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Management demands massive concessions
Showdown in NYC transit

By Peter Lamphere | December 16, 2005 | Page 15

NEW YORK--More than 6,000 members of the New York City's Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 voted December 10 to authorize their leadership to call a strike if negotiations with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) failed to achieve a deal by midnight December 15.

The outpouring of anger of the union members at the MTA, which is sitting on $1 billion surplus, was driven by the MTA's demands to make workers pay a portion of their wages for health care benefits and increase the retirement age for new hires

The turnout to the meeting, which overflowed by half again the size of the hall at the Jacob Javits Center, showed a willingness to fight despite lackluster strike preparations on behalf of the union leaders. "If we have to, we'll do it...The cost of living is up, a gallon of milk is more expensive and I've got to feed my kids," said John Borrero, a station agent, about the possibility of striking.

The crowd of workers was addressed by Rev. Jesse Jackson, and chanted "No contract, no work!" At one point, TWU Local 100 President Roger Toussaint led the union in a chant of "What do we want?" expecting to hear "contract" but workers surprised him by chanting back "Strike!"

Public-sector strikes are illegal in New York, and a strike in 1999 was averted only after a judge threatened to fine the city tens of millions of dollars.

Nevertheless, there was a clear a sense at the December 10 meeting that the union had to send a clear message to the MTA. "We need to come out and vote yes for unity," said one worker, Cynthia Jones. "As long as management doesn't see unity, they won't take us seriously."

The stakes in this fight couldn't be higher. City workers all over New York, include police, fire and clerical employees, have accepted two-tier systems in which new members have lower benefits than workers already in the system--and union concessions in transit will have an impact across the U.S.

Recognizing the importance of this battle, New York Central Labor Council President Brian McLaughlin is calling for every member of affiliated unions to donate $1 to create an emergency solidarity fund to support the TWU in the event of an illegal strike.

TWU leaders are calling for an 8 percent raise each year for three years--similar to the demands made before the last contract expired in 2002, when Toussaint retreated and pushed through a deal with a lump sum payment the first year in place of a raise.

Now the MTA wants a two-year contract with 3 percent the first year and--if the number of sick days decline--2 percent in the second year. Management also wants workers to pay 3 percent of wages into pensions they can't collect until age 62, rather than the 2 percent paid into wages that can be collected at age 55. The MTA also demands that more trains run without conductors, and that station clerks clean up stations.

Despite the severity of these attacks, union militants say that Toussaint has done little to mobilize resistance. "There have been no contract strategy discussions at executive board meetings," said Marty Goodman, a subway station agent and member of the Local 100 executive board. "People have been doing what they can, individually. The job actions, where and when they exist, have had a big impact on service so far."

Goodman continued, "The level of organization in this union has declined severely since the 2002 contract campaign. Action days on Tuesdays have been such a farce--they are so disorganized. Their leafleting is completely spotty. I've been to many of those actions where there are half a dozen people."

Toussaint himself defeated the previous union president because of discontent after a contract battle in 1999. Since then, however, Toussaint has turned the slate that brought him to power--New Directions--into his personal vehicle.

"Toussaint has purged from the leadership of the union virtually anybody who knows anything or can do anything," Goodman said. "At the same time, at the membership meeting, the union leadership confiscated all of the opposition posters, and they were also confiscating the informational leaflets we distributed."

A grouping on the executive board of the union has tried to push for a more aggressive demand for wages, while another group around the Rank and File Advocate newsletter has pushed for on the job actions like work-to-rule to slow the system down.

Union members' anger is colliding with the MTA's aggressive demands, raising the possibility of a "no" vote on the contract and the first New York City transit strike since 1980--and a struggle that could galvanize the entire labor movement.

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