TWU leader Toussaint bows to pressure from mayor
By Shaun Harkin | January 3, 2003 | Page 11
A POSSIBLE strike by New York's 34,000 bus and transit workers was averted when union leaders reached an agreement with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) December 16, a day after the old contract expired.
Even though Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 President Roger Toussaint is calling the new contract proposal a "great" deal, it contains major concessions--including a one-year wage freeze, an increase in health insurance co-payments and the removal of a no-layoff clause.
What's more, the MTA was backed by Republican Gov. George Pataki, recently re-elected with labor support, and Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who sued the union for millions of dollars in damages for simply threatening to strike.
And in a replay of the 1999 negotiations, a judge threatened to fine the union and its members millions of dollars if they had walked out in violation of the state Taylor Law, which bans strikes by public employees.
Nine members of the 48-person elected executive board of Local 100 voted to reject the contract, and two abstained. "There's a lot of anger regarding this contract," said Noel Acevede, recording secretary of Local 100, who voted against the deal. Speaking at a press conference organized to announce a vote-no campaign, he continued, "A lot of the members are not convinced. They felt that we had prepared to take it to another level, that the membership deserved better."
Acevedo is right. A week before the contract expiration TWU members unanimously voted to authorize a strike to win its demands, which included raises of 8 percent in each year of a three-year contract. But in Toussaint's proposed deal, transit workers would get a miserly lump-sum payment of $1,000--which , after taxes, will be only around $570. And wages would go up by just three percent a year in each of the next two years. But even these wage increases are conditional pending "productivity improvements."
The announcement of the deal came just hours after a spirited rally at City Hall by 4,000 transit workers and was met with surprise and anger. Many transit workers believed that the city wouldn't budge and a strike would be necessary to deliver the kind of contract they deserved.
Union leaders are attempting to emphasize the non-wage aspects of the contract, where the union made some gains. For example, the MTA agreed to create a new childcare fund costing several million dollars. Funding for pensions and healthcare was maintained. The MTA also agreed to moderate its harsh disciplinary system.
However, these advances don't make the proposed deal "great." Union leaders are painting this as a victory when they've really only averted a major catastrophe. And by removing the ban on layoffs and tying wage increases to productivity, the contract lays the basis for restructuring which will weaken the union and creates a precedent which will haunt future contract negotiations for the TWU and other city unions.
Additionally, the Work Experience Program, which puts welfare recipients to work for the MTA for their paltry welfare check, first introduced by old-guard union officials in 1996, will remain in place.
Given the pressure on the union, many rank-and-file workers may be resigned to the idea that union leaders have done the best they could. However, Local 100 is the strongest union in the city--and a strike would give them tremendous leverage.
TWU Local 100 also had many other cards it didn't play. For example, the campaign for public support was very mild, focusing on opposition to an increased subway fare increase. Now the city wants to raise fares anyway--and blames the union.
Union leaders could have focused on tax cuts for the rich and the billions of dollars being wasted for Bush's planned war with Iraq. More could have been done to expose the MTA's claims of a fiscal crisis.
Transit workers didn't benefit during the booming economy of the 1990s and now they're being forced to sacrifice again. They should vote no on this contract and send union leaders back to the table.
Why did TWU leaders back down?
WHEN THE old-guard leaders of TWU Local 100 bowed to threats of massive fines and jail three years ago during the 1999 contract fight, reform activist Roger Toussaint criticized the old-guard union leadership for signing a contract under such pressure and campaigned for a "no" vote.
This time, Toussaint himself negotiated a contract under similar conditions. "The MTA always believed Roger was serious--but never serious about a strike," TWU negotiator Basil Paterson told the New York Post.
Toussaint won the presidency of Local 100 two years ago on the New Directions reform slate. Toussaint did revitalize the local and take a more aggressive stance with employers. But at the same time, he converted New Directions into his personal vehicle.
He forced out its longtime activists, who went on to launch a newsletter, the Rank and File Advocate. The "no" vote campaign can be used to rebuild rank-and-file organization on the shop floor.