trying to soften the members up for give-backs, saying “It’s the best we can do.”

This makes it all the more necessary and urgent for Local 100 members to demand that the union prepare to strike in response to any attempt to cut benefits or increase member payments. We should reject any talk of “trade-offs” and fight for: 1) Continued health benefits at or above the current level with no new or increased payments! 2) No givebacks! With enough pressure, we can either force Toussaint & Co. to lead the struggle we need, or if they refuse, we can prepare a new leadership to take the fight forward to victory.

The MTA Fears Our Strength

Militant workers should gain added confidence by the fact that the MTA is so clearly scared of the potential for a strike. Technically, the MTA could have cut benefits and/or raised payments at any time in the past year-and-a-half. What’s held them back so far is their fear that we might launch a massive fight back. Toussaint claimed that “it was the threat of a strike authorization vote in August” that kept the MTA from cutting our benefits then. At the time, Toussaint kept the strike threat secret from the membership and most of the Local officers. If a secret strike threat and an obviously unmobilized membership backed the MTA down, think of what we could win with open, well-organized strike preparations!

Moreover, the fact that the MTA is using our health care as a bargaining chip against us clearly gives us the moral high ground – and we should use it! If we went on strike in defense of our health care, we could win massive popular support. After all, anger at the capitalists’ and their politicians’ refusal to provide health care for workers is widespread. Just think about the popularity of the recent movie John Q, in which Denzel Washington’s character is denied a life saving operation for his son by his employer and their HMO. He takes over a hospital at gun point to get his son the treatment he needs and receives massive public support. Crowds in the theaters even jumped up and down and yelled support! Local 100 could transfer this cinematic working-class solidarity into real life!

Now, however, the MTA is moving, if still cautiously, to force the issue. Toussaint & Co. are still hoping to postpone benefit-slashing till this December’s contract expiration. Given members’ rising anger and the impending cuts, however, the Local leadership is currently talking militant. Some even hint quietly at striking. But hints are not enough. It’s been over 22 years since the last strike, and we’re way out of practice. We must respond to the MTA’s attacks by preparing to strike.

How to Prepare to Strike

Recent Departmental meetings discussed having Days of Action immediately following the rally, with shop-gate meetings, wearing of TWU caps and tee-shirts and on-the job behavior to show the MTA that it’s our labor that makes the system run safely. The Departmental meetings were poorly organized and attended – with members not allowed to vote on anything. Further, the leadership rushed through discussions in “break-out groups,” limiting members’ contributions to brief suggestions for on-the-job organization which the officers are free to ignore. Despite the bureaucratic atmosphere, the members in attendance showed fighting spirit and creativity which the bosses should fear.

President Toussaint has expressed approval of the Days of Action, but there’s been almost no follow-through. The best way to organize would be to have Local 100-Wide Days of Action, organized by every Department together, not just at about the same time. This requires a huge effort organized centrally by the Local. It requires constantly informing the membership in meetings and in print. All Local officers and Shop Stewards should build full-time for the Days of Action. The power we transit workers will show and feel from a militant rally and Local-Wide Days of Action will start unleashing our strength. But for such actions to be most successful, they must have a clear goal: strike preparation. Unfortunately, the Days of Action seem set to be for show in some Divisions and a flop in many. This will give the leadership an excuse to say that the members “aren’t ready” for the struggle.

A Test of Leadership

Many workers voted for Toussaint expecting a leadership that would take on the bosses. RTW has made it clear that we do not believe that Toussaint is prepared to wage a serious fight against the MTA and the capitalist politicians. It’s disgraceful that the current leadership uses our rallies and struggles so that Democrats and Republicans can call on us to vote for their Taylor-Law-loving, no-pension-refund-passing asses. Now there’s even talk that if Pataki throws us a few crumbs we might support his re-election!

Transit workers, be on guard. Watch out for these fake deals that will screw us even more down the road. Don’t let the leadership pull a Willie James and try to cover a sellout with some sweet-sounding b.s. Beware of leaders who want to keep us ignorant of our own strength and dependent on the capitalists’ politicians. Real defense of our health benefits will come when we take real actions that show we mean business, and not through backroom deals with the bosses’ politicians.

It’s time to get serious. We will not accept cuts in health benefits or givebacks. Let’s send the bosses a clear message: touch our health benefits and we will shut you down! No Health Fund, No Work! Prepare to Strike!