•  HOME 
  •  BOOKS 
  •  WWP 
  •  DONATE 
  • Loading

Follow workers.org on
Twitter Facebook iGoogle

Transit workers strike for dignity

Published Dec 21, 2005 11:52 PM
TWU under siege

Dec. 21—Thirty-four 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 union power.

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 years.

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 budget.

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 difficulties.

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.

Billionaire 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 penalties.

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.

The class 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.

The 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.

A 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.

A 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.