[Editor's Note: Bus and subway workers in New York City agreed to return to work and to the bargaining table Thursday as negotiators for the Transport Workers Union and the Metropolitan Transit Authority worked on a final settlement after a two-day strike that immobilized the city. Joshua B. Freeman examines the history and issues at stake: the fight against the lie that abstract, neutral economic necessity, not the ideas and interests of the rich and powerful, are driving the demolition of our social solidarity.]
In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, 33,000 New York City transit workers did the unthinkable: They went on strike. For a quarter-century, transit negotiations in Gotham have been cliff-hangers, but each time, just as the last contract was expiring, a deal for a new one emerged, and threatened strikes did not materialize. Over those years, strikes of any kind became increasingly rare in the United States, as the use of replacement workers and threats to shut down or move operations made unions loath to use what was once a common weapon.
The current transit walkout was especially surprising, since it came in spite of a New York State law that makes public employee strikes illegal and imposes harsh penalties on striking unions and individual strikers.
Transport Workers Union Local 100 took the big risk of striking because it had little choice in the face of seemingly deliberate provocation by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs the New York City bus and subway system. The biggest sticking point in bargaining was not wages but the demand by the transit agency for radical changes in health benefits and pensions for future workers.
Currently, most transit workers can retire with full benefits once they have both worked at least twenty-five years and reached the age of 55. The MTA insisted on raising the retirement age to 62 and making new hires pay 2 percent of their salary toward health insurance. It did so in spite of repeated statements by the union and its president, Roger Toussaint, that they would not accept any contract that gave new workers worse conditions than those current union members enjoyed. At the very last minute, the MTA came up with a revised offer that no longer called for upping the retirement age but instead for new workers to contribute 4 percent more of their salary toward pension benefits than current workers, in effect a 4 percent reduction in pay. Finding this unacceptable, the men and women who at rallies chant “Who Moves New York? We Move New York” decided to stop doing just that.
The MTA position seems to have been driven more by ideology and politics than economics. This year the transit agency reported a $1 billion surplus. It claims that it will have massive deficits into the foreseeable future, and it may indeed face fiscal challenges, but the agency has such a poor record of financial projections that no one outside of its own ranks takes it numbers seriously. Furthermore, as Steven Greenhouse reported in the New York Times, over the course of the MTA’s proposed three-year contract, the increased pension contributions the agency wants from new workers would save it only $20 million, less than the cost of police overtime during the first two days of the strike.
New York Governor George Pataki appoints the largest bloc of members of the MTA board and is widely assumed to control it from behind the scenes. His delusional quest for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 may be playing a role in the MTA’s bargaining stance. As Pataki has spent much of his governorship developing pragmatic relations with liberal labor groups, his new need to appeal to Republicans outside New York might well have made a tough-guy stance toward unions suddenly attractive. Who knows? Maybe he even had fantasies of being the next Calvin Coolidge, who parlayed his crushing of the 1919 Boston Police strike into the vice-presidential slot on the Republican ticket, ultimately entering the White House when Warren Harding died in office.
One of the most distressing aspects of the transit crisis has been the callousness of the MTA demands and the brutality of the rhetoric of the agency, the Governor, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and myriad conservative commentators. The inhumanity of the MTA position becomes clear when you look at what it would mean for particular workers. Take, for example, a track worker–the job Roger Toussaint held until becoming union president. The MTA argued that it is not enough to spend a quarter-century or more moving heavy rails in dark, dank, rat-infested tunnels, inches from the third rail and passing trains that can bring instant death, to earn retirement at 55. Rather, workers should have to keep doing that grueling work into their 60s! Then Bloomberg said that union leaders had acted “thuggishly” –but how so? They didn’t beat people up or physically threaten anyone but simply withdrew their labor, an act legally protected for most workers in the United States. The Mayor went on to call the TWU and its leaders “frauds,” “cowardly” and “selfish.”
Others, like Ed Koch, who was mayor during the last transit strike, have been even more rabid in their contempt for transit workers and their union. It is hard to imagine that the same kind of language would be used against a predominantly white group. The multiracial TWU, with its prominent African-American leaders, seems to inspire a disturbing viciousness from white politicians. Thankfully, most New Yorkers do not seem to share their views, with expressions of support for the strikers common.
For three decades, business and political leaders have been chipping away at the social benefits that came out of the New Deal, union struggles and the expansive, post-World War II years of Western capitalism. Driven at first by economics, but increasingly by ideology, the crusade to dissolve all employer and state responsibility for individual welfare has swept like a grim reaper through pension plans, health insurance, labor rights and minimum wages. New York transit workers are fighting to stop that trend in their particular domain, not for themselves but for the next generation of workers. They are fighting against the lie that abstract, neutral economic necessity, not the ideas and interests of the rich and powerful, are driving the demolition of what remains of social solidarity. Their fight is worth supporting in itself, for the dignity and well-being of a group of hardworking women and men.
But it also is a fight for all of us, part of the long overdue need to stand up and say, No more.
Joshua B. Freeman, who teaches history at Queens College, is the author of Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II (New Press).