Opinion

New York City transport workers, members of Transport Workers Union Local 100 were tested in a struggle of historic significance, their recent contract struggle.

Going into the negotiations the stated goals of the employer, MTA-NYCT, were the consolidation of surface operations (bus service) and the consolidation of titles, called “broad-banding,” in all departments. In addition, they insisted that any wage increases be tied to “productivity” give-backs.

It was clear to us, however, that the employer had a hidden agenda – to destroy or discredit Local 100 President Roger Toussaint and to destroy or weaken the union by provoking a strike through inflammatory rhetoric and bad-faith bargaining.

It was also clear that transit management was working with right-wing politicians and media outlets as well as with national leaders of the Transport Workers to undermine Local 100. The NY Post, formerly owned by MTA Chair Kalikow, was particularly incendiary, issuing a vicious editorial entitled, “The Communist Underground.” Powerful, extreme right-wing, New York State political boss and former Sen. Al D’Amato publicly gloated about how TWU International President Sonny Hall, would have to step in and “straighten things out.”

The Local 100 leadership was able to beat back this offensive with creative tactics that mobilized public support: Bloomberg’s rhetoric that, in the event of a strike, people should prepare to bicycle and roller blade to work, provoked widespread public contempt.

When President Toussaint finally told Bloomberg to “shut up,” the admonition was greeted with a collective “Amen.” Al D’Amato has likewise been muted and has sulked back into the shadows. Meanwhile, Toussaint has become, in the words of Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin, the “labor leader that New York so desperately needs.”

The contract goals of Local 100 were determined by a survey of the membership. Topping the list was strengthening of health benefits, including prescription drug coverage for retirees, and reform of an abusive disciplinary system. Wages, including pay equity with other commuter rail systems and other municipal skilled trades workers were next.

Other priorities were child-care and limiting outsourcing and the practice of creating new job titles outside the bargaining unit. Early on Toussaint said the contract would be won in the streets as well as at the bargaining table, a principle that guided the union’s strategy in the period before and during negotiations.

A series of rallies and demonstrations were organized. Three of these turned out 10 to 15,000 transit workers – approximately half the local’s membership. The turn out was very significant, since while half of the membership was attending rallies, the other half other members were operating the city’s 24/7 transit system. These efforts culminated in a Dec. 16 mobilization at City Hall where members and leaders of public and private sector unions stood together to show there solidarity with Local 100.

Key events in the contract struggle were general membership meetings, attended by upwards of 11,000 members, on Dec. 7, just eight days before the expiration of the contract. At these meetings the membership voted unanimously to authorize the union’s executive board to call a strike when and if circumstances warranted.

As part of its outreach strategy Local 100 mounted campaigns around the issues of preventing token booth closings, saving the current $1.50 fare and the MTA’s lack of financial accountability. In the end this approach paid off by generating a groundswell of public support and by generating enough positive media coverage to offset the venomous attacks in the right wing press. This strategy has put the MTA on the defensive – the union intends to keep the pressure on.

The final contract, although not perfect in every respect, represents a major victory for transit workers. Money added to the health benefit plan, the training program, a wage adjustment fund for certain titles and the child care fund offset the modest wage increases. The overall package is so good that it will probably help other unions in their own negotiations. Writing in the New York Times, Steven Greenhouse estimates that the entire package represents an effective wage increase of 4.5 percent per year. In addition, the contract includes a major overhaul of the disciplinary system and, in the area of on the job safety, the local won the unprecedented right to refuse work that isn’t safe. The Local 100 Executive Board voted to accept the proposed contract by a 75 percent margin. A full copy of the contract proposal was sent to all members, and the result of the membership vote was 60 percent approval.

Local 100’s outreach to the public and to the media put the MTA on the defensive during the negotiations. Now that the negotiations are over, the MTA remains on the defensive. Calls for an independent audit of MTA finances are now being heard from the public, the press, and from political leaders and Local 100 has every intention of stepping up the pressure.

On the legislative front the union will forcefully put forward its alternate plan for MTA reorganization and will fight for Taylor Law reform to redress the imbalances that exist in the current law.

Unfortunately the unity of the local has been threatened by a tiny phony left faction who have been opposed to the unified leadership under Toussaint and Ed Watt from the start. This breaking of the ranks is nothing new for these elements but it did, initially, confuse some pro-Local 100 forces in NYC. Fortunately, due to their lack of any political base and their general ineptness, their impact has been small. Meanwhile, their actions are daily exposing their arrogant, anti-worker attitudes.

Local 100 leadership took great pains to insure that they worked in conjunction with the broader labor movement every step of the way. This approach was key in forcing the employer to begin to bargain seriously. The recent accomplishments of TWU Local 100 are examples of what can be achieved by a unified labor movement, spearheaded by a pro-working class and anti-racist leadership. The word on the street is that, with this struggle, Local 100 has assumed a leading role in NYC labor. It has been a long time but we’re back!

The Austin Hogan Transit Club is a club in the New York State Communist Party and is comprised of TWU Local 100 members. The club can be reached at pww@pww.org

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