The Lessons of the 2005 NYC Transit Strike — Sixty Hours of Workers’ Power
December’s two and a half day transit strike in New York City was like a massive bolt of lightning which illuminated class relations in the US.
During those 60 hours the biggest city in the nation and the biggest financial center in the world was brought to a virtual standstill. By defying threats of massive fines and imprisonment, as well as the relentless assault of the bosses’ political and media mouthpieces, the 34,000 members of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 demonstrated the power of workers when they stand together in a disciplined and determined way to defend their rights.
The dispute centered on pensions and health care benefits, both of which are under attack as part of corporate America’s sustained offensive against working people’s living standards. Through its courageous stand, TWU Local 100 may help to ignite a desperately needed fightback by the labor movement.
The TWU received considerable support from the wider working class public in the city, especially from African Americans and Latinos, but also from unionized workers generally. This support and even admiration from sections of the population was perhaps the most alarming element of the situation for the business and political establishment. It is an important sign for the future when other battles break out.
In the end, the TWU was able to defeat the bulk of the MTA’s (Metropolitan Transport Authority) attacks and wrest some significant concessions as a result of its short strike. Most importantly, the attempt to introduce a two tier system for pension benefits was defeated. On the other hand, the union leadership made a major concession by agreeing that members pay 1.5% of their wages toward health care costs (as opposed to none previously).
Up until the last minute it appeared that the MTA and the TWU leadership might work out a deal and avert a strike. That is what happened three years ago when negotiations went down to the wire. At the last minute, the TWU Local 100 leader, Roger Toussaint “blinked” and agreed to a bad contract.
This time things worked out differently. In the days leading up to the strike, the MTA put some money on the table for wage increases (10.5% over three years) but continued to demand that new hires retire at 62 after working 30 years instead of retiring at 55 after working 25 (the current position). On December 19, MTA Chair Kalikow made his “final” offer, removing the demand to change the pensionable age but then dropping the bomb that new hires would pay 6% of their salaries towards their pensions for the first 10 years (as opposed to 2% at present). As Toussaint pointed out, this meant that these workers would be effectively taking a 4% pay cut. He correctly refused to “sacrifice the unborn” by accepting the idea of a two-tier system for pension payments and the union executive voted to strike.
Toussaint was under considerable internal pressure from the rank and file not to give into the demands of the MTA. First of all, there was the memory of the 2002 debacle. Secondly, there was an enormous desire among the union ranks to stand up to the “plantation” atmosphere inside the Transit Authority. As has been widely reported in the media, over 16,000 workers faced disciplinary action over the past year (almost one half of the whole workforce!). The New York Times reported how a subway car cleaner was threatened with dismissal for taking two minutes to help a lost commuter find her way! Finally, last month, transit workers in Philadelphia were able to get a reasonable contract after a one-week walkout.
All of these were factors in pushing the union leadership to call a strike. Toussaint is also up for reelection next year. In a union with strong factional divisions, his job could have been on the line if he was perceived to have caved in to Kalikow, New York City Mayor Bloomberg and NY State Governor Pataki and delivered another giveback contract.
On the other side, it is clear that Bloomberg and Pataki at least partly blundered into this strike. Bloomberg appeared to be calling the shots to a greater degree than Pataki. He was just reelected with an overwhelming majority and had recently forced giveback contracts on the teachers, cops, firefighters and sanitation workers. He may have arrogantly believed that the same tactics would work on the TWU. He may also have miscalculated that since the leadership backed down in 2002 they would do so again.
At 3 am on December 20, Local 100 members walked off the job. It was clear that the decision to strike was well received by the rank and file who had overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike the week before. It was also clear that there had been considerable internal preparation by the union. The media couldn’t find a single transit worker who would openly say they disagreed with the decision.
The ”mainstream” media, including Fox News, Rupert Murdoch’s Post and also the snobby New York Times immediately went on the attack giving voice to the alleged anger of the riding public at the “inconvenience” and “hardship” caused by the “illegal” strike begun days before Christmas. The anger they really reflected was that of their corporate masters at municipal workers who dared to defy the unconstitutional no-strike Taylor Law and its huge penalties.
In fact, as polls taken during the strike revealed, the TWU had significant support in the city’s heavily immigrant, black and Latino working class. One poll showed that 70% of blacks and Latinos supported the workers while a not insignificant 35% of whites supported them as well. Another poll showed roughly equal percentages blaming the MTA or the TWU for the strike.
There was also very clear support from other city workers. This was particularly evident from teachers who recently had a terrible, giveback contract shoved down their throats (although 35% voted against it). At the Jackie Gleeson depot on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn, schoochildren’s artwork and messages covered the strikers’ van while a handwritten sign on the side of the depot declared ”UFT rank and file supports the TWU”. Other reports told of teachers bringing their students to the picket lines. In upstate New York, the Troy Central Labor Council called on the New York State AFL-CIO “to organize a General Strike of all New York State Union Workers to bring these Anti-Worker politicians to their senses and to obtain a just settlement of the Transit Worker Strike.”
At this point, Bloomberg waded in to the fray describing the leadership of the TWU as “thuggish” and its members as “greedy.” Describing the heavily black leadership of a union with an overwhelmingly black membership as thugs immediately brought back memories of the Rudy Giuliani era when the city administration pushed an overtly racist line.
Toussaint correctly responded by saying, “The thugs are not on this side of the podium.” But one could go further. Who the hell was Bloomberg, the billionaire Republican mayor, to lecture the workers about morality? The leader of his party brazenly lied to justify a war that has cost thousands of lives and $300 billion of taxpayers’ money to date. Surely that money could have secured a decent retirement for millions of working class Americans or been used to create a national health insurance system? And what about all the greedy thugs in corporate America from Enron to Wal Mart?
The more Bloomberg and Pataki ranted the more many working class New Yorkers became convinced that it was the TWU which was stranding for justice against the greed of the already deeply unpopular MTA. It is widely known that the MTA has kept two sets of books and currently has a $1 billion surplus. Nor did raising the fare to $2 without any improvement in service help their image.
The turning point
By the end of the second day it was clear that the dispute was reaching a turning point. Toussaint was due in court on Thursday, December 22. The union was already being fined $1 million a day and the members were being fined two days pay for each day they were on strike. Now the judge was threatening to declare that Toussaint and other TWU officials were in contempt of court and put them in prison. According to Juan Gonzalez, a Daily News columnist sympathetic to the TWU, the union leadership had appointed a secret leadership which would take over if they were jailed as well as establishing a secret headquarters if the union offices were seized.
Socialist Alternative members in New York City had already produced material in support of the strikers. We distributed 500 leaflets at a TWU rally on the eve of the strike and hundreds more had been distributed during the next two days on picket lines in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. On the night of the 21st (at the end of the second day) we produced another leaflet which put forward a strategy to win the strike. We said Local 100 should ask workers at Metro North and the Long Island Railroad servicing the Northern and Eastern suburbs to come out in solidarity. Taxi drivers should also be asked to take solidarity action. The unions representing city workers and the New York City Labor Council should organize mass demonstrations in every borough and on Wall Street. City workers should also be prepared to take further action, including strike action, if the repression against the TWU escalated.
We also declared that:
“The campaign to defend the transit workers should be linked to a program to demand that banks, big business and the rich should pay for vital public services, to roll back the fare to $1 as a step toward a free transit system and for a program of massive investment to upgrade the entire transit systempaid for by taxes on the rich and big business. This should be part of a program and movement that campaigns to put the needs of working people (healthcare, childcare, education, transportation, housing, a clean environment,) before war and corporate profits. The MTA should be replaced by a democratic city transportation authority. Such a program can win the support of millions of low-paid workers, immigrants, and young people by explaining that the unions are fighting for every working family in the city.”
Clearly this was not the path which the TWU leadership chose. During the lead-up to the strike they did not clearly explain how the TWU’s fight was a fight for all working class New Yorkers or put forward wider demands that would have helped galvanize support. They also looked for help from false “friend of labor” Democratic politicians like Hillary Clinton.
As we now know, even before day 3 of the strike began, state mediators were meeting with both sides and a couple of hours before Toussaint was due to appear in court, he and the TWU executive pulled the pickets saying that the outline of a deal had been reached. While neither side at that stage publicly discussed the elements of the agreement which was finalized five days later it quickly became clear that the main point was the withdrawal of the demand that new hires pay 6% of their wages towards their pensions in exchange for union members paying toward healthcare costs.
Which side blinked? Many union members were understandably furious at being told to go back to work without a clear offer in front of them. The members should indeed have been asked to vote on whether to end the strike as they were asked to authorize it in the first place.
It is clear that the TWU leadership came under intense pressure from their international parent union who shamefully publicly disowned the strike and threatened to put the local into receivership. The leadership of other city unions were also clearly alarmed by the continuation of the strike and especially the possibility of the strike spreading due to solidarity action by other workers.
However, it is also clear that Bloomberg, Pataki and the MTA looked over the precipice at the consequences of a much longer dispute (which would certainly have been caused by jailing the union leaders) and pulled back. While the rabid reactionaries at the New York Post ran a front page photo of Toussaint behind bars with the headline ”Jail ’Em” and also reprinted the order which Ronald Reagan had given in 1981 to fire 13,000 air traffic controllers, Bloomberg explicitly stated he did not want Toussaint jailed. He and other ruling class figures understood the lesson of the famous 1966 transit workers’ strike when Local 100 leader Mike Quill was jailed and public support swung decisively behind the union.
What is most striking is the contrast of Pataki’s blustering claims right up to the end of the strike that there would be no negotiations until transit workers returned to work and the fact that substantive negotiations were going on while he spoke. It is clear that part of the agreement to end the strike was not to officially announce the items which had been agreed in order to allow Pataki to continue pretending that no negotiations had occurred.
Analyzing the outcome
The deal announced this Tuesday (December 27) which now goes to the membership for ratification contains no increase in wages compared with the final offer made by the MTA before the strike. Workers will get 3% in the first year; 4% in the second; and 3.5% in the third year of the contract.
However, there were some important concessions by the MTA. First of all the MTA’s demands on pensions were dropped. The union therefore has held the line and maintained the existing pension benefits for current members and new hires. It has thereby also stopped the creation of a two-tier system. Secondly it is estimated that 22,000 union members will each receive several thousand of dollars in reimbursements for excess pension contributions made in the late 90s. Union officials claim this will put $150 million into workers’ pockets. Thirdly, the threat of ”broadbanding”, forcing workers to do work outside their job description, has been dropped for now as has the idea of removing conductors from the L line and taking another major step towards one person trains. Therefore, the union made no ”productivity” concessions in return for the wage increases unlike all the other city unions in their recent contracts. The contract also provides for expanded maternity leave and extends full lifetime medical coverage to all retirees, a significant gain.
On the other hand, the union leadership has made a major concession by agreeing that 1.5% of members’ pay will go toward health premiums. Toussaint also agreed that if the MTA’s health costs continued to rise, workers’ contributions could go up as well. This is a dangerous concession which management will be sure to exploit. Health care costs have skyrocketed in recent years while the quality of health care declines and are projected to continue ballooning because of the disastrous rampage of unregulated market forces in US medicine. This concession also sets a precedent which will be used to pressure other city unions most of which do not currently pay toward health premiums. It has been claimed that if all city workers paid an identical 1.5% of wages the city would save $300 million a year.
Of course, the city’s on again off again fiscal crisis is as fictitious as the MTA’s and is first and foremost the result of not making big business, and Wall Street in particular, pay anything substantial toward the services which keep the city running. All of this is thrown on the backs of the working class and middle class taxpayers who are told they will have to pay for the ”greedy” transit workers’ allegedly luxurious benefits.
Besides the concession on health care, there is no reform of the disciplinary system, except to have an “independent consultant” look at it. This will change exactly nothing. Finally, all the fines on the union and individual members under the Taylor Law still stand. This amounts to an average of over $1,000 per worker. It is fine to say that the reimbursements on pension payments will cover this for many but what about those not receiving reimbursements?
On balance, it is clear that some important gains were achieved from going on strike and this will probably be the overall feeling of Local 100 members. However, the concession on health care costs is a serious step backward and for this reason we would advocate a no vote on the contract.
The wider issues
The transit strike in New York City has brought a number of essential issues out into the open. First of all it has sharply raised the question of the attacks on pensions and health care benefits and how working people should fight back. In a discussion on the McNeill Lehrer news program, a pro-business spokesperson argued that in the private sector, “people have discovered the existence of a country called China” but that many workers in the public sector were still living in a fantasy world. In other words, global competition means that the type of benefits which industrial unions won in the past are no longer viable and that public sector workers will have to lower their expectations accordingly. A labor lawyer responded on the same program by pointing out that what is going on is the ripping up of a social contract which corporations and government entered into with workers after World War II and “you can’t rip up a social contract without considering the consequences.”
Many working people listening to this debate are also wondering why the loss of pensions in many sectors should mean that others should also accept this outcome. Do we all accept Wal Mart wages and conditions or do we rebuild a fighting labor movement so that workers at Wal Mart can win decent wages and conditions? Do we continually wage rearguard actions to defend what health benefits we have while millions have none or does the labor movement put its resources into a serious campaign for a national health insurance system?
In New York State, the need for a fight to scrap the onerous Taylor Law has also been put on the agenda. Even timid trade union leaders like Randi Weingarten of the UFT have pointed out how the law contains massive penalties for public employees who strike but none for public employers like Mike Bloomberg who refuse to negotiate contracts with unions for years on end. Weingarten even declared that the teachers’ union would have to debate whether to return to a position of “no contract, no work” like the TWU.
It is clear that the TWU strike and its outcome will put the leadership of other city unions under considerable pressure not to make further concessions or to allow years to go by without a contract. The first major contract due to expire is that AFSCME District 37 representing 120,000 city workers in March. Given the terrible contract the leadership of District 37 signed last time it will be very interesting to see what happens now.
All of these questions pose the necessity for a real debate on the future of the labor movement. We need unions that are democratic, fighting organizations of the working people whose leaders receive the average wage of their members and are not afraid to defy unjust laws or go to jail if necessary. But we also need a major political initiative, the formation of a new political party of the working class and the poor. This initiative could begin at local level in New York in 2006 with candidates from the public sector unions including the TWU, UFT, AFSCME as well as SEIU 1199 committed to massive funding for education and healthcare and public services generally, taxing Wall Street and scrapping the Taylor Law.
The New York City transit workers’ strike, despite its short duration, was one of the most important class battles of recent years in this country. The transit workers’ courage and determination gave heart to millions of workers across the US who are looking for a lead to fight back against the bosses’ offensive. But it has also clarified that a much wider struggle will be needed to defeat this offensive.