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 cityâ€™s economic, political and media establishment.
Itâ€™s a battle that has already reverberated across the U.S. as the 33,000 men and women who keep New Yorkâ€™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 cityâ€™s â€œfinalâ€ offer and was on strike effective immediately. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), a state agency that runs the cityâ€™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 Yorkâ€™s Taylor Law, which prohibits walkouts by public-sector workers. Under the law, individual transit workers could be fined the equivalent of two daysâ€™ pay for every day on strike.
The intent of these mammoth penaltiesâ€”a throwback to the judicial union-busting of the 19th centuryâ€”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 workersâ€”and if they get away with it, employers everywhere will be emboldened to demand even more concessions.
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BUT TWU members were walking proud on the picket line on the first morning of the strike. â€œSometimes you have to fight and sacrifice,â€ said a picketer at a transit facility on 207th Street. â€œWe didnâ€™t want to strike, but itâ€™s the only thing they listen to.â€
Much of the discussion on the picket line is about the MTAâ€™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 workâ€”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 workersâ€”and in the context of an economy where employers are increasingly abandoning both.
On wages, the MTAâ€™s final offer is an average annual increase of just over 3.5 percent for the next three yearsâ€”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. â€œTheyâ€™re calling us greedy,â€ said a striker who commutes to work from New Jersey. â€œI canâ€™t even afford to live in New York.â€
Beyond this, union members are bitter about rotten working conditions and managementâ€™s arrogant and repressive attitude in the workplace. â€œWe get no respect,â€ explained a bus operator at a picket line on 147th Street in Harlem. â€œThey make policies we canâ€™t keep up with.â€
The driver, who has 16 years on the job, explained that part of the effect of managementâ€™s attack on pensions will be to boost the age at which TWU members can retireâ€”which means forcing workers to stay longer at strenuous jobs. â€œThey want to break us downâ€”physically and mentallyâ€”before we retire,â€ 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. â€œIâ€™ll be honest with youâ€”last night, I wasnâ€™t sure I wanted to strike,â€ said a bus driver from the Manhattanville depot. â€œBut today, being out here, I feel good, like a human being, seeing all the support weâ€™re getting. I know weâ€™re doing the right thing, and that we need to stand up and fight.â€
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THE MTA, the city and state governments, and the business elite are united against the transit workers.
A raving New York Daily News editorialâ€”headlined â€œStop the strike dead in its tracksâ€â€”demanded that the â€œfull weight of the law must swiftly be brought to bear on the Transport Workers Union.â€ The editorial urged state and city officials to get a judge to â€œjail [transit union leader Roger] Toussaint and his bull-headed lieutenants,â€ and impose fines â€œlarge enough to bankrupt the union within days.â€
New Yorkâ€™s billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg denounced the â€œcowardly attempt by Roger Toussaint and the TWU to bring the city to its knees to create leverage for their own bargaining position.â€
To show that he was with the â€œpeople,â€ Bloombergâ€”trailed by an entourage of bodyguards, aides and reportersâ€”walked across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan along with thousands of people heading to work. One problem with the photo opâ€”Bloomberg doesnâ€™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.
â€œI saw a very interesting clip today on CNN,â€ said one striking train operator. â€œThey 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. Theyâ€™re saying: We have to do this.â€
At a picket line on 168th and Broadway in Harlem, another striker pointed out that the MTA â€œis sitting on a billion dollars. All they care about is lining their own pocketsâ€”this system runs on profit. They wonâ€™t give up anything. If we want crumbs, we have to fight for them.â€
Though you wouldnâ€™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, â€œTWU, we love you!â€
Public-sector workers especially recognize the importance of the transit workersâ€™ 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 struggle.
The TWUâ€™s Toussaint addressed the issue of the Taylor Law, recalling the defiance of the 1960s civil rights movement in the face of racist laws. â€œIf Rosa Parks had obeyed the law, many of us who drive the buses today would still be sitting in the back of the bus,â€ he said.
Toussaintâ€™s words ring particularly true in a union that is now predominantly people of color, and where complaints of management abuse, racism and â€œplantation justiceâ€ at work are widespread.
The mediaâ€™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 differentâ€”like a city where working people had found their voice and were speaking out against the assault on their living standards.
â€œMy father was in the 1980 strike,â€ said a subway motorman. â€œHe fought for what I have now. I need to fight for my children.â€
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THE STRIKE grabbed headlines across the country for an obvious reasonâ€”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 countryâ€”TWU members move more than 7 million people each day. Bloombergâ€™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 Toussaintâ€”for being â€œbull-headed,â€ 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 selloutâ€”and he has since turned the New Directions organization that brought him to power into his personal vehicle.
Itâ€™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 MTAâ€™s â€œfinalâ€ offer turned out to be so bad, he had to draw a lineâ€”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 yearsâ€”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 anotherâ€”most recently, wage cuts and dumping of pensions in the airline industryâ€”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. â€œWeâ€™re out here for everybody, not just us,â€ said one bus operator. â€œThis isnâ€™t just about wage increases,â€ another striker added. â€œWeâ€™ve been treated with no dignity. Itâ€™s about securing pensions and health benefits. Itâ€™s about our future.â€
The TWU strike is a fight for all of usâ€”with the potential of setting a fighting example for working people everywhere. The transit workers needâ€”and deserveâ€”your support.
Danny Katch, Tiffany Paul, Sean Petty, Jessica Rothenberg, Lee Sustar, Tamar Szmuilowicz, Hadas Thier and Chris Williams contributed to this article.