[OPE-L] TRANSIT WORKERS in New York City (fwd)

From: Paul Zarembka (zarembka@BUFFALO.EDU)
Date: Thu Dec 22 2005 - 08:23:03 EST

 by Jen Roesch and Alan Maass
    December 21, 2005, Socialist Worker

TRANSIT WORKERS in New York City are on an all-out strike for the first
time in 25 years against the combined wrath of the city's economic,
political and media establishment.

It's a battle that has already reverberated across the U.S. as the 33,000
men and women who keep New York's trains and buses rolling draw a line in
the sand for all workers against the relentless attacks of employers on
wages, benefits and working conditions.

Following marathon negotiations, leaders of Transport Workers Union (TWU)
Local 100 announced in the early morning hours of Tuesday that the union
had rejected the city's "final" offer and was on strike effective
immediately. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), a state
agency that runs the city's bus and subway system, immediately went to
court, and a judge imposed fines of $1 million a day against the TWU.

A transit strike is illegal under New York's Taylor Law, which prohibits
walkouts by public-sector workers. Under the law, individual transit
workers could be fined the equivalent of two days' pay for every day on

The intent of these mammoth penalties-a throwback to the judicial
union-busting of the 19th century-is obvious: to stop workers from
standing up for their rights and defending their union. The MTA wants to
make an example out of transit workers-and if they get away with it,
employers everywhere will be emboldened to demand even more concessions.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

BUT TWU members were walking proud on the picket line on the first morning
of the strike. "Sometimes you have to fight and sacrifice," said a
picketer at a transit facility on 207th Street. "We didn't want to strike,
but it's the only thing they listen to."

Much of the discussion on the picket line is about the MTA's demand for
concessions on pensions and health care. Despite the fact that the MTA
accumulated a $1 billion surplus this past year, management wants to
impose a two-tier pension system that would require new workers to
contribute 6 percent to their plans in their first 10 years of work-and to
shift more of the burden of health care costs onto workers.

The anti-strike media claim this is perfectly reasonable. But concessions
would begin the process of eroding pensions and benefits for transit
workers-and in the context of an economy where employers are increasingly
abandoning both.

On wages, the MTA's final offer is an average annual increase of just over
3.5 percent for the next three years-which is no increase at all once
inflation is accounted for.

And this is in New York, one of the most expensive cities in the country.
"They're calling us greedy," said a striker who commutes to work from New
Jersey. "I can't even afford to live in New York."

Beyond this, union members are bitter about rotten working conditions and
management's arrogant and repressive attitude in the workplace. "We get no
respect," explained a bus operator at a picket line on 147th Street in
Harlem. "They make policies we can't keep up with."

The driver, who has 16 years on the job, explained that part of the effect
of management's attack on pensions will be to boost the age at which TWU
members can retire-which means forcing workers to stay longer at strenuous
jobs. "They want to break us down-physically and mentally-before we
retire," he said.

The stakes in this fight are high. TWU members know it, and so do the many
people who found ways to show their support on the first day of the
strike. "I'll be honest with you-last night, I wasn't sure I wanted to
strike," said a bus driver from the Manhattanville depot. "But today,
being out here, I feel good, like a human being, seeing all the support
we're getting. I know we're doing the right thing, and that we need to
stand up and fight."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE MTA, the city and state governments, and the business elite are united
against the transit workers. A raving New York Daily News
editorial-headlined "Stop the strike dead in its tracks"-demanded that the
"full weight of the law must swiftly be brought to bear on the Transport
Workers Union." The editorial urged state and city officials to get a
judge to "jail [transit union leader Roger] Toussaint and his bull-headed
lieutenants," and impose fines "large enough to bankrupt the union within

New York's billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg denounced the "cowardly
attempt by Roger Toussaint and the TWU to bring the city to its knees to
create leverage for their own bargaining position."

To show that he was with the "people," Bloomberg-trailed by an entourage
of bodyguards, aides and reporters-walked across the Brooklyn Bridge into
Manhattan along with thousands of people heading to work. One problem with
the photo op-Bloomberg doesn't live in Brooklyn. He must have been driven
there by limo so he could walk back across the bridge at rush hour.

Countering the rhetoric of the politicians, workers say that their living
standards are being squeezed even harder, while the city and state give
away more tax breaks to the corporations and cater to the super-rich.

"I saw a very interesting clip today on CNN," said one striking train
operator. "They were giving an overview of the state of the strike, and in
the next sound bite, they had something about Alan Greenspan and the
Federal Reserve, and how they were watching the strike, and if we came
away with too large a wage. It sank in that the transit authority and
others in big business have to keep the workforce at a particular level,
so that there will always be a two-tier system in place in America.
They're saying: We have to do this."

At a picket line on 168th and Broadway in Harlem, another striker pointed
out that the MTA "is sitting on a billion dollars. All they care about is
lining their own pockets-this system runs on profit. They won't give up
anything. If we want crumbs, we have to fight for them."

Though you wouldn't know it from the mainstream media coverage, there is
widespread public sympathy for the transit workers. Picket lines across
the city were met with enthusiastic honks and greetings from passersby. At
the train yard at 207th Street, teachers and students from a nearby
elementary school marched up to the picket line, chanting, "TWU, we love

Public-sector workers especially recognize the importance of the transit
workers' fight. One union after another has accepted concessions in the
face of demands from Bloomberg and the city.

A labor rally on Monday brought together thousands of union members and
supporters in support of the transit workers. Speakers representing the
whole New York labor movement, plus civil rights organizations and other
struggles, rightly put the fight in the context of a broader working-class

The TWU's Toussaint addressed the issue of the Taylor Law, recalling the
defiance of the 1960s civil rights movement in the face of racist laws.
"If Rosa Parks had obeyed the law, many of us who drive the buses today
would still be sitting in the back of the bus," he said.

Toussaint's words ring particularly true in a union that is now
predominantly people of color, and where complaints of management abuse,
racism and "plantation justice" at work are widespread.

The media's bitter denunciation of the strike and obsession with
interviewing disgruntled commuters was in contrast to the situation at any
picket line, where shows of support buoyed the spirit of strikers. New
York itself felt different-like a city where working people had found
their voice and were speaking out against the assault on their living

"My father was in the 1980 strike," said a subway motorman. "He fought for
what I have now. I need to fight for my children."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE STRIKE grabbed headlines across the country for an obvious reason-New
York is the nerve center of American capitalism, and transit workers have
incredible power. The city is more dependent on mass transit than probably
any other in the country-TWU members move more than 7 million people each
day. Bloomberg's claim that the city will lose $400 million a day due to
the strike is an absurd overestimate, but the economic impact is real.

The media outbursts complain about Toussaint-for being "bull-headed," in
the words of the Daily News. But many rank-and-file activists in the TWU
are critical of the former union dissident for failing to make greater
efforts to prepare for a strike or mobilize resistance.

Toussaint won the Local 100 presidency because of discontent after his
predecessor, Willie James, folded on strike threats during a contract
battle in 1999. But Toussaint himself accepted a deal in 2002 that many
members think was a sellout-and he has since turned the New Directions
organization that brought him to power into his personal vehicle.

It's clear that Toussaint hoped to avoid a strike this time around, too.
But he faced a combination of significant pressure from within the union
for a fight, and an MTA that was determined to wrest concessions on
pensions. When the MTA's "final" offer turned out to be so bad, he had to
draw a line-and now the fight is on.

The TWU is taking a strong stand against concessions that have become a
pattern for labor over the last 25 years-which is why the strike is so
important for the embattled union movement as a whole. After years in
which unions accepted one wave of givebacks after another-most recently,
wage cuts and dumping of pensions in the airline industry-one union has
drawn a line.

At the same time, the MTA and the city are determined to break the back of
this strike. Stopping their anti-union attack will depend on translating
the sentiment of support for strikers into concrete solidarity.

The TWU has put on display for millions of people the power that organized
labor can have. "We're out here for everybody, not just us," said one bus
operator. "This isn't just about wage increases," another striker added.
"We've been treated with no dignity. It's about securing pensions and
health benefits. It's about our future."

The TWU strike is a fight for all of us-with the potential of setting a
fighting example for working people everywhere. The transit workers
need-and deserve-your support.

Danny Katch, Tiffany Paul, Sean Petty, Jessica Rothenberg, Lee Sustar,
Tamar Szmuilowicz, Hadas Thier and Chris Williams contributed to this

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Fri Dec 23 2005 - 00:00:03 EST