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Anger at givebacks in NYC deal
Transit workers reject contract

By Hadas Thier | January 27, 2006 | Page 16

NEW YORK City transit workers rejected a proposed contract settlement by a slim margin of seven votes, in a signal of anger at an agreement that made concessions amid the gains made during their three-day strike in December. Of 22,461 total votes cast, 11,227 Transit Workers Union Local 100 members voted to ratify the contract, and 11,234 voted against.

In negotiations that followed the three-day walkout that crippled the city's economy, Local 100 President Roger Toussaint won some gains and held off the city's proposal for a two-tier pension system.

But the resulting agreement was marred by some major concessions as well. As one train conductor, Umberto, put it to Socialist Worker, "People were upset that we went out, and the ends didn't justify the means...We switched givebacks."

Toussaint lobbied hard to sell the deal to members. But a vocal and well-organized Vote No Coalition was successful in tapping into widespread anger at the concessions.

At the top of the list was a provision in the contract that would have forced workers for the first time to contribute 1.5 percent of their wages toward health care coverage. Even worse, this contribution was pegged to likely increases in health care costs, making it all but certain that the percentage would rise during the life of the contract. And rather than the 1.5 percent coming out of workers' base salaries, it was to come from overall gross pay--a hefty amount for a workforce that relies heavily on overtime pay.

Figuring in the health care contributions and the Taylor Law fines that TWU members are required to pay for striking, many transit workers saw the average annual raise of 3.5 percent as inadequate.

The final straw was the threat by New York Gov. George Pataki to veto a sweetener provision in the contract that would have guaranteed a refund of pension contributions to as many as 20,000 workers who had overpaid into their accounts between 1994 and 2001.

Toussaint blamed the rejection of the contract on Pataki's threats and on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) management for announcing publicly that the contract was better economically for the agency than its last offer before the strike. But he also blamed dissidents within the union for a campaign of "downright lies."

For their part, the mainstream media took the opportunity to unleash another torrent of abuse on TWU members for demanding "heaven knows what," in the words of the New York Daily News--and to complain that the MTA and Pataki were too soft on the union.

Democrat Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, insisted: "We should take off the gloves and treat them the way they should be treated--as violators of the law." The contract rejection, Koch insisted, "is a blessing in disguise. It was an outrage that the MTA permitted the raid on the pension treasury, and that should now be off the table."

Nevertheless, while sections of the political and business establishment are lining up to call for more blood, the strike and the "no" vote have also served as a wake-up call regarding to the level of anger among the city's workforce.

"Kathryn S. Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, the city's largest association of business leaders, suggested that workers rejected the contract out of anger toward both the authority and the union leadership," the New York Times reported. "'Clearly, everything we've been hearing about chronic labor-management problems is coming home to roost,' she said. 'It's a sign of substantial problems between union leaders and members. From the standpoint of the business community, nothing is worse than uncertainty, and this casts another pall over the reliability of the city's transit system.'"

Speaking to the Daily News, David Gregory, a labor law professor at St. John's University, said, "I've never seen anything like this. We are really in new territory. Union militancy and resolve was much greater and deeper among the rank and file than anyone had anticipated, including the union president, Mr. Toussaint."

Indeed, opponents of the agreement found a wide and angry audience for their "vote no" message.

While Toussaint and the TWU leadership hired a PR firm--at a cost of $70,000--to inundate members with daily e-mails, phone calls and advertisements, the Vote No Coalition's estimated $3,000 worth of flyers and buttons had a higher resonance among the rank and file. The TWU organized meetings, with Toussaint speaking, to sell the contract, but these backfired as members grilled the president on the agreement's concessions.

"It was easy to campaign with a simple message, and people caught on once they got the facts and info," John Mooney, a Local 100 vice president representing station workers, said in an interview. "Transit workers see the world in a different light; this is historic and critical...

"The key to the no-vote campaign's success was grassroots organizing. Members of the executive board who were opposed to the contract called a rank-and-file meeting in Brooklyn to discuss the "no" vote. We went to the Brooklyn meeting with flyers that explained the givebacks and specific items that Toussaint wasn't releasing. Vote no buttons and stickers were made, and were visible. One hundred members attended, and they went and put the message out at the work sites."

Now that the contract has been rejected, it will be thrown back to negotiations. The MTA has already taken steps to petition for binding arbitration, something Toussaint and the dissidents alike oppose.

The process will likely take months. In the meantime, while most workers don't anticipate another walkout anytime soon, many union dissidents see the strike and the no vote as opportunities to strengthen and democratize the union.

"The contract absolutely would not have been defeated if we hadn't gone on strike," said Tim Schermerhorn of the Vote No Coalition. "People wouldn't have had the confidence, desire and independence from the leadership."

Ainsley Stewart, a local vice president representing the car equipment department, and a member of Transit Workers for a Just Contract (TWJC), added, "A lot of people have woken up to the reality that you can't leave it up to the leaders."

TWJC member Steve Downs also raised the possibility of "proposals that assert greater membership control over the [negotiation] process." Among these proposals would be expanding the union's executive board to include an equal weight for those who are for and against the contract; including the full negotiating committee in negotiations; and calling a mass membership meeting in the event of an impasse with MTA, which could call for a strike authorization vote.

According to Mooney, "This fight is not over--we must keep up the pressure. We need to organize a mass membership meeting and put the options to their vote. The members don't sit on the sidelines in this union. The strike option will be put on the table."

Peter Lamphere and Chris Dugan contributed to this report.

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