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WHAT WE THINK
Unnecessary concessions mar gains in NYC transit strike
A glimpse of labor's power

January 6, 2006 | Page 3

A TRANSIT strike stunned New York City with a demonstration of workers' power in the 21st century--and provoked a 19th century-style backlash by politicians and the media that highlighted the class polarization in the U.S.

The strike defeated management demands for concessions on pensions and job cuts. But the settlement contains a major union concession on health care and a weak wage increase, prompting union oppositionists to call for a "no" vote.

Nevertheless, in defying state anti-strike laws and shutting down the city, transit workers showed labor's potential power.

That's why billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg denounced the largely African American and Latino strikers as "thugs"; Gov. George Pataki declared that workers would be fined for going on an illegal strike; and the New York Post and New York Daily News called for destroying the union and jailing its leaders.

"Pataki and Bloomberg must ask a judge to jail [Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 President Roger] Toussaint and his bull-headed lieutenants," a Daily News editorial railed in the first hours of the strike. The editorial also demanded that a judge "impose fines on the TWU that double daily and are large enough to bankrupt the union within days"--and "hit every transit worker who walks with a penalty of two days' pay for every day out, as the law allows."

Not to be outdone, the New York Post published a mocked-up photo of Toussaint behind bars, with the headline, "Jail 'em."

The two tabloids might as well have reprinted an editorial from the old New York World, which condemned the 1894 Pullman rail strike "as a war against the government and against society."

For its part, the New York Times was a bit more restrained, but the message was the same. "The bar for job actions by New York City transit workers is set, legally, out of reach for good reason," America's "Newspaper of Record" lectured--taking a line that would have warmed the hearts of Communist Party bosses in 1980s Poland, when they outlawed strikes by the Solidarity union movement.

According to the Times, "Mr. Toussaint should not have the ability to hold the city hostage"--a more polite version of the newspaper's view of the Pullman strike, when it editorialized that strike leader Eugene Debs was "a lawbreaker at large, and enemy of the human race."

If the transit strike provoked a frenzy of lock-em-up editorials and smash-the-union speeches by politicians--in liberal New York City, no less--it's because the walkout highlighted the bitterness of class war in George Bush's America and the viciousness of the employers' anti-working class agenda.

It was in New York City in 1975 that big business imposed the first large-scale exercise in what would be become known as concessionary bargaining--using the city's fiscal crisis as political cover to carry out huge job cuts.

Union leaders readily agreed to givebacks in what was called a "social contract"--that is, the concessions would be temporary until the city regained its financial footing. Instead, the politicians kept demanding more--and when transit workers fought back in an illegal 1980 strike, the authorities used massive fines to drive workers back to work with a concessionary contract.

The following year, Ronald Reagan took the same approach at the national level by firing 11,000 striking air traffic controllers who had walked off the jobs in defiance of federal law. Ever since, the state has stood solidly behind employers in strikes and lockouts provoked by Corporate America's endless demand for concessions.

From police support for strikebreaking private "security" guards on picket lines, to the banning of a strike on the West Coast docks, to the bankruptcy court-approved shredding of airline workers' pensions, employers have increasingly used the law to carry through their one-sided class war. In virtually every case, union leaders bowed to these unjust laws--thereby ensuring defeat.

The transit workers set a different example. By defying some of the stiffest anti-union laws in the U.S., they showed that resistance is not only possible--but that bold struggle is the only way to make real gains for a movement that has shrunk to just 12.5 percent of the workforce, and only 7.9 percent in the private sector.

Facing a possible jail term for leading an illegal strike, Toussaint called off the strike after three days with the approval of the Local 100 executive board--sending members backed to work without a contract, something he had vowed not to do. Toussaint continued closed-door negotiations with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), and announced a deal days later.

The agreement forces the MTA to abandon its plan for a two-tier pension system and "productivity" changes that would have eliminated thousands of jobs; committed the MTA to refund workers' pension payments; allowed for maternity leave prior to birth; and includes an outside review of the transit system's onerous disciplinary policies.

However, the deal also contained a major giveback that angered union members--payments of 1.5 percent of wages toward health care premiums, the first time such payments have been made. Further, the contract's wage increases may not keep pace with inflation, the union gave up leverage that comes with a December 15 contract deadline, and individual workers still face fines for striking.

In comparison with the recently approved contract covering New York City teachers, the transit deal is much better for workers--enough to set off recriminations among politicians blaming one another for "surrendering" to the TWU.

Still, many workers are understandably bitter at Toussaint, who ousted the union local's old guard for its failure to carry out a strike threat in 1999, but who then broke with his allies in the union's reform movement and squelched opposition. The organization of rank-and-file activists over many years was strong enough to pressure Toussaint into calling a walkout, but not to take the initiative when the struggle was cut short.

Whatever his shortcomings, Toussaint did lead an illegal strike. If he ended the walkout with less than a total victory under threat of being jailed, the blame must also fall on leaders of the TWU International, who outrageously refused to support a strike by the union's biggest local by far.

Local and national leaders of other unions also pressured the TWU to end the strike--particularly UNITE HERE President Bruce Raynor and Mike Fishman, head of a big Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local in New York, according to the New York Times. Both are close allies of SEIU President Andrew Stern, the main player in the Change to Win faction that broke from the AFL-CIO last summer. Instead of standing alongside Toussaint and making the strike the center of their project to revive organized labor, Stern's allies pressured the TWU to call off the strike.

For his part, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who recalls his father's membership in the TWU in speech after speech, should have been standing along Toussaint and vowing to go to jail with him--and to spread the strike unless the authorities backed off.

But both wings of the union movement remain wedded to a project of labor-management partnership, which undermines and postpones--but can't prevent--the kind of clash that the MTA was determined to provoke.

This time, however, a union defied the law and held its own against an employer and the corporate media in the citadel of U.S. capitalism.

It's an example to union members everywhere that they don't have to submit to the employers' attacks. And it's a message to the vast majority of unorganized workers--facing falling wages and living standards--that where there is a union, there is the power to fight back.

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