On December 10, at the biggest Local 100 Membership Meeting in decades, up to 5,000 New York City transit workers voted unanimously to authorize a strike. We left the meeting feeling the power we have when we are united in struggle.
The MTA, with a $1 billion-plus surplus, arrogantly says that they have no money to spare and that we workers have plenty anyway. Their insulting wage “offer” of 3% and 2% depends on sick leave reduction, i.e., us coming to work sick – as if enough workers haven’t already died on the job to satisfy management! Their demands for other takebacks, especially from new hires, and for job combinations (“broadbanding”) outrage us.
Local President Roger Toussaint, talking militant, urged the strike authorization vote. He denounced the MTA’s attacks. The strike authorization vote brought the members to their feet. Through most of the meeting, however, most listened carefully and warily, neither cheering nor applauding.
They have much to be wary about. For the preceding two months, Toussaint & Co. had issued little information about negotiations. There were no mass rallies, just dispersed mini-rallies and few public criticisms of the MTA coming from the union hall. From time to time, Toussaint signaled his willingness to meet the MTA halfway, especially on broadbanding (telling the New York Times that he could “live with” some “sensible” broadbanding if it was compensated for). But our growing fighting spirit, together with the MTA’s stubborn insistence on givebacks, has put him in a bind. The MTA has offered nothing which Toussaint could sell to us, and mass membership anger threatens to get out of Toussaint’s control.
At the meeting, therefore, Toussaint announced a mass rally for December 13. He accurately condemned the MTA’s failure to bargain “in good faith” (not that they ever do). He said, as before, “A Deadline is a Deadline,” and even, for the first time in years, “No Contract, No Work.” By appearing to encourage our rage, Toussaint hopes to stay in front of our struggle. By wielding a real threat of strike, he hopes to make the MTA cough up a deal he can sell as “the best possible,” just like last time. The members are united to fight the TA and most seem willing to give Toussaint the benefit of the doubt, for now. But all evidence shows that Toussaint can’t be trusted to not sell us out. The ranks will have to fight to hold him to his promises.
Toussaint went all out to retain control at the Mass Membership Meeting. RTW supporters had joined with other Local 100 members to circulate thousands of copies of a motion requiring the Executive Board to call a strike if the TA does not agree to our basic demands. We also distributed placards affirming the ranks’ demands and readiness to strike for them along with the infamous picture of Toussaint hugging TA boss Kalikow after his last deal and warning “We Can’t Let This Happen Again!” Knowing this motion ordering a strike had great sympathy among the ranks, Toussaint did everything he could to stop the members from having their say.
Before the meeting even started, though, Toussaint’s goons (a.k.a. “Union Staff,” many of them unelected flunkies living off our dues money) threatened and tried to intimidate dissident Local members, including RTW supporters, from distributing their literature. When that didn’t work, the “Staff” confiscated placards, leaflets and motions from members lined up to enter the meeting hall.
In the meeting hall itself, there were no floor-microphones set up, nor was any other opportunity for rank-and-file members to have their say. Instead, the membership was supposed to sit and listen and support Toussaint when told to. It was as if the Local is Toussaint’s and we’re just visitors.
After a speech by Jesse Jackson, Toussaint took the floor and eventually brought up the MTA’s attacks: their demands for new employees to pay 2% of their wages for health insurance, their insulting wage “offer,” and their refusal to even talk about most issues. He denounced the proposed broadbanding, for example, of Cleaners, Conductors and Train Operators. He even mentioned the forcing of Station Agents from their booths as an example – which is already happening, and which Toussaint has barely fought except to file a losing arbitration case.
Then Toussaint called on the ranks to authorize the Executive Board to call a strike if it so wishes. This was a trick he also used last time to avoid a vote on a motion that would have forced a strike if our basic demands are not met. It is the clearest proof that Toussaint still hopes to avoid a strike by cutting a sellout deal – again. The ranks roared their approval for a strike and Toussaint succeeded in his plan.
While Toussaint still hopes to reach a sellout deal, the TA and politicians may demand givebacks which he feels he can’t agree to without being tossed out of the Local. This is now key: the ranks must pressure Toussaint to keep his promises. The ranks who cheered a strike will turn on the Local leadership with a fury when he betrays them again. It’s that threat that can push Toussaint to call a strike rather than sell us out this time.
The same day as the Mass Membership Meeting, the Executive Board voted to make 8%, 8% and 8% raises each year our official demand (apparently to head-off growing support for the call for 10%, 10% and 10%). But Toussaint didn’t specify any other demand we’re fighting for, while laying out a list of management demands which the union is against. This continues his strategy of lowering expectations: if we don’t specify what we’re fighting for, he can say that anything he brings back is what we wanted all along.
However Toussaint motivated the strike vote with opposition to the MTA’s attacks. To defend ourselves against these attacks, we will have to strike. At the rally and everywhere we should make these our minimum demands:
8%, 8% and 8% Wage Raises!
No Broadbanding of Any Kind!
No Health Care Cuts or New Payments!
No Pensions Givebacks!
No Two-Tier Provisions!
Maintain and Improve Safety Procedures!
Former/Current Private Bus Line Workers Settlement at NYCT or Their Own Standards, Whichever Is Better!
A Deadline Is a Deadline – No Contract, No Work!
And if we strike, we must raise the demand for Amnesty From All Taylor Law Penalties! If the TA forces us to strike to win what we deserve, we shouldn’t have to pay back a cent in penalties to a police-state measure that tries to criminalize workers’ elementary right to strike!
Toussaint & Co. want to avoid a strike even if it means making big concessions to management. That’s why they’ve tried to avoid mobilizing the ranks until now. They’ve wanted us demobilized so as not to be pressured into a strike from below. But now they are also being pushed toward a strike by management and we aren’t prepared. We don’t know where to go or what to do. We’ve got to have a plan for turning this around quickly.
The alternative leaderships in the Local so far aren’t showing the way forward either. While RTW was able to join with others to circulate the motion to strike at the Mass Membership Meeting, most of the burden of leafleting was borne by us, Station Executive Board Member Marty Goodman and a few others. Transit Workers for a Just Contract, the remnants of New Directions, circulated a passive petition against givebacks instead of backing a motion to strike. Vice-Presidents Pelletier (Busses), Stewart (CED) and Mooney (Stations) stated support for the strike motion and helped arrange it. From the meeting stage, however, where they had some presence due to rank, they were invisible except when introduced by Toussaint – when they might have had a chance to shout out support for the members’ right to speak and for a real strike motion.
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. RTW and others favored the formation of a mass Rank-and-File Strike Committee at the Javits Center Meeting. We still need such committees to be set up throughout the system and elected by the ranks to organize picketing, demonstrations, communications and so on.
Workers should demand that their elected officials at every level call meetings in our shops, yards and crews to elect such committees with the greatest possible participation of the ranks. Every union official from Toussaint down should be called on to support the immediate formation of strike committees. But particular pressure should be put on opposition officials like VPs Pelletier, Mooney and Stewart to take the lead in setting-up Strike Committees. And if such established leaders fail to do so, new ranks of militant workers can show the way forward by organizing them. In the course of a strike, these committees could link up and centralize the organization of the struggle.
The formation of strike committees to ensure a strong, disciplined strike is crucial because we can expect Toussaint & Co. to continue to try keep the membership passive and disorganized even during a strike – the better to send us back to work as soon as they cut a deal. Indeed with the threat of a sellout we must also fight for a Mass Membership Meeting to Approve Any Proposed Deal! If we strike, we can’t afford to lose our momentum by going back to work on a tentative contract the members may reject when they vote on it.
For as long as the ranks hope that Toussaint & Co. will lead the fight, militant workers will have to focus pressure on them and warnings to the ranks to beware of a sellout. But if and when Toussaint & Co. turn to block the struggle, militants will have to be ready to push them to the side and take the fight forward. In this way, through the course of a strike, a new generation of working-class leaders can come forward.
The capitalists are worried about a transit strike because the damage inflicted by their profit-making is becoming clear to workers everywhere. From the racist, anti-working class atrocity of the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, to the bloody imperialist occupation of Iraq, the ruling class spreads misery to masses and hoards fortunes for itself. Here in New York, the same Mayor who just spent $75 million of his loose change to buy the recent election is preparing to condemn transit workers as greedy! Working class anger at capitalist attacks is widespread. The conditions are ripe for an explosion of struggle, particularly if a powerful group of workers shows the way. That’s what we can do by going on strike! Immediately, we can win support among the “riding public,” that is, the NYC area working class, by making No Fare Hikes or Service Reductions a strike demand. This would stand in sharp contrast to Toussaint’s begging for riders’ sympathy. The politicians and bosses say that we have to sacrifice because the city and state are in debt. In fact, the City, State and TA together pay billions of dollars a year in debt service to Wall Street. Many of the original loans have been repaid several times over, but they are still paying interest out of our pockets! In other words, the deficit is really Wall Street’s demand for still more profits. The answer is for the working class to fight to Repudiate the Debt to the Banks and Corporations! and to Make the Capitalists Pay for Their Economic Crisis!
The Local should go directly to the members and leaders of other unions urging them to 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.
We could turn the sympathy of the rest of the working class into active support by holding mass meetings open to all workers and invite union leaders and members and workers at large to attend. We could plan together to keep our strike strong while arranging provisioning, travel and other vital services for workers in the city. We could raise the possibility of a General Strike in which all workers mobilize to stop the bosses’ attacks.
Mass working-class struggles against the capitalist attacks are inevitable. Through such struggles more and more workers will come to see that our class has the power to not just beat back the attacks but to overthrow the capitalist system. Our class has the potential to do away with capitalism’s exploitation, oppression, racism and wars and build a classless society of abundance and freedom: a socialist society.
In the course of the current transit struggle RTW and its supporting organization, the League for the Revolutionary Party, hope to get in touch with other workers who are thinking along these lines. Together we can do more than play a decisive role in the contract fight. By joining to build a revolutionary socialist party we can prepare to fight to win even greater victories in the future.
RTW wants to become a voice for all transit workers. So let us know what’s happening in your division, either in the union or on the job. If we think your letter raises issues that are important for all transit workers to read, we’ll publish it in RTW.
Let us know what you think of our views. If you agree, let us know. If you disagree, let’s discuss it.
Write to us at:
RTW, P.O. Box 1936
Murray Hill Station
New York, NY 10156
Or send us an e-mail!