The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Transit Workers Face Fines, Internal Strife

by Michelle Chen

Faced with heavy penalties for a massive strike last December, New York City’s transport workers union is divided over how far to push in its struggle for a fair contract.

Apr. 26, 2006 – Their slogan is "We move New York," but in recent months, Transport Workers Union Local 100, has been knocked off track. In the aftermath of an illegal strike that froze the city’s bus and subway systems last December, the nearly 34,000-member union, largely comprised of people of color, has been saddled with crippling fines, a jail sentence for its leader, and a tentative contract deal riddled with controversial compromises.

Many dissidents within the union supported the initial decision to strike, but say the union yielded to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) when it should have pushed forward. The main critics of the tentative contract accuse TWU President Roger Toussaint of selling out members with a half-baked strike plan, which ended in an agreement they call a raw deal for workers.

Train operator Steve Downs said that there is a palpable sense of frustration among the union membership. "They feel they were fools to strike against one set of givebacks only to have Toussaint turn around and agree to another set," he told The NewStandard.

Currently, the most certain outcome of the December action has been punishment.

Since New York’s labor-relations statute, known as the Taylor Law, bars public employees from striking, the union has faced heavy penalties. On April 17, State Supreme Court Judge Theodore Jones slapped the union with a $2.5 million fine – $1 million for each day of the strike. The judge additionally barred the union from automatically deducting dues from workers’ paychecks, choking off the union’s primary source of income.

Many dissidents within the union supported the initial decision to strike, but say the union yielded when it should have pushed forward.

On Monday, Toussaint marched to a downtown jail, flanked by reporters and hundreds of union activists, to begin a ten-day sentence imposed by the same court.

In his remarks before the judge, Toussaint described the strike as "civil disobedience," arguing, "This was, if anything, a defensive strike, sir."

But five months later, the union is even more on the defensive. Still without a finalized contract, many are realizing that after immobilizing the city’s transit system, the union itself is now suspended in uncertainty.

The labor agreement brokered after the three-day strike ended offers a 10.5 percent wage hike spread over three years, extended retiree health coverage, and other benefits like compensation for assaults suffered on the job. The MTA agreed not to raise pension contributions for younger hires and to provide refunds for previous excess pension payments.

But opponents within the union, including Vice President of Car Equipment Ainsley Stewart and Executive Board Member Marty Goodman, say the contract still fails to meet workers’ basic demands, including a wage increase of 8 percent per year for three years, protections from layoffs, and reforms to the employee disciplinary process.

Frustrated with the union's moderate tactics, dissenters advocate a more grassroots approach, which they say could include another strike effort spearheaded by the rank-and-file membership.

Goodman accused Toussaint of calling off the strike too soon – exhausting hard-won leverage before a contract had been solidified. "We had a hammerlock on the city and the powers that be," he told TNS. "We should have stayed out until we got a contract."

A station agent and leader of a "Vote No" campaign against the contract, Goodman suggested that many workers were more committed to striking than Toussaint was. The strike, in his view, was driven by workers’ anger over their treatment on the job. "There is no dignity there, there’s no respect," he said. "We were angry about a lot of things, not just one thing. And we would have stayed out."

In a January vote, the union rejected the contract by a margin of just seven ballots. But the MTA then petitioned the state’s Public Employment Relations Board to begin the binding arbitration procedure. Many union members anticipate that the process, which would limit the scope of contract negotiations under the authority of a three-member panel, would inevitably favor the MTA.

After the initial defeat of the contract, Toussaint advised union members to settle for the compromise. "When you get into a contract fight with the MTA, the MTA will fight back," he wrote in an open letter to the union. "Compromises will have to be made, and we made some in reaching this agreement."

The union’s executive board called for a revote, and earlier this month, members approved the contract by about 71 percent to 29 percent.

Yet at this point, the union’s belated approval of the plan could have little impact: the MTA has already initiated binding-arbitration proceedings and has publicly dismissed the revote as an "empty gesture."

But dissenters say the game of brinksmanship is far from over: under state law, both parties may still negotiate independently even after binding arbitration has been initiated.

Opponents accuse the union's leadership of aligning with the management to impose a mediocre deal on workers.

While campaigning for the contract, Toussaint, who is up for reelection later this year, alleged that union opponents were spreading "disinformation" and generally exaggerating the extent of the givebacks. Opponents in turn accuse Toussaint of aligning with the MTA to impose a mediocre deal on workers premised on fears of forced arbitration.

"The Toussaint leadership has put us in a weak, defensive position," Goodman asserted, speculating that many union members approved the contract "out of demoralization, and also to achieve a sense of closure, given the threat of binding arbitration, which is far worse."

Still, some view the contract as better than no deal at all.

"Some people felt that if they turned down the [agreement] in the first vote that we could come back to the table and renegotiate a better deal," said Michael Hom, a car-equipment worker who voted for the contract twice. "The reality is… at that point in time, when we had a deal, the leverage sort of went out the window."

Louis Moore, a train operator, said he voted against the contract and would have stayed on strike longer. "We’ve been taking short contracts for the 30 years that I’ve been in transit," he said, "so it’s about time we get something we deserve." Still, he felt that in calling off the strike, Toussaint "did what he thought was best for the workers… Because we’ve been taking short wages for so long, there’s a lot of us who couldn’t stand to stay out longer. You know, there’s a lot of transit workers who live check to check to check to check."

Earnings for the MTA’s cleaners, vehicle operators and token clerks typically range from about $40,000 to $60,000 per year. The median family income for the New York City metro area is $51,150.

Eric Josephson, a track-maintenance worker and union steward who self-publishes a newsletter called Revolutionary Transit Worker, said that workers could still resist threats of state intervention through direct pressure on the Transportation Authority.

Dissident union members are urging workers to read the fine print in the agreement: the contract would require that employees pay toward retiree health benefits, shaving off about 1.5 percent of the three-year wage increase, which critics also point out that, at about 3 to 4 percent per year, might barely keep up with or lag behind inflation. In an internal budget memo, as reported in December by the New York Times, the MTA projected that over a three-year period, those healthcare payments would save the agency between $31.5 million to $37.4 million annually. Dissenters argue that the MTA, now sitting on an estimated surplus exceeding $1 billion, should not be asking workers to sacrifice more for medical care.

The contract would also preempt another pre-holiday labor action by pushing the renewal date to from mid-December to mid-January, effectively removing the ability to launch a disruptive strike at the height of the commercial season.

"There is plenty of time to get away from [binding arbitration], to get out from it, to stop it," Josephson told TNS. "And it takes a union leadership that’s willing to rally the force of the ranks, mobilize massively." Frustrated with Toussaint’s moderate tactics, Josephson and other dissenters advocate a more grassroots approach, which they say could include another strike effort spearheaded by the rank-and-file membership.

Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at the City University of New York, said that the clashing views on the strike’s successes and failures reflect not so much an internal crisis, but rather, "a very strong culture of internal debate, and even factionalism, within Local 100 that’s been going on a long time." He added that at a time when unions are relatively quiet, the transit strike has reenergized tactical debates among labor leaders, and revealed that despite underlying dissonance, aggressive, unified actions can still make a powerful statement.

"Strikes have become an endangered species in American life over the last quarter century, so this one is particularly impressive," he said, noting that it might spur legislative action to amend the anti-strike provisions of the Taylor Law.

While the wrangling over the contract has exposed internal rifts, there are signs that adversity is uniting union members. This week, both dissenters and supporters, along with activists from several other city unions, have gathered outside the jail where Toussaint is being held to protest the jailing and the penalties levied against the union.

"While I oppose the terms of the contract as a sellout," Goodman said, "I am 100 percent behind the defense of our union, and saying: Hands off Local 100 and President Toussaint. No to the fines."

Citing a need for "a broader, more militant strategy" in the union ranks, Goodman said: "The members need to be in the driver’s seat.… We should be mobilizing to fight – not merely in court, but in the street and on the job."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Article originally appeared in the April 26, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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