On the evening of Dec. 15, just one hour before the contract expiration deadline, MTA board chairman and billionaire real estate developer Peter Kalikow arrived at the negotiations. Kalikow presented what he later characterized as a “final offer” to 34,000 NYC transit workers. This offer provided for a wage increase of 3 percent in each of the contract’s three years, but included give backs aimed, primarily, at new hires. Under the MTA proposal medical co-pays would increase, and, new hires would have to pay 1 percent of their salary as a premium for basic benefits that are now free. New hires would also receive an inferior pension that would increase retirement age from 55 to 62.

Following post midnight bargaining with Kalikow, TWU Local 100 President Roger Toussaint presented the MTA’s offer to the union’s executive board. Characterizing Kalikow’s offer and his late entry into the talks as provocations, Toussaint proposed, and the executive board approved, a resolution authorizing a strike at two Queens bus lines to begin at 12:01 a.m. on Monday Dec. 18, to be followed by a strike of the entire system beginning the following morning, should no agreement be reached.

Over the life of the last contract health benefit costs have been considerably less then the budgeted amount, the pension system covering most transit workers is sound, and the MTA is running a budget surplus that is reportedly as high as $1.5 billion. In addition, the city, state and national economic pictures are all showing modest improvement. Why, then is the MTA demanding that the workers accept give backs and lousy wage increases?

Many analysts believe that the MTA’s intransigence is ideologically driven, part of an agenda that goes way beyond the 34,000 NYC transit workers immediately affected.

In this view, the MTA’s hard-line position is part of a nationwide drive by the forces of capital, under the aegis of the likes of Kalikow, NYC Mayor Bloomberg, President Bush, et al, to drive down the living standards of working people and thus direct more and more of the working people’s money into their own pockets. In short, it is a basic fight over how society’s resources will be allocated. If transit workers in New York City, members of what is widely acknowledged to be one of the most militant and influential unions in the nation, are forced to accept this it will be a major achievement for the employing class, whose aim is to force working people to abandon the notion that the conditions of living and working for themselves and their families will continuously improve, and instead accept the inevitability of the decline in these conditions.

TWU’s leaders, however, see this struggle in similar terms and fully understand what is at stake, their careful and deliberate planning and the elegant strategies now being played out bear witness to this.

The union’s leaders have expressed their determination to avoid a strike and are exhausting every single legal means at their disposal before calling one, system-wide. NY Governor George Pataki and Bloomberg, who are seen by many observers as putting their political agendas ahead of the public welfare, have responded provocatively; threatening the transit workers and their union with stiff sanctions for violating the anti-strike provisions of New York States Taylor Law. For its part the union has declared that if there is a strike it will have been started by the MTA’s law-breaking, including its demand for new pension tier, in violation of the Taylor Law, and its bad faith bargaining.

Meanwhile, the union is gearing up for the fight. Top TWU leaders have been conducting intensive strategy sessions with the leaders of New York City’s major unions. Funds are being marshaled to build a war chest, and the broader NYC labor movement is weighing in with moral, political and material support. Union organizers are working round the clock on final preparations, detailed instructions for system shutdown have been issued and members in the field are already receiving their strike duty assignments.

Everyone should realize what is at stake here, and what the cost of defeat will be, not just for transit workers but for all working people.

Gary Bono (gbono@cpusa.org) is a transit worker and member of TWU Local 100.