NEW YORK – On April 24, over 10,000 transit workers rallied here to defend and improve their negotiated health benefits. The rally took place during the evening rush hour on 44th Street and Madison Avenue. The workers then marched to Gov. George Pataki’s office on 40th Street and 3rd Avenue.

The backdrop of this rally was the upcoming Dec. 15 contract deadline. The original purpose of the rally was supposed to center on the major contract demands for the upcoming contract.

These include wages, benefits, pensions, safety/health protections and an end to the punitive discipline system that the Transit Authority has toward workers. However, the health crisis superseded all other issues.

The rank-and-file members of Transport Workers Union Local 100 were demanding that the Transit Authority provide the necessary funding for their current health benefit programs. Last March, over 8,000 rallied to protect these benefits, and last June about 4,000 marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to demand the funding.

This year brought a different and more difficult problem. The underfunding of the Health Benefit Trust resulted from a deal cut between the Transit Authority and the union’s previous leadership.

In that deal, those union leaders traded off benefit funding for so-called productivity changes, changes that the rank and file strongly opposed. That leadership was repudiated in a landslide vote by the new leadership headed by Roger Toussaint, Ed Watt and a whole new executive board.

The underfunding, amounting to $20 million, was the subject of a recent arbitration hearing that went to the side of the employer.

The union leadership vigorously opposed that decision, but with no success. However, the membership and the newly recruited and activated shop stewards came out in even higher numbers as a result of the arbitrators decision.

In the next months, the union will be holding informational pickets at all key subway and bus stops to inform the public about the anti-worker, anti-labor practices of the Transit Authority.

Many union leaders and politicians attended the march and rally. Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, spoke about the need for unity between transit workers and teachers. Teachers have been without a contract for over a year-and-a-half.