Whether this weekend’s Labor Notes (LN) Conference makes any contribution to workers’ struggles could be decided in just one of its sessions – Saturday morning’s discussion of “Fighting Back on the Job and in the Streets,” which includes among its panel of speakers Roger Toussaint, who was recently elected President of New York’s Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 on the New Directions (ND) “rank and file” ticket.
In the pages of Labor Notes, one prominent ND leader, no doubt speaking for many more ND’ers, hinted that the Toussaint leadership of the Local is turning its back on ND’s supposedly democratic and militant vision. But so far, these ND’ers have refused to openly contest the direction of Toussaint’s leadership, which is certainly away from mass struggle and toward compromise with the bosses. Now, with management launching unprecedented attacks against transit workers, it’s essential that these ND’ers drop the diplomacy and openly challenge Toussaint.
TWU Local 100 is a tremendously important union. Its members run the subway and bus system on which the entire New York City economy relies. A strike by Local 100 would not just have tremendous impact on the development of the class struggle in the United States. It would have a huge impact on the international class struggle, since a Local 100 strike would shut down Wall Street, the center of world imperialism.
A discussion of Toussaint’s leadership of the Local is made all the more important because Toussaint was elected as the leader of the ND ticket, the rank-and-file group long supported by LN and initiated by and mostly led by LN’s brainchildren, the Solidarity socialist group. The LN-supported Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) may have been instrumental in electing Ron Carey into power in the Teamsters, only to see him ousted by the government and replaced by Jimmy Hoffa Jr. But Local 100 represents the first time when a LN/Solidarity-backed “rank and file group” has come to power in a decisive union.
The fact that we are reading hints in the pages of LN that Toussaint may already be selling out is thus of the greatest importance.
These criticisms were made in a front page article of LN’s February edition, in an article by Local 100 Executive Board member from ND and Solidarity supporter Steve Downs. Discussing ND’s electoral victory, Downs’s article cited “backpedaling” within ND and complained:
Ironically, the near certainty of [electoral] victory in 2000 led many in New Directions to urge that the militant message be toned down – just to be safe. Instead of talking about how the union could be transformed to take on management ... most of the literature for the local-wide campaign had a bland, generic “good-unionism” feel to it ... It seemed to say that the key to change was electing the right leaders rather than an active membership.
Downs writes further:
Many of the ND officers, as well as its rank and file activists, continue to hold a vision of unionism that goes beyond simply providing a better service to the members.... the debate over the two different approaches ... will go a long way to determining the success of the new leadership ...
So what Downs first described as a decision by “many” ND members to temporarily “tone down” their “militant message” during the elections, he now admits has actually become the dropping of ND’s “vision” altogether on the part of at least some ND elected officers.
Downs wasn’t straight-forward enough to say exactly who he was talking about. But everyone in ND, and every Local 100 member paying attention, knows exactly who’s at issue here. The fact is that ND is deeply divided between two main currents: President Toussaint and his circle, still based largely in the Track Division, and Solidarity supporters Vice President Tim Schermerhorn, Steve Downs and others, who are close to Labor Notes magazine. And if Downs’s written words sound like stinging criticisms, you should hear what other ND members are saying off the record!
As a matter of fact, Downs’s criticisms of Toussaint are the height of hypocrisy. Under the Solidarity leadership of Schermerhorn and Downs, ND long ago turned its back on a perspective of mass struggle, preferring to focus on getting elected. Its newspaper, Hell on Wheels, became less militant-sounding over the course of time, ditching one militant-sounding position after another when it seemed to scare off conservative workers. For example, ND minimized any mention of the need for workers to be prepared to strike to defend themselves from their campaign material many elections ago. Thus, even when there was massive pro-strike sentiment during the last contract negotiations, ND never campaigned for a strike.
Over time, ND’s leaders increasingly turned from mobilizing the ranks, to suing the union and using the courts against the union bureaucracy. This horrible approach reinforced the idea that workers themselves are powerless, and strengthened the power of the bosses’ courts to intervene in the workers’ unions – a power which they used to remove Ron Carey and are now using to defeat union power everywhere.
In the past, Toussaint appeared as a militant critic of the Schermerhorn/Downs leadership of ND. Indeed he used to make precisely the same criticisms of Schermerhorn and Downs that they now make of him! But, when he replaced Schermerhorn as ND Presidential candidate, they seemed to switch roles. Since winning office, Toussaint has indeed taken a sharp turn to the right, towards becoming an out-and-out pro-capitalist bureaucrat.
A former supporter of the Marxist-Leninist Party, Toussaint won his militant reputation not just by advocating struggles against the bosses. His favoring of a struggle against the entire capitalist system and for socialism also contributed to his reputation.
For example, Toussaint, used to oppose any support for Democrats or Republicans. Now in office, he’s run into the arms of the Democrats, featuring reactionary Democratic Party politicians on every platform he can give them, and talking about turning the Local into a political force backing the Democrats in the way that Dennis Rivera has done with hospital workers’ SEIU Local 1199.
But what’s most decisive is Toussaint’s turn away from mass struggle. Downs’s description of ND’s election campaign “toning down” ND’s “militant message” is an understatement.
During the last contract struggle, as workers’ pro-strike sentiment rose, ND never campaigned for a strike. In fact the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) was the only grouping inside the Local to build for a strike. In spite of the fact that we were swimming against the tide of not just new repressive anti-union laws and a leadership that was colluding with management and the City Administration, but a ND “militant opposition” who wouldn’t campaign for a strike, our motion to strike was voted for unanimously not once but twice, by thousands of transit workers in a mass meeting (see Proletarian Revolution No. 60 for a blow-by-blow account of the contract struggle).
While the struggle was betrayed, the contract campaign and strike vote gave a massive boost to workers’ militancy. But not only did ND’s electoral campaign within the Local play down militancy, Toussaint used the campaign to brag that ND was not in favor of a strike, in order to win the support of the more conservative workers.
Now in power, Toussaint’s turn to the right has come at a time of serious attacks against transit workers. Using sellout provisions in the last contract negotiated by the previous Local leadership, management has withdraw its funding from the Local’s Health Benefit Fund (HBF), threatening to bankrupt it and thus take back workers’ health benefits, unless the Local agrees to massive productivity givebacks.
After months of wavering, Toussaint eventually called a mass protest rally to which thousands of angry workers turned up. But instead of using the rally to build support for a campaign of mass action against management’s attacks, workers were forced to listen to one hot-air speech from a Democratic Party politician after another.
In spite of the lousy pro-boss politicians on stage, the rally was massive and angry. Our placards reading “No Health Fund – No Work! Prepare to Strike” were snatched up by the hundred, and our leaflets arguing for such a policy were taken by thousands. Any half-decent union leadership would have used the rally to warn of even more powerful actions to come if management didn’t back down. But Toussaint turned around and immediately made it clear that he did not favor preparing to strike, and even talked about the possibility of compromise, hinting that givebacks could be traded.
According to the Chief newspaper, Toussaint refused to say that the MTA’s intransigence might cause job actions, saying, “I think there are lots of other ways for us to [get HBT funding] within the Taylor Law, whether it’s legal action, member mobilization or educating the community and the riders.” (April 6) But the Taylor Law exists precisely to prevent us from taking effective action to win our demands! Worse, Toussaint hasn’t even suggested having another rally!
This can only mean that Toussaint is prepared to make deals at the expense of the ranks in order to avoid a struggle. Shortly after the rally, Toussaint, again according to the Chief, “suggested that favorable agreements could be made on ... a large-scale apprentice program or a plan to introduce additional technological advances ...” These are on the MTA’s current wish-list of take-backs to get journeyman’s labor from lower-paid apprentices in the first place, and eliminate jobs in the second.
Emboldened by Toussaint’s show of weakness, management has refused to restore any funds to the HBT, and continues to insist on productivity givebacks. Indeed there have been negotiations between the TWU and the MTA, but Local 100 leaders haven’t reported back to the members on the results, if any.
With an approach like this, it should be no surprise that Toussaint’s been avoiding calling a general membership meeting where he’d have to explain himself to the ranks, and allow them to debate and vote on the way forward. There’s been talk for some time that the Executive Board would call such a meeting, but Toussaint’s been putting it off. Since January such a meeting has been delayed, now at least until May. Most likely, he hopes to cut a deal with management first, and present it to the membership as a fait accompli.
Many ND’ers are complaining about this, but are still hesitating to openly challenge Toussaint. That’s why it’s so important to demand that ND leaders like Downs stop whispering and hinting about Toussaint’s conservative direction: put up or shut up! With management’s attacks on our health benefits, the health and lives of workers and their families are on the line. No more diplomacy! Do what’s right for the workers or make way for those who will! A debate with Toussaint over the direction of the Local could serve to inform the membership of the union of the real issues at stake, and help them decide on the way forward.
Revolutionary Transit Worker has been the only consistent voice demanding general membership meetings and fighting for a real mass struggle to defend transit workers from the bosses’ attacks. As I wrote in RTW number 1:
We got rid of one bureaucratic obstacle. Now we have to prevent ND from becoming a new, entrenched bureaucracy. By placing demands on ND to defend the union and putting forward a strategy of mass action to fight the bosses, I aim to show that the real alternative to bureaucratic betrayals is to build a revolutionary leadership which puts workers’ interests before the capitalist system and fights for socialism.
RTW and the LRP are at the Labor Notes conference. We will challenge Toussaint and ND to engage in an open debate on the struggle to defend transit workers. The question arises, should Solidarity supporters of ND be unwilling to take on Toussaint at a Labor Notes conference they helped organize, can workers have any confidence in their readiness to stand up to Toussaint inside the transit union? Of course not!
The situation in TWU Local 100 exposes the fraud of the rank and filist approach put forward by Labor Notes, Solidarity and most of what passes for the left. By putting forward the false notion that a genuine anti-bureaucratic struggle can take place without an open fight for an anti-capitalist and revolutionary leadership and program, rank and filism fails to confront the pro-capitalist character of the labor leadership and inevitably betrays the struggle of the workers. Instead of transforming the unions, the rank and filist groups serve as the training grounds for the labor bureaucracy.
Indeed, much of the labor bureaucracy represents a “who’s who” of former leftists who “made it.” In that regard, the bureaucratization in TWU Local 100 following the election victory of Toussaint and ND represents only one of a long line of similar betrayals.