NYC Subway Workers Fight for Survival
Steve St. Hill is lucky to be alive. A track worker with New York City Transit for 15 years, St. Hill was working on the N/W line in Queens last September when a train failed to stop, going through his work site. A flagger blew his air-horn in time for St. Hill to jump to safety. The near miss was the result of workers being pressured to take shortcuts on track safety. The incident happened five months after two track workers—Marvin Franklin and Daniel Boggs—died in separate work accidents, prompting NYC Transit and the leadership of their union, Transport Workers Union Local 100, to strengthen track safety rules.
For many of the subway system’s thousands of Maintenance of Way employees, the new rules NYC Transit President Howard Roberts and Local 100 President Roger Toussaint introduced have done little to promote workplace safety. In June power distribution maintainer James Schaeffer sustained serious burns on his arms and face during a work accident involving the electric third rail at the Cypress Hills station in Queens on the J line. Track worker Martin Meyers fell from the work platform and was severely injured last August, according to the union. Some workers are challenging both their employer and their union president, a former track worker, on this issue.
NYC Transit had changed several rules in the wake of the two deaths in April. The use of noisy generators is now discouraged. Work in areas where safety alarm boxes are non-operational is now banned and a joint management/labor team will inspect work sites. Some workers call it small improvements on things that should have been going on anyway.
Toussaint and Roberts said they would tackle the issue of the “organizational culture” that encouraged workers and supervisors to take short cuts on safety. But St. Hill’s recent brush with death keeps him skeptical. The reason the accident happened was that the foreperson was working rather than overseeing, he says. Supervisors scold forepeople if the work doesn’t get done fast enough and managers don’t prioritize track safety, according to many workers. Steve Downs, the train operator division chair, says one worker was docked 15-days pay for questioning track safety on her work site. Not only are the recent rule changes not enough, but the culture, St. Hill says, simply hasn’t changed.
For years, the union fought to change this legislatively. NYC Transit, despite being a subsidiary of the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is not regulated—unlike most railroad companies in the U.S. The Track Safety Bill, drafted by Brooklyn-based track inspector and former Toussaint ally turned opposition leader John Samuelsen, would have instituted concrete safety regulations. Passed by both houses and vetoed by then-Governor George Pataki in the 1990s, the bill stalled again this past June in the State Senate. In reaction, Toussaint supported a bill establishing a track safety task force made up of union, management, and government representatives, which the governor eventually signed.
Some flaggers and power distribution maintainers saw the task force as a step in the right direction. Toussaint defended the compromise saying, “This bill makes government action for track safety proactive, not reactive…. Now, there is an official, mandated process with aggressive steps to make the tracks safer on an ongoing basis. Any of us on the task force, including the union representative, can call for an emergency meeting within 10 days. And the task force monitors any changes in track safety procedures.”
But Samuelsen isn’t buying it. “Initially, because Toussaint was unable to achieve any tangible gains in track safety, he had to do something to give the appearance of a victory and that’s all this does,” he says. “The play book on how to save Transit workers’ lives was contained in the original track safety bill.”
Toussaint’s political power was drastically reduced after a three-day strike in December 2005, which was illegal under the state’s Taylor Law (public employees don’t have the right to strike). As a result of the work stoppage, a court ordered the union to pay a $2.5 million fine and lose the right of dues check-off for 90 days starting June 1 (normally, union dues are automatically deducted from each member’s paycheck). The union has been forced to organize all 35,000 Transit workers to pay dues on their own and, while it has recently refused to reveal how many workers it has organized to pay, some members believe the number is anywhere between 25 and 40 percent of the membership.
The loss of dues check-off puts Toussaint in a position where he must win the support of the MTA to encourage the court to reinstate dues check-off since the 90 days have passed. What this means, as many labor experts point out, is that Toussaint has had to show that the union will work with, rather than against, NYC Transit and the MTA.
TWU worker at union hall protest—photo by Pat Arnow
Track worker Eric Josephson, who started working on the tracks 23 years ago with Toussaint, saw his fellow union member change. Toussaint was a progressive, outspoken, and militant track worker in the 1990s. An immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago, he embraced various social justice causes and became a symbol of resistance when he fought against his firing by NYC Transit, who had accused him of trying to defraud the authority of workers’ compensation. As the union’s Track Division chair, he fought the timid approach of representing members by then-President Willie James. His charisma and tenure as leader propelled him to the union’s presidency in 2000.
But people from across the union say that he has become what he once railed against. “He is now a broker for our labor,” Josephson says. “He was an open revolutionary and he walked a very well trodden path to the center of the Democratic Party.”
As a result, the division of the union that helped bring Toussaint to power has become a hotbed of discontent. Some elected union officials in Maintenance of Way have been educating their members on track safety and asking them what rules their managers are breaking and with which ones they are complying. Samuelsen, who unsuccessfully ran for the number two position in the union in the last election in 2006, plans to lead a slate against Toussaint or his tapped successor in the next election in 2009, hoping to use the issue of track safety as leverage.
“Under the existing NYC Transit work rules, even a minor mistake can send a worker home in a body bag,” he says. “This union must fight the MTA for work rules that account for the extreme harshness of the subway work environment.”
Ari Paul is a reporter for NYC’s Chief-Leader newspaper and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in In These Times, Citizen Culture, Time Out Chicago, and other progressive publications.