NEW YORK — On April 10 Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Theodore Jones sentenced Roger Toussaint, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, to 10 days in jail for leading his union on a pre-Christmas three-day strike. Seven days later, Jones slammed the union again, fining it $2.5 million and crippling its ability to collect dues.
In a related development, 71 percent of Local 100 members voted to accept the contract the membership rejected in January by seven votes. Union leaders say the reason for the earlier rejection was confusion sown by the media and Gov. George Pataki. The union’s leadership is calling on the Metropolitan Transit Authority to ratify the contract instead of going into binding arbitration.
“When we went on strike,” Toussaint told the judge at his trial, “we did so knowing that the law forbids us to strike, but we were engaged in civil disobedience and we did it because we felt we had to.”
The union argued it had been backed into a corner by illegal MTA demands to change its membership’s pension structure.
“It is the Authority that is the chief lawbreaker,” Toussaint said. He added that while the state’s Taylor Law bars strikes and technically prohibits employers from doing certain things, employers face no sanctions for misconduct. “The MTA can pursue an unlawful bargaining proposal … and face no consequences for that.” This has caused thousands of city employees to work without contracts for years, he said.
Toussaint argued that the strike was defensive and for the good of all New York workers. “We were fighting back against the MTA’s efforts to impose an entirely new pension on future transit workers and to begin that process for all municipal employees in the city of New York,” he said.
More ominous for the union are the $2.5 million fine and the loss of dues check-off, the automatic deduction of union dues from workers’ paychecks. Union officials estimate that only a small percentage of dues would be able to be collected manually from members, spread over the city’s sprawling transit system. The financial burden could cripple the union.
However, community and labor leaders are determined to put up a fight. Standing with Toussaint in court were several city councilors, Brooklyn Congressman Major Owens, State Assembly members and United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
When Toussaint’s sentence was announced on April 10 at the NYC rally for immigrant rights, he was cheered as a hero by the thousands of people gathered. A number of elected officials and union leaders noted that, had the trial and the immigration demonstration not been on the same day, they would have been at Toussaint’s trial.
The city and state labor movements immediately announced an April 24 rally to coincide with Toussaint’s imprisonment. The NYC Central Labor Council argued in a statement that the penalties affect all workers, and urged maximum turnout.
The case has brought the Taylor Law, which drastically limits the rights of public workers, into focus. The law violates basic labor rights as defined in the UN International Labor Organization’s Declaration on the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
“First and foremost, if you’re a worker, you have to have the right or opportunity to use some leverage,” said Chris Owens, a community activist and candidate for Congress in the 11th District. He added that the penalties imposed are “unfair and outrageous.”
“Toussaint stood up, and the TWU stood up and did something that a lot of other unions should be doing more of,” Owens said. “They should have the support. If they did, the elected officials would be changing the laws, and the judges would be a little bit more in fear of the repercussions. Now it’s like open season on organized labor.”
Supporters of the union urge that letters protesting the rulings against the union be sent to the Hon. Theodore T. Jones, Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of Kings, 360 Adams St., Brooklyn NY 11201-3712.