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Bitter election fight in New York transit union

By Peter Lamphere | December 1, 2006 | Page 11

NEW YORK--One year after an illegal strike by transit workers that inspired workers across the U.S., the 30,000 members of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 are voting in a union election marked by a bitter campaign.

Incumbent Local 100 President Roger Toussaint, who was briefly jailed as the result of the three-day strike, faces two challengers who are critical of both his handling of the strike and subsequent bargaining after the rank and file rejected a tentative contract by a seven-vote margin.

This contract, which would deduct 1.5 percent of workers' gross wages towards health premiums, was subsequently accepted in an undemocratic "revote" engineered by Toussaint. It's now in the hands of state arbitrators.

Toussaint was elected in a major victory in 2000 against the moribund old guard of the local. His electoral vehicle, New Directions, was the product of years of rank-and-file organizing at the grassroots. But since coming to power in 2000, Toussaint quickly fired many of his former allies, relying on a small group of loyalists to undemocratically run Local 100.

Because of this chaos, Toussaint faces major anger in upcoming local elections. But Toussaint's transformation from reformer to autocrat has left the rank-and-file movement in Local 100 weak and divided.

When rank-and-file discontent forced Toussaint to call the strike, there was no organized way to hold him accountable to the goals of stopping concessions--and even though an angry membership voted down the resulting contract, there was no cohesive rank-and-file organization to force the leadership to continue a fight to win a decent contract.

Now the union faces a choice between Toussaint and candidates who could open the way for the restoration of the old guard that was kicked out in the 2000 elections.

The main opposition slate is called Rail and Bus United and is a coalition of former Toussaint loyalists and supporters of the old guard.

Rail and Bus has some valid critiques of the heavy-handed way Toussaint has run the union and justifiably cries foul at the health care concession. But the slate's presidential candidate, Barry Roberts, was himself an opponent of the strike. Sonny Hall, the old-guard former president of Local 100 and the TWU International, said, "I'd be happy if Barry Roberts were elected."

Some of the most prominent voices opposing the concessionary contract, Ainsley Stewart and John Mooney, formed a slate called Union Democracy to oppose Toussaint. However, Stewart voted against the decision to strike and also is a vice president with the old guard-dominated Transport Workers Union International, which opposed the strike.

Other candidates fall similarly short, such as Fresh Start slate candidate Michael Carrube.

Finally, activists in the historically militant subway division of the union, which encompasses conductors and train operators, have put together an impressive independent team of candidates.

This group is not contesting the presidency of the local and has not endorsed a candidate. But these activists have a clear position in favor of the strike, opposition to the concessionary contract, and a critique of the International union.

Whoever wins the election, greater rank-and-file organization will be the key to rebuilding a fighting union.

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