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Thousands hold demonstration outside MTA headquarters
NYC transit workers prepare for fight

By Shaun Harkin | November 8, 2002 | Page 11

NEW YORK--"We will do everything possible to arrive at a contract by December 15, but we will not surrender the right to strike!" That's the message that Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 President Roger Toussaint and thousands of rank-and-file bus and subway workers had for New York's politicians and employers October 30.

They descended on the Metropolitan Transit Authority's (MTA) midtown Manhattan headquarters as part of their fight for a decent contract. The current contract of TWU's 34,000 members expires December 15.

Major contract demands include increased health care funding, childcare, higher wages and reform of what transit workers call the MTA's "plantation mentality" disciplinary system. About 30,000 "disciplines" have been levied against transit workers in the last two years, which makes the MTA's disciplinary rate 10 times that of other transit systems. Workers in job positions held predominantly by minorities are disciplined at two to three times the rate of workers in jobs with fewer minorities.

Even though New York politicians are cutting budgets and the MTA is claiming a deficit of more than $600 million, expectations for a good contract among rank-and-file transit workers are high. Only massive and unprecedented repression by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani stopped transit workers from striking when the last contract expired in 1999.

Giuliani threatened to jail union members for saying the word "strike" and threatened to fine individual union members millions of dollars for violating New York's anti-union Taylor Law. The Taylor Law prohibits all of New York's public-sector workers from striking.

After being dealt a concessionary contract in 1999, transit workers elected union reformers headed by Roger Toussaint, who argued that TWU 100 needed a more democratic and militant direction. Since then, hundreds of new shop stewards have been trained. This contract fight will definitely test the strategy of the new leadership as well as the rank and file.

This contract is "about getting respect back, getting dignity back and decent benefits," Tommy, a token booth worker for 23 years, told Socialist Worker. "And payback for when we got screwed. "I personally expect to see a strike. I feel that the TWU needs to show people in this city who has the power. If labor turned around and pulled a one-day shut down, it would show everyone who has the power. If we go out on December 16, who will get hurt? The big companies will get it. And they will scream loud. That's my opinion."

Many transit workers at the rally expressed support for the new leadership and sensed a strike might be necessary to win a good contract.

The threat of a strike produced an immediate backlash from the New York Post, the city's most strident right-wing daily. An editorial argued that Toussaint was "out of control" and should be thrown in jail for talking about striking. In a blatant effort to whip up '50s-style red-baiting against the union, Post editors wrote a piece called "Communist Underground" attacking Toussaint and singer Harry Belafonte, who's supporting the transit workers.

Also, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is tying TWU contract demands to subway fare hikes in an attempt to pit working-class New Yorkers against the union. But the TWU has come out vocally against the hike, arguing that city politicians shouldn't be able to "play us against each other."

Given the hostility from New York's establishment, transit workers need to start mobilizing for a strike now--and build the broadest possible solidarity with New York's other powerful unions. The potential for solidarity is real.

"We're in the same boat," said Sal, who's worked for Metro North for 26 years as a member of Teamsters Local 808. "We need solidarity in New York," Sal told Socialist Worker. "All MTA should emerge. We're not second-class workers. We transport everyone to work. We even transport the rich people."

The October 30 rally was the first step. Now, union leaders are calling for members to take "direct action against" the MTA in all locations and workplaces. The rank and file need to act on this call by organizing now to enforce the present contract and prepare workplace-by-workplace to fight for the kind of contract they deserve.

Joe Cleffie, Julie Keefe and Geoff Bailey contributed to this article.

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