Taking back the TWU

May 15, 2009

Marvin Holland founded Take Back Our Union (TBOU) in 2008 to confront the crisis in Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100. Now the caucus is mounting an electoral challenge to the leadership in a union that represents more than 30,000 subway and bus workers.

A vote next month will determine whether outgoing Local 100 President Roger Toussaint--a one-time rank-and-file militant turned heavy-handed bureaucrat--will prevail in his effort to install his handpicked successor in the face of a challenge by union reformers.

Ironically, Toussaint himself was elected as a reformer in 2000 as the candidate of the New Directions caucus. But Toussaint soon turned his back on the reform movement, and used the union apparatus to retaliate against critics and promote his allies.

Toussaint's election did raise the expectations of members, and the union launched in illegal two-and-half day strike in December 2005. A judge later used New York state anti-union laws to fine the union $2.5 million, and took away the automatic withdrawal of union dues from workers' paychecks until last November, crippling union finances by forcing the union to collect dues individually.

Toussaint was reelected as union president in 2003, and again in 2006, in the aftermath of the strike. But the Local 100 membership grew increasingly sour about his leadership. By a narrow margin, members voted to reject the concessionary contract that Toussaint had accepted to settle the strike. But Toussaint--backed by transit officials--then organized another vote on essentially the same contract, which was ratified by a large margin.

When Toussaint stepped aside several months ago, he left behind a union that is weakened and divided. Current contract negotiations are in arbitration as the union faces up to 1,100 layoffs amid significant service cuts and token booth closings.

It was in this context that Marvin Holland launched TBOU in 2008. As a shop steward from 2001-03, and representative from the union's Stations Department on the Executive Board from 2003-2006, Holland has been an important voice in the movement to rebuild a democratic and fighting union.

Holland talked to Amy Muldoon about the strike, TBOU and the opportunities for rebuilding union power today.

WHAT DO you see as the impact of the 2005 strike? How has it affected the membership and militants?

MOST MEMBERS I talk to think the strike was a failure--that we came back too soon. Even the less militant ones think that once we went out on strike, we actually got less then what we went out on.

My experience of the strike was that the members were absolutely unbelievable. I had members calling me, asking what could they do to help. I think the leadership didn't have a plan about why we were going out on strike, and what would happen once we went out, and how it would unfold. That showed when they caved after a couple days.

That's why I voted "no" to go out on strike--which was a vote that shocked me. But I looked around the room, and I said, "TWU Local 100 is not ready to go out on strike." The union did nothing to bring everyone together before the strike. We were a very fractured union before the strike, and we are even more fractured after the strike.

IS SECTIONALISM a big factor inside the union?

Working on a subway platform in New York City

BY DESIGN, people are very tribal in Local 100. There's a thin line between looking out for your own interest and being part of the bigger union looking out for everyone's interest. For example, they're closing [token] booths and laying off people. That should be the union's priority, but it's not. It's rarely mentioned.

I got caught up in that when I was on the executive board in 2004. When they were trying to close booths, I ran the union's campaign against it. At the same time, we got word they were trying to implement One Person Train Operation (OPTO). I said, to save money instead of having two campaigns, let's have one campaign.

In management's eyes, RTO--the conductors and motormen--and Stations are one department, called Service Delivery. My strategy was to have Stations and RTO shop stewards and activists to meet together and work on this campaign.

But the moment the union was able to defeat OPTO, the entire operation was dropped, including the anti-booth closing operation. It was a big blow to the members who were out there working every day, because we had 100,000 signatures to stop the booths from closing. It was like, "just stop," and no one could understand why.

It's these types of things that cause activists to become disengaged and disillusioned with the union. And of course, now [transit officials are] back again trying to close booths. Which is why I told the union president that the fight to keep the booths open needs to be an ongoing operation. You can't shut it down and start it up, because [management has] made it clear that this is what they want to do.

GIVEN THE record of the Toussaint team, cynicism inside the local is very high. Do you think there are specific challenges for TBOU?

ABSOLUTELY. Most people believed that [when they voted for Toussaint], they were voting for a new direction and a new type of union--whatever that was in people's minds. And to be in a situation where it's the same old business unionism hurts people more, because they thought Roger Toussaint was one of them.

People have come up to me to talk about TBOU. They say, "There were people from New Directions in Stations, don't put them with you, because we don't want to be with them any more." We do have particular challenges in our union, because there was actually a reform movement that took over the union, and it turned out to be the same exact thing as--and maybe even worse than--the people they replaced. So there's a lot of cynicism inside the union.

TELL ME about the history of TBOU


IN 2008 in Detroit, at the Labor Notes conference, there were--to my surprise--quite a few transit workers there, at least 15-20 of us. What we discovered by talking to each other was that dues collection was much lower than we thought--we're talking 20-30 percent on the subway side.

We knew we had a contract coming up that year, and the conversation was: How do you negotiate a contract if more than half your members aren't paying their dues? The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will notice and will hammer us--and this has proven to be the case. We talked about forming some sort of coalition or caucus coming out of Labor Notes.

When I left there, I had no team whatsoever in Stations. So I called up a couple of people I knew who were relatively new to the job, who had been coming to meetings. I pitched the idea of forming TBOU with them. I told them we would try to get people to pay their dues, and that we're going to build a movement.

HOW DO you see the long-term goal of rebuilding the union in relation to the union elections, and what has your role been?

JOHN SAMUELSON [of TBOU] is the best candidate for president. I was approached by half a dozen people to run with them, at the top, to form a slate. But John's the only person who talked about rebuilding the union from the ground up. Everyone else just said, "Let's put together a slate, and run and take these other people out."

It's not about that in Local 100. Anybody who's thinking that this union doesn't need to be rebuilt from the bottom up is fooling themselves.

Morale is at an all-time low inside Local 100. Toussaint and [Local 100 Secretary-Treasurer] Ed Watt and [RTO Division Vice President and presidential candidate] Curtis Tate can say, "Oh, the strike was a success," and talk about the gains they got out of it. But if someone comes inside Local 100 and asks the average person what they think of the strike, you'll see the reaction you'll get.

So this union has to get rebuilt through a shop stewards' network. Over the last two years, Roger Toussaint has decimated the shop stewards network that he started when he took over with New Directions. We had like 800 shop stewards--they're all gone. And most of those people--I know, because I was one of them--were very active at that time. You can't get them to do anything now. They feel very betrayed.

I was talking to a young lady yesterday who said, "The union doesn't even send me information anymore." This was a person who was a shop steward, a real go-getter. She heard what I was doing with TBOU, and now she's out talking to members on our behalf. Those are the people we have to reach out to--those activists who really want the union to be all it can be, and to rebuild it from the bottom up. And it's going to take a lot of work.

THAT'S THE real strength of TBOU--the one-on-one organizing


FROM JOHN Samuelson down to the newest member, we preach one-on-one organizing and "each one, teach one" inside of TBOU. And that's what has the leadership of Local 100 terrified. They are the ones running around and doing all of these dirty tactics and tricks, because they realize something different is happening with TBOU.

HOW DO you think changing the leadership would change life for the membership day-to-day on the job?

JOHN SAMUELSON believes in worksite actions. Heavily. Probably more so than me. And coming out of Track Division, he has a history of doing job actions. And the other thing that he believes in--that I also believe in--is union departments coming to the aid of other departments.

When we were both working in the union hall, John was the only one who ever approached me about doing some cross-department organizing between Stations and Maintenance of Way. I don't want to go into the detail of what that was, because it would still be a very effective plan.

The question is: how does one department help another advance its goals, and vice versa? John has a clear understanding that we have to break out of this sectional union we've been in. For example, the Private Lines have been without a contract for five years, and most members don't even know that. The leadership keeps it quiet because it makes them look bad--because they kept saying they were going to get them a contract.

You go out to Queens or Westchester, and talk to some of those operators out there, and you won't even know that they are part of Local 100. TBOU has brought those people back into the union. Not only did we invite them to the table, we've given them leadership positions within TBOU. That's never been done before in the history of this union.

WHAT TYPE of member education is needed?

WE HAVE to go back to the 1930s and '40s and look at the models those unions had then for education.

Union meetings need to change. We need to talk about more current issues. For instance, I've been to 10 of the last 12 meetings, and never once has Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) come up--never once has single-payer health care come up. This is kind of an insult to the membership--people think the members don't want to talk about real issues, so you come to a union meeting, and you talk about Joe Blow's grievance.

There needs to be real dialogue and real education on the state of the labor movement. What's going on with Service Employees International Union should be discussed. Sexism and racism should be discussed at a union meeting. If we can't discuss this inside a union, where is this discussion going to take place? Those are some of the things I'd like to see changed as far as an education platform goes.

WHAT ROLE do you think radical, political-minded people can play at a moment like this?

WE'RE AT a crossroads in society. A turning point. If radical left people understand that they are at a crossroads, there needs to be a coming together.

One of the weaknesses of the labor movement--and Jerry Tucker and Bill Fletcher Jr. are starting to address this with the Center for Labor Renewal--is to develop some think tanks. People have to not be scared to say they are on the left. For the first time, I'm seeing people come out and saying they are these things. That's good, and it needs to be taken to the next step, where people need to start explaining some of their ideas to the average rank-and-file person who has their own opinion.

WHAT impact will the economic crisis and the New York budget crisis have on rank-and-file activity?

THAT'S BEEN one of the driving factors in all of the activity we've seen around New York. Unfortunately, it's been unorganized for the most part, and again, the union leadership has missed a golden opportunity to unify its ranks.

People want to do something now. They're scared, whether they're losing their home or worried about getting laid off. There has been the reemergence of a student movement unlike anything we've seen in the past 15-20 years. But labor hasn't capitalized on it. People have done things on their own, but it wasn't organized.

There are opportunities for organizing like never before. But it's going to have to come from the base. The base will be able to move their leadership, particularly if there is some cross-section of people coming together from different unions.

WHAT WILL be the impact of the election of the first Black president on the sense that some change is possible?

THE OBAMA campaign tapped into something beyond his personal charisma. People who were never active in their entire life were getting in a car to drive to Pennsylvania to knock on doors. Obama has changed the game.

One problem I might see is that people might say, "We've made it, we don't have do anything else." It comes up to people like myself to keep things going--to keep pushing. Now that he's in office, let's see how far we can push our agenda. Obama's in a tough spot. The only time he gets good press is when he's conservative and talking about status quo.

People are going to have to be more aggressive, more progressive. They can't be afraid to say what the issues are that they want moved. If you're on the left, you're going to have to get out here and work harder than you ever have, because people on the right are pushing him the other way. It's our time now to get out here and be active. Obama's going to need that if we want to move our agenda, which is some of his agenda--certainly more than John McCain's or George Bush's.

A lot of this is unknown territory. People are feeling their way around for what's next. But labor is messing up with the EFCA. It's time for labor to put its differences aside and say, "We're going to move our agenda," and they can't even do that. We may look back and say, "we didn't get EFCA, we didn't get single payer." We'll have ourselves to blame, because we weren't out there pushing and unifying around these issues.

Further Reading

From the archives