Hell on Wheels

Since 1982, Steve Downs has worked for the New York City Transit Authority as a subway operator. He has been active in Transport Workers Union Local 100, the collective bargaining representative for 38,000 workers, from the thousands at the Transit Authority to drivers and mechanics at small bus companies. Downs has held a number of elected positions in Local 100 and is currently the chair of the 3,000-member Train Operators Division.

Local 100 is currently in the midst of one of the most bizarre union elections ever. Ballots were cast in June but will not be counted until December. Many members of the Local were ruled ineligible to vote, one aftermath of the 2005 strike in which automatic dues check-off was revoked.

Downs is part of the Take Back Our Union slate, which ran against allies of President Roger Toussaint in the recent election. Last year, Downs wrote Hell On Wheels: The Success and Failure of Reform in Transport Workers Union Local 100, a 55-page booklet about more than 25 years of rank and file organizing.

PIASCIK: What issues were transit workers facing 25 years ago when you and other activists in Local 100 founded the "Hell on Wheels" newsletter?

DOWNS: Transit workers had been through a strike in 1980. Although the strike prevented the Transit Authority (TA) from achieving the givebacks it wanted and resulted in a wage increase, it was perceived as a defeat because of the 11 days pay workers paid in fines on top of the days lost during the strike. Also around this time, the strong opposition movement that developed in the 1970s fell apart. The union leadership under President John Lawe took the contract to binding arbitration in 1982 and the arbitrator awarded the TA many of the changes the strike had prevented. So the older membership was demoralized, the TA was feeling more in charge, and the union leadership was out of touch. For example, there was no local newspaper and no local-wide membership meetings.

The city and the state were not providing funding for the transit system, resulting in more hazards on the job, and management drove the workforce harder to make up for the frequent breakdowns. By the mid to late 1980s, the union leadership had adopted the perspective that givebacks were inevitable, so their role was to fight to get something in exchange, not to prevent them. In addition, the union leadership was predominantly white and was seen by the predominantly Black and Latino membership as unrepresentative and out of touch. Departments tended to be run either by appointed staff or by officers elected by the membership at large. This created situations where vice presidents were rejected by the majority in their departments, but were elected because they got enough votes from members in other departments.

What were the goals of those associated with the "Hell on Wheels" newsletter, which later became the New Directions rank and file group?

Our goals were to put the members in charge of the union in the expectation that this would lead to a more aggressive stance toward management. We worked first just to make connections between workers in different titles and different parts of the union. We organized on the job and through the newsletter to resist management’s drive for givebacks and greater control on the job and pushed the union to be more aggressive in defending its members as well. We wanted a more democratic union, but that was not an end in itself. It was a means toward building stronger organization on the job and toward a more successful resistance to management’s demands for givebacks. We also expected that a more democratic union would make more of an effort to link up with other unions and community groups fighting for more resources for schools, public hospitals, and against racism in city government, and other issues.

Different people associated with "Hell on Wheels" had different approaches toward achieving those goals. We published the newsletter to provide information about what was going on throughout the local and to encourage those members who were standing up to management to see themselves as part of a broader fight.

On the job we organized among our co-workers to refuse unsafe work or to "work to rule" in response to supervisors’ efforts to push the workers harder. Within the union, we advocated for changes that we thought would make the union more responsive and accountable. In 1988, we formed a coalition with the Nubian Society, an African-American fraternal organization, and created the New Directions (ND) electoral slate. We continued to publish "Hell on Wheels" and in 1992 we transformed ND from an electoral coalition to a caucus within the union. We used election campaigns to promote our vision of how the union structure should relate to the members and the broader working class community in New York City.

What did you mean when you wrote in your booklet that in the early years some members of New Directions "didn’t think that replacing the top officers would be enough or was even the place to start?"

We believed that the key to changing the union and its relationship with management lay with the members. If they were organized on the job to assert some control over how the job was worked, then they could force changes in the practices of both management and the union. By the same token, if there was not a significant layer of the membership prepared to fight on the job on a daily or weekly basis, then there was little any set of officers, no matter how militant, could do to improve conditions or win substantially better contracts.

Some in New Directions, including current local president Roger Toussaint, put greater emphasis on gaining elected office as the key to changing the union. How did those differences play out and why did Toussaint’s approach win out?

In a nutshell, ND became increasingly divided over this question. As ND won more and more positions in the subway division, but could not break through to any of the local-wide seats, ND members holding office became increasingly frustrated by their exclusion from contract talks and their inability, ultimately, to shape the contracts. They concluded that winning the top position in the union was necessary to achieve ND’s goals. In addition, as ND became more successful, it attracted the participation of members and low-level officers who saw it as a way to advance within the union. Over time, these developments shifted the political weight within ND decisively toward those who saw winning the top as the key to reform within Local 100.

Toussaint joined ND rather late, in 1997. Prior to that, he had built a base for himself in the Track Division and was elected its chair in 1994. His own evolution reflected the change in ND’s approach. He had originally criticized ND for being too interested in running for office. Then, after deciding to run and winning in Track, he ran up against the wall of union staff and higher-up officers keeping him from organizing more effectively. He was the driving force behind a lawsuit filed by ND in 1999 to allow division chairs into contract negotiations—a position he has rejected since becoming president. One of the reasons he became ND’s nominee for president in 2000 was that he gave voice to the feeling of many members that nothing could be accomplished without winning the top positions of the union.

Some in labor and in the media hailed Toussaint’s election in 2000 as a potentially significant breakthrough for New York’s labor movement, yet he has worked in opposition to ND’s own platform. Have the last nine years been business as usual or have there been positives as well?

There have been positive developments in the last nine years, but they have been largely outweighed by the negative. For example, partly because of his experience in the Track Division, Toussaint has placed greater emphasis on safety. He negotiated language in the 2002 contract that establishes a clear procedure for any member to challenge what they consider to be an unsafe condition without risking being disciplined.

There are other examples where there is the appearance of something positive without the substance. The best example is the stewards program. Over 1,000 members were trained as stewards in the first two years after ND won office, but they were not given any real role in representing the membership. In fact, most of them found they had little to do but pass out leaflets and soon stopped being active. There are probably only a few dozen stewards from that time still active.

The Local also lined up with the progressive wing of labor on some important issues. In 2003, it adopted a position against the war in Iraq and a few years later sponsored the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. But little has been done to popularize these issues among the membership. Representation of the Local at demos or marches is almost entirely staff, not rank and file members.

The Local has fallen back into the mold of business or service unionism, albeit with a progressive veneer.

Despite the reluctance of the leadership and in defiance of the Taylor Law, Local 100 went on strike in 2005. What caused the strike?

The causes of the strike were complicated. First, the TA, backed by then Governor Pataki, acted in a provocative manner by placing a demand for changes in the pension for new hires on the table at the last minute.

Toussaint, by his own admission, did not believe he could get the membership to approve a contract unless there was a strike. Toussaint, knowing that he was going to agree to givebacks, believed that the membership would not approve the contract or, by extension, re-elect him, unless they believed that he had made every effort to win a contract without making givebacks. He called the strike, at least in part, to convince the membership that he had done everything possible.

A large part of the membership wanted to hit back at the TA for all the petty abuse we’ve been subjected to over the years. To a considerable extent, ND was elected in 2000 to lead a strike. The strike itself was long overdue. However, preparations were poor and it was poorly led.

In the weeks leading up to the expiration of the contract nothing had been done to organize the membership for picketing. At a mass membership meeting a week before the contract’s expiration, nothing was done. Members were not told where to report, how many hours of picketing were expected of them, and picket captains were not chosen or trained.

The list of picket locations posted on the local’s website the night the strike was called did not include Rapid Transit Operations worksites. When the strike was called, members spontaneously went to the place they normally report for work or to the nearest subway terminal. When they arrived, there were no pickets but the members took it upon themselves to go into the terminals, tell the workers who were inside that the strike was on, and then went back outside to set up picket lines. In the morning, some called the union hall or union reps they knew and asked for picket signs. They were told there were no pickets at those locations. The members had to tell the officers that picket lines were up and the local needed to get picket signs and some sort of instructions out to the field.

On the second day of the strike, at Bedford Park in the Bronx, we began talking about picketing Metro-North sites, which provides commuter railroad service to the northern suburbs and parts of Connecticut. We collected names and phone numbers of people who would be willing to picket to have a greater impact on transportation in the city. This never happened because the strike ended.

Members had mixed feelings when the strike ended. On the one hand, because the Taylor Law provides for fines against each striker as well as against the union, they knew the fines were mounting and were glad to get back to work before they lost even more money. On the other hand, they felt that they were finally in a position to make significant gains in the contract and force management to treat workers with greater respect. Given the way things stood when they returned to work, it was not clear that any of that had been achieved.

On my picket line, we read between the lines of the statements released by the arbitrator and it was pretty clear that Toussaint had agreed to shifting some of the cost of health care onto the workers.

Moderate forces in the labor movement might say that the penalties from striking indicate that with the Taylor Law, the downside of a strike far outweighs any benefits. Was there a way the 2005 strike could have been victorious?

I think there are a couple of different ways to answer this. First, if possible, unions should avoid striking without preparation. If the Local 100 leadership had spent the months leading up to the contract expiration preparing for the possibility of a strike, the outcome could have been different. Preparations would have included working with officers and members to define core issues around which the union might strike and organizing demonstrations and work-to-rule efforts to build the membership’s unity and spirit. We should have lined up support from other unions—not just a couple of union leaders at rallies but concrete ways in which members of other unions could show their support.

A number of unions—especially the United Federation of Teachers—brought coffee and doughnuts to picket lines. That’s a nice gesture, but imagine the impact if a coalition of unions or the Central Labor Council had been prepared to call a rally in support of the strike on the second day. And the union leadership and membership had been committed to resisting any givebacks. The membership was ready, but the leadership was not. They stood against an effort to shift some of the cost of pensions onto the workers, but then agreed to shift some of the cost of health care onto members.

Second, we have to think about what "victory" means in a strike. Obviously, one definition is getting a better wage and benefits package than the union would have gotten without a strike. But even with the fines, the strike could have been victorious if it had resulted in a more united and determined membership and if it had produced a shift in the balance of power on the job in favor of the union. By all of those measures, the 2005 strike failed, but it didn’t have to.

What is the situation in the Local today and are there opportunities for increased rank and file activity?

Almost half of the membership is in bad-standing and therefore unable to participate in the union because they’re not up to date with their dues. The electoral opposition coalition, of which I’m part, Take Back Our Union, has focused on issues of union democracy and rebuilding on the job, but its vision of the medium-term goals is poorly defined.

A recomposition is taking place within the union as the leadership that was elected in 2000 works hard to retain control for the sake of control and a new layer of activists challenges that leadership and begins to define itself and its goals and attempts to assert itself within the union. But at present, the bulk of the membership is sitting on the sidelines as this process unfolds.

What is your view of the labor movement in the U.S. and are there lessons from your 25 years experience in Local 100 that apply as general guidelines?

I am as convinced as ever about the critical importance of democracy within unions if they are to have any chance of successfully standing up to management. I don’t just mean the formal rules that are necessary for fair elections, although those are critically important. I’m also referring to the need for unions to build a culture of democracy in which it is taken for granted that people working toward a common goal—strong and effective unions—will disagree about the best way to achieve that goal. In my experience, no one faction within the union has all of the answers about how best to move the union forward. The more activists and members with different points of view learn to respect those they disagree with, the easier it will be to draw on the resources and skills of all the members in building strong unions.

I am as convinced as ever that a union that does not establish a strong presence where its members are working will wither. No matter how committed or hard working the officers are, without a strong presence on the job, they will become frustrated at how hard they work and how little they achieve. They will begin to blame the members for their lack of involvement and will look for shortcuts to maintaining the union as an institution (as opposed to a living part of members’ lives) in the face of hostile employers.

Finally, all employers are hostile. When dealing with management, there is no common ground, no win-win solution to the problems workers face. That’s why, no matter how weak a union becomes, there is always resistance by workers to what their boss wants. And that resistance on the job provides the basis for rebuilding and reviving unions.


Andy Piascik is a writer and rank and filer from Connecticut. His articles have appeared in Union Democracy Reviewand other labor publications.