N.Y. transit strike assessed

NEW YORK — Several hundred transit workers, labor activists and academics gathered Sept. 28 for a conference titled “Assessing the NYC Transit Strike of 2005.”

In his welcoming remarks, Gregory Mantsios, director of CUNY’s Center for Labor, Community and Policy Studies, which co-sponsored the conference along with Cornell University’s labor studies program and Transport Workers Union Local 100, thanked the transit workers “for standing up for all of organized labor.”

Labor historian Joshua Freeman said, “There are moments in history when the struggle of a particular group of workers takes on added significance and is about more than their own issues. … The transit strike defined the balance of power for workers in this region.”

Speakers from labor and academia attempted to answer the question “Was the strike worth it?” placing it in the larger historical and political context.

Darlene Lawson, TWU Local 100 recording secretary, spoke of her childhood as the daughter of a strong union man, who once told her, “As a Black man, you have to stand up for dignity.”

“The 2005 strike,” Lawson said, “was for dignity and respect, and is something we will share with generations to come.”

Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez underscored that point, describing the transit workers’ anger at the racist arrogance of the Metropolitan Transit Authority bosses and their indifference to the extremely difficult, even dangerous, working conditions.

Roger Toussaint, president of TWU Local 100, described in detail the challenges facing the union in the period leading up to the strike and why it ended the strike when it did. The union is still struggling for a contract after a first post-strike vote that rejected the contract by seven votes, and then a revote, held in March, where the same offer passed overwhelmingly.

Toussaint said how one evaluates the strike is extremely important, because “when people hear ‘2005 NYC transit strike,’ will they say, ‘If they could stand up, so can we,’ or ‘Look what happened when they stood up.’” He argued that the strike was a victory: “After a generation without strikes, we had to win back the sense that we can stand up for ourselves. … Our strike was an enormous contribution to the hope that every working person has to preserve pensions and health benefits.”

Gonzalez made a similar point. “The workers will be affected by this experience their whole lives, it contributes to their understanding of balance of forces. … Even losses can be victories in terms of building a movement.”

Many speakers addressed the importance of the union’s fight against a two-tier benefits system.

Saskia Sassen from the University of Chicago spoke about the chipping away at working people’s rights that has taken place in the last quarter century, while the rich and powerful have gained rights.

“This strike made history, because it allows many more than just the striking workers to claim rights,” she said. The strike made “economic and strategic history,” given the importance of New York City in a globalized world.

Ron Blackwell, the AFL-CIO’s chief economist, described a meeting of G-8 labor ministers discussing “active aging,” which, he said, really means “work till you drop.”

“The most powerful countries have agreed that workers will have to work longer, that they can’t afford retirement,” Blackwell said. “The [transit workers] strike made a statement about the right of workers to retire.”

Many speakers also talked about the impact of the strike on the NYC labor movement. Freeman pointed to the “more combative stance of labor” that has already begun, citing United Federation of Teacher President Randi Weingarten, who said that her union would apply the same principle of “no contract, no work.” The strike also added to pressure to repeal the New York State’s Taylor Law, which makes strikes by public workers illegal.

Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of New York Jobs with Justice, spoke about JwJ’s effort to quickly build community support for the strike. She said people were “just looking for something to do” and had a “deep understanding of the importance of the strike, that it was a struggle for working-class people across the city.”