Saturday, January 28, 2006

Transit Worker Update

Last night I went to a presentation by Steve Downs, longtime TWU activist and Solidarity member at a "friends of Labor Notes" forum on the transit strike. The subject at hand was, "what was the strike about?," "Why did people vote against the contract?" and "what are the next steps?"
In addition to being an informative discussion about Local 100 from the inside, the forum was a good place to figure out who the various Trotskyist sects within the TWU 100 are. Socialist Action, League for a Revolutionary Party, and of course Solidarity members were all there, along with the usual Spartacist wackos, who might have one member who is an actual transit worker. As a solidarity member said to me in the bar after the meeting, "they made us look so normal," and indeed, the Sparts who rose from the audience to denounce the speakers and everyone else, made almost everyone, even the members of the Revolutionary Transit Worker group, seem really mild by comparison. The sectarian bickering was a real distraction from the discussion of meaningful concrete steps towards building a solidarity movement to support the Transit Workers, and Morning Sedition fans would have loved it when a woman stood up to remind people of this and said, "We're fighting for our lives here!" (she wasn't a socialist, but a member of a group called ICE, which is part of the opposition block in the UFT.)
While I'm not a member of Solidarity, or lately, even a "friend of Labor Notes,I'm pretty close to several members of the group, (close enough to hang out in the Raccoon Lodge with em for hours after a meeting) and I'm generally sympathetic to many of their positions. It seems to me that they do the most sensible and consistant work to build progressive caucuses and rank and file democracy of anyone in the labor movement today.
So, what were the issues? Steve Downs pointed out from the podium, if your main source of info. on the transit workers is the mainstream media, it's pretty unlikely that you have any idea of what the strike was really about.
As he put it, the public was told, by Toussaint's very effective PR campaign, that the strike was about the Pension give-back, but as far as Downs was concerned, for the rank and file, the strike was about a number of other issues. According to him, the membership went out "because the MTA has a 1 billion dollar surplus and is trying to shift healthcare burdens onto the workers" ..... "because we didn't strike in 2002 - our threats will become meaningless if we don't make good on them"..."because we said no give-backs and we mean no give-backs"... because they wanted to pay back the corrupt MTA for years of harassment and disrespect.
In order to understand the "no" vote (11,234 members voted against the contract) it helps if you understand these issues. To outside observers, once the pension give-back demand was taken off the table, the reason for the strike was over. And that was Toussaint's argument for the contract he brought to the membership for a vote. But that contract was not a good one, if you go by the reasons that the R&f was on strike according to Downs:
He argues in an article in January's Labor Notes:


The contract presented to the membership five days after the strike ended contained some gains, but it also contained significant givebacks. Wage increases were the same as those offered by the MTA before the strike began. They fell short of expected increases in the cost of living.

Before the strike, President Toussaint had taken the position that he would accept neither changes to the pension plan nor workers paying for medical benefits. Afterwards, Touissant recommended a deal that, for the first time, required all members to pay a minimum of 1.5 percent of their wages for medical insurance (the percentage rate would rise over the life of the contract).

Combined with the loss of pay for striking, this premium more than offset the raise won in the first year. And, after transit workers finally used the leverage that the contract expiration during the holiday shopping season gave them, Toussaint agreed to push the expiration back a month to mid-January.

The proposed contract was endorsed overwhelmingly by Local 100’s executive board.

A key selling point of the agreement was that about half the members would get a refund of excess money they had paid into the pension fund in the late 1990s. When Governor Pataki’s office announced his intention to veto the legislation needed for the refund to go through, the union made it known that it had a side agreement requiring the MTA to pay bonuses to the workers if Pataki vetoed the bill.

It's not just about this contract either, but about the frustration of an activist membership with the union's leadership. What became clear to me at the meeting is that there is serious discontent with Toussaint within the TWU Local 100. The TWU, hardly a model of union democracy, has only ONE membership meeting every year where members can actually get together and talk about the issues that concern them. The strike, therefore, provided a great opportunity for workers to talk to each other about the issues. The strike itself, therefore, played a significant role in creating a movement for greater democracy within the union, and I think that a movement around that issue will unite all the different dissident groups in the next few months. The major next step proposed by members of the "vote no" coalition seem to be to organize support for returning to the TWU's original set of demands, which included an 8% raise each year and no give-backs, and holding an increased number of membership meetings to do real organizing in the local. The other immediate goal is to show up at the court dates for TWU leadership and protest the heavy fines and use of the Taylor Law against the union.

Unfortunately, very few papers in NY are willing to discuss the TWU union's internal conflicts. The one person who has written substantive articles about left-wing opposition to Toussaint in the non-socialist press is Nik Kovac of the Queens Ledger, who has broken from the corporate press pack to actually write about the "vote no" coalition and its conflicts with the union's leadership. Even "Building Bridges"' Mimi Rosenberg, supposed union democracy supporter, talked about the concessionary contract as a "victory" on WBAI's "wake-up call" at the end of December, although they did catch on and interview Tim Schermerhorn on a recent show that hoped to explain the "no" vote.
The meeting last night was also a window into behind-the-scenes issues within NY's labor movement more generally, as the accusation was made that the teachers' union pres, Randi Weingarten was on the phone to Toussaint during the strike pressuring him to take concessions and send the local back to work.
With "leaders" like this, who needs bosses?

No comments: