What Happened - and Didn't: Behind New York's Transit Strike

— Steve Downs

EARLY ON DECEMBER 20, 2005, Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, representing some 33,000 of New York City's subway and bus workers, called a strike. When dawn broke, there was no public transportation in NYC and millions of people walked, hitched rides, rode their bikes, or stayed home.

Strikes by public employees are illegal in New York. Why did the union risk millions of dollars in fines against each member and the union by calling a strike? Why did the members first reject the proposed contract and then accept it?

Officially, the strike was called because the transit authority (MTA) insisted on raising the percentage of their wage future workers would pay for their pensions.(1) Management demanded this change (which would have saved the MTA $30 million over the life of the contract) despite holding a surplus greater than $1 billion.

Pointing to the gutting of pension plans by employers throughout the economy and the shifting of their costs from management onto workers, Local 100 President Roger Toussaint made it clear that he was not going to accept such a deal. In his words, he was not going to "give up the unborn."

Management's demand to change the pension for future workers may have served as a trigger for the strike, but it doesn't explain why the strike happened. Local 100 struck last December because it didn't strike in 1999 or 2002.

The contract fights in 1999 and 2002 were both characterized by mass mobilizations that carried Local 100 to the brink of a strike. Both saw demonstrations of 10,000 or more transit workers outside of the MTA's headquarters. Both saw mass union meetings enthusiastically endorse motions for a strike.

Both 1999 and 2002 also saw NYC's mayor (Giuliani in '99, Bloomberg in '02) get injunctions barring strikes and threatening fines against each member of $25,000 a day and against the union of $1 million a day for violating the injunction. Both saw deals made on the last day of the contract. And in both years, the proposed agreements were ratified by a roughly 2-1 margin, despite opposition by some officers and many activists.

In 1999, the mobilizations were led by rank-and-file activists and low-level officers in opposition to the Local's leadership (headed by Willie James). In 2002, they were led by Roger Toussaint.

Despite the fact that the contract Willie James negotiated was ratified, his failure to lead a fight sealed his fate. In elections held in December 2000, James came in third in a three-way race and New Directions' candidate, Roger Toussaint, was elected with 60% of the vote.

The 2005 Contract Fight

By 2005, Toussaint was under pressure to negotiate a contract that was a clear win for the members. Over time, the 2002 agreement had come in for significant criticism as the rising cost of living outstripped the wage gains and promises of improved treatment on the job had proven empty.(2) Although he had been reelected in 2003, four of the seven VPs on Toussaint's slate had been voted out. And while the members still had a strong desire to hit back at management, there were growing doubts that Toussaint was committed to leading that fight.

The mass mobilizations that had been central to the 1999 and 2002 contract fights were missing in 2005. In their place, the union leadership encouraged members to lobby in Albany and attend cultural events at the union hall as a way to measure the membership's readiness to fight.

In the fall, the Local initiated "Action Tuesdays." On these days, members were to wear union t-shirts to work or picket outside the depot or shop during lunch hour. These actions built union spirit at a few workplaces, but they were a far cry from the 10,000 strong marches and demos of previous years.

Despite this drawing back by the union leadership, determination to win a good contract grew among the members throughout the year. As early as the December 2004 membership meeting, activists had called on the Local 100 leadership to:

  • Forthrightly and publicly tell the membership that a strike is possible.
  • Encourage members to build their own strike fund by setting aside at least $20/wk.
  • Train officers and stewards to aggressively enforce operating and safety rules on the job.
  • Identify picket captains and train them on how to run effective picket lines.(3)

These proposals were ignored by the union's administration.

MTA's Hard Line

In the summer, the MTA signaled its intention to take a hard line by announcing that they had a $1 billion surplus for the year -- and they were not setting aside any of it for improved wages or benefits.

This arrogance fed the belief of many transit workers that they are treated more harshly, and paid less in wages and benefits, than workers doing similar jobs at other MTA agencies (commuter railroads) because the transit workforce is made up largely of African-Americans and Latinos serving a ridership that is largely people of color.

Among the subway operating crews, activists encouraged their co-workers to slow the trains down by strictly following management's operating and safety rules. And as members discussed how to avoid a repeat of 2002, support for the fundamental position of "No Givebacks" grew.

As the contract expiration approached, members of Transit Workers for a Just Contract collected pledges that read:

I am a member in good standing of TWU Local 100. I fully support Local 100's efforts to win a good contract without accepting any of the MTA's demands for givebacks.

I pledge that I will vote "NO" on any proposed contract that contains givebacks from Local 100 members.

These pledges were to be handed to Local officers on December 15, the day the contract was to expire. Members snapped them up.

At the mass membership meeting on December 10, Toussaint took up the call for "No Givebacks." But he also issued orders to the union staff that they were to limit rank and file manifestations of that sentiment. Members entering the meeting were not allowed to bring in any "unauthorized" literature or the signs they had made denouncing the MTA or urging the union to hold fast to "No Givebacks."

Members roared their approval when Toussaint, emphasizing -- "Deadline is a Deadline," asked for authorization to call a strike if there was no settlement by midnight on December 15.

A deadline turned out not to be a deadline, after all. On Dec. 15, the MTA, as part of their "final offer," presented their demand that the retirement age and years of service be raised. Toussaint emphatically rejected this demand, but he also pushed the contract deadline back to December 19 to allow negotiations to continue.

By December 19 the MTA had substantially altered their "final offer." No longer demanding that new employees work longer and retire later, management now demanded that new hires pay more into the pension plan (6% of wages instead of 2%) for the same benefits current workers have.

Toussaint found himself caught between a management determined to force the union to accept a significant giveback and a membership equally determined to prevent givebacks -- and to win a good contract. As he related later, polling the members had convinced Toussaint that "Our members would not accept a contract that was not the product of a strike."(4)

The mood of the membership made it impossible for Toussaint to simply agree to givebacks at the bargaining table. Having won office after Willie James failed to lead the fight the members wanted, Toussaint knew that he had to convince the membership that he had done everything possible -- including calling a strike -- to win a good contract and that the contract he accepted was the product of a real fight.

The Strike

Stating they would not accept lowering take-home pay for future generations of workers, on December 20 the Executive Board declared Local 100 on strike against the MTA. The strike was 100% effective. No subway trains or city buses moved.

Transit workers were proud of their leadership and themselves. They were finally saying "NO" to management, and backing it up with a demonstration of the power they always knew they had.

However, it was clear on the picket lines that Toussaint's stated reason for the strike was not one that resonated strongly with most strikers. The pickets supported preventing the MTA from increasing the amount future workers would pay for their pensions. But it was not something they had discussed or that the union had organized around in the months leading up to the contract expiration.

For most pickets, the strike was about paying the MTA back for years of petty harassment. It was about standing against what was seen as racially motivated disrespect and wages and benefits lower than those on the commuter railroads — where the workforce and riders were predominantly white. It was about workers who were tired of being pushed around pushing back.

For the members, the strike was also about winning a good contract -- one with better wages and benefits and no givebacks. Unfortunately, this was not Toussaint's primary goal. For him, the strike was to secure ratification of a contract that might otherwise be rejected, and to secure his own reelection.

Standing Up Under Pressure

Local 100 and the strike faced considerable opposition. They were the targets of a blistering attack by Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Pataki, and corporate-owned media. Despite this, a survey conducted on the second day of the strike showed that 54% of New Yorkers supported the union.

Leaders of NYC's other unions, who had pledged their undying support at pre-strike rallies, stood on the sidelines or pressured Toussaint to end the strike without a contract.

The TWU International not only opposed the strike, it actively tried to undermine it. In order to avoid being fined, Mike O'Brien, the TWU International President, publicly urged Local 100 members to "abandon the strike and return to work."(5)

Despite similar attacks and betrayals in 1999 and 2002,(6) the Local 100 leadership seemed unprepared to deal with them in 2005. They did not move aggressively to protect the union's assets or to escalate the strike in response to management's attacks. For example, when strikers called for sending pickets to Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road (the commuter railroads that are part of the MTA), the union leadership refused to act.

The lack of preparation limited both Toussaint's options and, ultimately, what the strike could accomplish. Still, there was a positive dimension to it.

In several of the Local's divisions, there had been no selection or training of picket captains. In Rapid Transit Operations (RTO, the subway crews), members were called on December 15, the original contract expiration date, and asked if they were willing to be picket captains.

But picket lines did go up. Stewards and members stepped up and took responsibility for establishing and maintaining the lines. They began to reach their friends at other locations to talk about how to heighten the effect of the strike. In the Bronx, pickets took steps to send pickets to Metro-North's yards.

On the picket lines themselves, members from different divisions stood out in the cold together and discussed the TA, the union, the strike, what they'd like to see in the contract, etc. Local 100 has only one local-wide meeting a year, and members are often barred from speaking, so the exchanges that took place on the picket line represented an unusual opportunity to connect as Local members, rather than by title or division.

Why The Strike Ended

The strike lasted 60 hours. On the third day, December 22, the Executive Board voted to end the strike -- without an agreement in place. While some Local 100 members were relieved that the strike was over, many were disgusted that the union had retreated. They returned to work grudgingly and worried about what was going on at negotiations.

This concern was heightened when it became known that, to end the strike, "Mr. Toussaint signaled that if the transportation authority relaxed its demands involving pensions" -- he would be willing to bargain over workers' making payments toward their health benefits."(7)

The members were right to worry. When they woke up on December 28 and learned what Toussaint had negotiated and the executive board had agreed to, thousands of transit workers said, "I didn't strike for this!"

In exchange for the MTA withdrawing its demand for changes to the pension system, Toussaint had agreed, for the first time, to a premium for healthcare. The MTA had sought to shift some of its costs for pensions onto the workers. Toussaint had refused to allow that shift. But to employers, shifting one set of costs onto the workers is as good as shifting another; Toussaint agreed to shift some of the cost for healthcare from the employer to the worker.

In addition, workers did not regain any of the ground lost to inflation. And, after taking advantage of the leverage given by a contract expiration date during the holiday shopping season, the union had agreed to push the expiration into the middle of January.

Union officers claimed that the new 1.5% healthcare premium(8) was not a giveback because it was paying for a new benefit -- full healthcare for retirees. But they never explained why the workers would be paying approximately $100 million for healthcare that was expected to cost the MTA roughly $31 million.

The Vote No Campaign

A hastily organized Vote No campaign said that the contract was not worthy of the strike. Focusing on the healthcare premium, opponents of the contract asserted that they had not struck to trade one giveback for another.

For its part, the union leadership tried to cast the contract vote as a referendum on the strike. Their hope was that members who were proud to have struck would vote for the contract. But their approach instead led members who had been proud while they walked the picket line to begin to wonder if they had been fools for supporting the strike.

Paradoxically, the strike that Toussaint had called to get a mediocre contract approved probably made it harder for him to sell the contract he actually negotiated. Members who had been on the picket lines felt strong — they had just crippled NYC. They felt competent -- they had set up and maintained picket lines with no training and little direction from the union. They did not see why, given the power they had just demonstrated, they should have to agree to any givebacks in their contract.

After intense campaigning by both sides, the contract was rejected by a mere seven votes -- 11,227 yes to 11,234 no. The contract was rejected in the divisions representing Train Operators, Conductors, Trackworkers (which Toussaint had chaired before being elected president) and Station Agents and Cleaners. These divisions have large African-American and Latino majorities. They had overwhelmingly supported the New Directions slate in 2000 and voted for Toussaint's re-election in 2003.

In the wake of the rejection, opponents of the contract called for emergency membership meetings to renew the fight for a good contract. They urged the establishment of Mobilization Committees to coordinate actions throughout the Local and to prepare for a possible resumption of the strike. They also called for expanding the bargaining committee and opening up negotiations.

For its part, the Local leadership warned the membership, "be careful what you wish for." Instead of accepting the decision of the membership and looking for ways to resume the fight, Toussaint and his team complained that opponents of the contract had lied about its contents; that the membership didn't understand the terms of the agreement; and repeatedly threatened the membership that the contract would now be decided by binding arbitration.

Because of the closeness of the vote, some editorial writers and other observers of the talks urged the Local to conduct the vote again. Toussaint initially rejected this. But after almost two months during which the union staff made it clear that they would do nothing to try to renew the contract fight, Toussaint announced on March 14 that he would conduct another vote on the same agreement. The members would be required to vote until they got it right.

However, Peter Kalikow, the MTA chair, stated that the proposed contract was off the table and the MTA was determined to resolve the contract through arbitration.

With no illusion that Toussaint would actually return to the bargaining table "or the streets" to try to win a better contract -- the membership overwhelmingly (14,716 to 5877) approved the agreement on the second vote. Only the Train Operators' division rejected it both times.

The Aftermath

Between the two votes, the Local was fined $2.5 million for ignoring a judge's injunction against the strike. The Local will lose its right to have dues automatically deducted from members' paychecks after the fine is paid off in June 2007. Each individual striker was fined a day's pay (on top of the day lost while striking) for each day of the strike. And in a stunning development, Roger Toussaint was sentenced to 10 days in jail for contempt of court.(9)

The judge issued his sentence against the recommendations of Mayor Bloomberg and NY State's Attorney General. They had argued that heavy fines were more of a punishment, and a warning to other union leaders against future strikes, and that a jail sentence would only make Toussaint a martyr.

Jailing a union president for leading a strike represents a serious escalation in the assault on unions. But the response to the jailing within Local 100 was quite muted. When the Local and the Central Labor Council called on members to turn out to escort Toussaint on a march across the Brooklyn Bridge to his way to jail, only a couple hundred Local 100 members turned out.

There was simply little support among a membership that felt itself betrayed first by the decision to return from the strike without a contract, second by the givebacks in the contract that was eventually reached, and third, by Toussaint's display of disrespect for the membership by ordering a second vote on the rejected agreement.

At the end of July, Local 100 is still without a contract. Arbitration is underway to impose a settlement. Slates are being formed to challenge Toussaint in Local elections to be held this fall. Michael O'Brien, the International President who betrayed the strike, retired for "health reasons." His successor, Jim Little, endorsed Toussaint's holding a second vote and is working to patch up the International's relationship with the Local.(10)

The December 2005 transit strike was a historic event. Transit workers showed that workers still have the power and the will to fight. But because the strike was called to blow off steam and win ratification of givebacks, it was not carried through to a successful conclusion. And the strike showed that poor planning and leadership will doom even the most effective strike.

While some Local 100 members have confidence in Toussaint, many who proudly participated on the picket lines now wonder if they were fools to do so. Some, looking at the fines and the givebacks, question the wisdom of fighting back at all.

Others, however, remain proud of their efforts during the strike. They remain convinced that a better contract could have been won. They are inspired by the expression of worker power they were a part of last December. And they are determined to continue fighting for a stronger and more democratic union — and for a union leadership worthy of the union’s members.

Notes

  1. Management had first demanded that the age and years of service necessary for a pension both be raised. They dropped this in the face of the union’s opposition.
    back to text
  2. On average, there is a disciplinary write-up for every two transit workers each year. In pushing the 2002 agreement, Toussaint had claimed that 70% of the write-ups would be eliminated. In fact, there were more write-ups in 2004 than there had been in 2002.
    back to text
  3. Rank and File Advocate newsletter, Nov. 2004. Can be viewed at www.rankandfileadvocate.org
    back to text
  4. Statement by Toussaint to members at contract meetings at the Brooklyn YWCA (1/9/06) and Bronx Community College (1/10/06)
    back to text
  5. NY Times, 12/21/05
    back to text
  6. The union had experience a similar media barrage during the 1999 and 2002 talks. Also in 2002, the International's lawyers said at a hearing on the injunction barring a strike that the International had no control over the Local and did not sanction a strike.
    back to text
  7. NY Times, 12/23/05
    back to text
  8. The premium would be 1.5% in the first year, but would grow, with no cap, over the life of the agreement as healthcare costs rose.
    back to text
  9. In late April, after serving four days in jail, he was released early for good behavior.
    back to text
  10. One group of activists, lead by opponents of the contract and former New Directions members, is not willing to forget the International's betrayal. They have issued a Call to Renew TWU 100. It includes the following:
    The leadership of the TWU International called on members to return to work during the December 2005 strike. They abandoned our Local during the 2002 contract talks. Local 100's members cannot afford to give them a third chance to betray us. This abusive relationship must end! A new leadership must attempt to negotiate the changes the Local needs with the International. If a satisfactory agreement cannot be reached, Local 100 must take steps to leave the TWU.

    back to text

ATC 124, September-October 2006