Looming battle in NYC transit

January 11, 2012

Transit management has once again presented demands for severe concessions for bus and subway workers, and Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 is gearing up for a fight.

Looming over the negotiations is the memory of the brief 2005 transit strike, which showed the union's power, but resulted in heavy financial penalties and jail time for then-Local 100 president Roger Toussaint. The contract negotiated by Toussaint, who had been elected as a reformer several years earlier, was initially rejected in a razor-thin majority, but a similar deal was ratified in a second vote.

When Toussaint moved on to a position with the TWU International, a new leadership on the Take Back Our Union slate was elected on the platform of fighting concessions and rebuilding the union's power. It now faces its first contract negotiations.

Tim Schermerhorn, a 29-year transit worker and a train operator, is a former vice president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, a former vice chair of train operators, and a founding member of the New Directions caucus and the Hell on Wheels newsletter.

THE COLLECTIVE bargaining agreement between Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), covering the subway and bus workers of New York City, expires January 15. Like public-sector workers everywhere, we face a withering attack on our compensation, benefits and collective organization. The Transit Authority’s demands represent major pay cuts, full-time job cuts and workplace destabilization for workers--with no offer of compensation or trade-off.

Work rule changes that the MTA has proposed would lead to an explosive expansion of a part-time workforce (20 percent of workers would no longer be guaranteed an 8-hour day) and no compensation for actual work time (by eliminating travel pay when a worker is assigned to another reporting location). The biggest cut would come through a proposed drastic increase in what we pay for our own health insurance--a move that would cut between 7 and 12 percent from our net pay.

The MTA demands highlight the fact that permanent and advancing austerity is part of business strategy today. The reality is that the workforce that runs public transportation in New York City is the most efficient and productive urban mass transit workforce in the U.S. Labor costs are low as a percentage of operating costs in New York.

A New York City subway train

Yet the demand is for more sacrifice on our part, because tight budgets are a permanent and advancing dynamic for the public sector everywhere. And when workers sacrifice to meet budget requirements, it only leads to demands for more sacrifice.

Further, governments worldwide contribute an ever-diminishing amount to all public services in order to cut taxes to business. The result is less public money. This has been true in New York City as an ongoing trend since 1976, and it has been especially true of the MTA.

This agenda reflects how business is organized as a class. In the early 1970s, corporate business established new think-tanks to effect social change throughout society. The Business Roundtable, formed in 1972, was the most prominent of these formations and remains so today.

The think-tanks developed long-term strategies for the transfer of wealth and income upward, along with the disintegration of worker organization and government oversight. Their strategies--to end regulation, particularly worker-imposed regulation (such as contracts), promulgate free trade, and impose a permanent and advancing austerity--have been abundantly successful.

While we first saw the new business plan at work in the private sector, New York City was permanent austerity's laboratory in the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s.

ALL GOVERNMENTAL budgets, including public-sector agencies, represent a set of political decisions previously made. Changing the priorities of governments and their agents can be accomplished, but it requires political action.

For unions, worker organizations and working-class communities, this means mass action, but corporate interests have other tactics at their disposal. Starting in the 1970s, CEOs of the largest corporations employed strategies to move all of society in new ways.

Politicians answer to business above all. This has always been the case. What was pioneered in New York in 1976, and implemented everywhere since then, was direct business control over local government and the rollback of the public sector.

In New York, this was done through the Municipal Assistance Corporation, a committee of bankers that oversaw all financial decisions by elected officials, city agencies and other bodies from 1976 to 1982. As the Democrats and Republicans hadn't yet learned business's new rules, this committee established those rules. Today, because both political parties have bought into permanent and advancing austerity, business can dictate in practice without becoming an actual structural dictatorship.

It is useful to compare the push for austerity then and now. In the second half of the 1970s, there were no contractual raises for public-sector workers in New York. The city closed 13 city hospitals and a number of libraries, firehouses and other city services. Tuition was imposed at the City University of New York, which, along with its predecessors, had been free for more than a century.

Services and workforces were cut in every agency. Some laid-off Local 100 members who worked in various departments--as well as workers from other agencies, such as police--were able to get work as Transit Authority railroad clerks (now station agents). In preparing for today's round of cuts, the first action the Transit Authority took was to cut off that safety valve--last year, it eliminated booths and laid off station agents.

In the 1970s, the greatest resistance to that austerity came from community organizations through protests and occupations. While public-sector union locals supported community fightbacks, union officials treated the crisis as a short-term budget debacle, rather than the dawning of a new day.

The exception was TWU Local 100, which struck victoriously in 1980. A rank-and-file movement among its members was fed up with 0 percent raises in 1976 and 1978, and calls for more sacrifice. Even though it was not consciously so, Local 100 waged the first strike against the neoliberal program of advancing business authority over the public sector.

The plans and actions of business since the 1970s represent business organized as a class. Yet there was not the equivalent broad organization among unions and community groups, and it was not sufficient to turn back the business offensive. Community organizations did great work, leading mass protest and occupying hospitals, colleges and firehouses, and transit workers struck heroically. But we fought back one hospital, one firehouse and one contract at a time.

Today, the Occupy movements represent the beginning of what could be meaningful class organization for us. While we are way behind the 1 percent in organization, we do have a much clearer idea of what they are doing, and the Occupy movements have drawn new layers of the 99 percent into the fray. Most importantly, the Occupy activities and organizing have pushed forward general consciousness.

TWU Local 100 rank-and-filers don't have the readiness of the 1980 workforce, but we have the potential to be part of a much broader working class fightback. We are also still organizing and raising consciousness among the ranks. It is a difficult fight, but transit workers are developing a sense of urgency. We know that as time passes, the threat to us only intensifies.

Further Reading

From the archives