Transit workers strike for dignity
Published Dec 21, 2005 11:52 PM
|TWU under siege|
thousand rank and file members of TWU Local 100 are under siege. The union is
being fined $1 million a day. Members are losing two days’ pay for each
day of the strike. Billionaire Mayor Bloomberg, who has called the members
“thugs,” is seeking a temporary court injunction charging the union
with “criminal contempt.”
If the judge agrees, the TWU leaders
could be jailed and additional fines added of $25,000 a day on each member. The
judge also fined two Queens TWU locals—Local 726 at $50,000 a day and
Local 1056 at $75,000 a day for going on strike earlier. Both unions work for
private sector bus companies and are not subject to the anti-union Taylor Law.
Dec. 20—The strike is on.
At 3 a.m. on Dec. 20, 34,000 members of Local 100, Transport Workers Union,
fired-up and resolute, walked off their jobs.
Earlier, President Roger
Toussaint had rejected the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s
“final” offer and then convened a TWU executive board meeting. A
majority voted to strike. A much smaller group opposed the strike under the
influence of the International TWU bureaucracy.
After the strike vote,
Local 100 leaders instructed their elected officers, stewards and rank and file
to proceed to pre-planned picket lines. Public transit in New York City, the
center of finance capital, was shut down.
Rally in front of Gov. Pataki’s office.
In spite of the major holiday
season, the MTA provoked this costly shutdown. MTA chairperson Peter Kalikow,
Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, blinded by their sense of power,
had refused to bargain in good faith. Throughout the negotiations they
threatened the transit union with the repressive, anti-union Taylor Law, but
they miscalculated the anger of the rank and file.
The fury against these
servants of the ruling class—who are racist, pompous and
arrogant—was clearly evident hours before the strike. Thousands of trade
unionists from every major union in the city converged on Governor
Pataki’s office in midtown Manhattan. With speeches, placards and chants,
they sent a powerful message that the labor movement was ready to back up the
decision of TWU Local 100 to shut the city down. It was an awesome display of
TWU workers, Dec. 19.
Hours later, the transit workers had exercised their
righteous democratic right to withhold their labor power. Hundreds of trains and
buses stood empty.
A citywide shutdown, not seen for 25 years, could be
the catalyst to push back the repressive, anti-union racist climate in this city
and far beyond.
An unacceptable offer
The MTA executives
caused this strike. They offered a take-it-or-leave-it two-tier contract. New
workers would have to pay 1 percent of their wages toward health care; pension
contributions would go from 2 percent to 6 percent, and retirement age would go
from 55 to 62.
Regarding existing workers, the MTA demanded the right to
move them around the system, close booths and eliminate conductors, endangering
the safety of workers and straphangers. It has set higher levels of productivity
to speed up operations and has handed down unprecedented disciplinary citations
against the rank and file. The wage increase now being offered is far short of
the rising cost of living.
In a splendid show of solidarity, over 700 bus
drivers who serve some 60,000 riders in Queens walked off their jobs 24 hours
before the citywide strike. Employed by two private bus companies that were
recently bought by the MTA, they have been without a contract for almost three
The Queens strike should have been a wakeup call to the MTA that
the TWU meant business. The union knew the MTA had accumulated a surplus of over
$1 billion in this fiscal year.
The MTA gets revenue from sales taxes paid
by the public, real estate transfer taxes, frequent increases in fares and
bridge and tunnel tolls—another form of tax on the straphangers—and
vast holdings of valuable real estate. It has accumulated billions of dollars in
its treasury, much of which is hidden in financial manipulations. The union knew
the MTA was cooking the books.
The majority of the privately appointed MTA
board was handpicked by Governor Pataki and billionaire Mayor Bloomberg, the
soul-mates of bankers and bondholders who receive huge profits from exorbitant
interest rates on the MTA’s huge debt. These parasites, along with
well-heeled contractors, are the primary beneficiaries of the MTA
On Dec. 15, the day the transit contract expired, the MTA passed a
$9.3 billion budget for 2006 that included the $1 billion surplus but offered
nothing new to the 34,000 transit workers. The board passed it unanimously to
avoid putting any of the surplus into the wage and benefit package. Peter
Kalikow, MTA chairperson, had ignored the TWU’s request to postpone budget
talks until after a new contract was signed.
The TWU could have gone on
strike that night, when the contract expired. But 7 million bus and subway
riders could have been stranded. The union postponed the citywide shutdown, and
New Yorkers grew to appreciate its sensitivity to their
Threats and insults
Governor Pataki arrogantly
threatened the union: “I have three simple words. ‘Don’t do
it.’” He praised the MTA for its hardball stance.
Bloomberg chimed in with bullying threats of his own and issued an executive
order declaring a state of emergency. He filed a lawsuit calling for fines
against Local 100 of $1 million a day, plus an additional $25,000 against each
rank-and-file member, to be doubled each day of the strike. In response to this
insolence, TWU President Toussaint tore up the order to the thunderous cheers of
thousands of rallying workers.
MTA chairperson Kalikow didn’t show
up at the negotiations until the eleventh hour on the last day before the strike
deadline, when he issued a statement that an impasse had been reached.
All the big shots were threatening the union that the Taylor Law would be
used. This law imposes jail time on union leaders and fines the workers two
days’ pay for each day of the strike. The fines the mayor wants to impose
would be on top of this!
The repressive, anti-union Taylor Law needs to be
challenged. It is unconstitutional and illegal. It bars public sector unions in
New York State from exercising their right to free speech, free assembly and the
right of due process.
Now that the city is shut down and the picket lines
are in place, the struggle will quickly move to the courts, where high-priced
state and city lawyers will file reams of papers for injunctive relief and
lawsuits charging “contempt” of the Taylor Law. This is not the
transit union’s turf, but it has able lawyers who will challenge the
anti-union repressive arguments. The judges involved will hear the arguments,
but there will be other issues on their minds as they hand out the
The silent cash registers in the shopping malls, the paralysis
surrounding Wall Street and big business, who can’t ring up those billions
if workers can’t get to work on time or can’t get there at
all—this will pervade their thoughts. A fragile U.S. economy could be
impacted. The judges, sensitive to the broader interests of the ruling class,
may be wise enough to pressure the MTA executives to get the strike settled and
go deeper into their pockets to get the TWU back to the table.
lines between the labor movement and the Wall Street exploiters are being
sharply drawn. The New York Central Labor Council, representing over 1 million
members, has joined the fray. And this crisis goes far beyond New York. The
issues are health care, pensions, safety on the job and a decent standard of
living affecting millions, organized and unorganized. Most important is the
fight to end two-tier contracts. TWU Local 100 is holding the line.
Standing up for future workers
The union wants the young and
newly hired workers to get the same benefits as the current employees. This is a
principle of the labor movement that has been lost in recent decades under an
assault by the bosses. They have followed a deliberate tactic of dividing
workers and weakening their unions, setting the young and unorganized against
the organized sector.
The TWU is demanding the $1 billion surplus be used
to include the needs of the “unborn”—workers not yet hired.
Other wise, the MTA hands it over to the rich, the greedy and corrupt.
right-to-strike issue goes far beyond the borders of New York state. It is an
inviolable right, a powerful weapon necessary to win a measure of justice for
the labor movement. The strike weapon forces the rich and powerful to recognize
that workers have power. A strike teaches the workers to measure their strength
in a collective struggle and tests the weaknesses of the employers.
strike raises the potential for class-wide solidarity, while recognizing the
struggle against racism and the right of the nationally oppressed to
self-determination. Workers and the oppressed nationalities will be able to
separate friend from foe. A strike makes it clear that class collaboration only
serves the interests of the bosses, the government and the laws used against
unions. Labor needs to build an independent movement free from the machinations
of capitalist political parties.
The workers’ sacrifices and heroic
acts of defiance bring forth leaders who can rise to the needs of the strike. A
strike is a school of class warfare and elevates the economic struggle to a
political level. Strikes are contagious, they spread. Shutting down New York
City, the financial sector, the heartbeat of monopoly capitalism, will resonate
nationally and internationally.
For the 34,000 multinational transit
workers, men and women, and their leaders, the decision to strike was an awesome
responsibility. They knew that to shut down the city during the height of
holiday shopping would bring forth the wrath of state repression.
one-day walkout by other city unions in sympathy with the transit workers, whose
issues affect all city unions and their members, might bring the MTA and the
servants of Wall Street to their senses.
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