Transit struggle in NYC: Workers confront union sabotage

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The movement by 33,000 transit workers in New York City in December, resisting renewed austerity and fighting for a significant wage increase, was clearly a genuine workers struggle, a significant moment in the revival of class struggle. In the anger and combativeness of the workers, in their distrust of the union, in the embryonic reflection on how to struggle, this movement was fully inscribed in the recovery of the international class struggle, we have discussed in previous articles. Simultaneously, however, this movement shared all the weaknesses and confusions that illustrate how difficult it is for the workers to reclaim the lessons of past struggles.

Despite the very real potential for a struggle that could have been a catalyst for a wider workers movement in the region, the capitalist class succeeded in breaking the dynamic of the movement. For this the bourgeoisie relied upon two essential weapons: 1) a masterful use of a division of labor between right and left factions within the union bureaucracy and 2) the threat of draconian repression against the workers. Despite all the positive elements in this movement, in the end the workers were unable to break free of the union straight-jacket and the bourgeoisie averted a crippling stsie averted a crippling strike.

Re-establishing the credibility of the unions

The bourgeoisie knew full well that it faced a potentially difficult situation with the New York public sector workers, who were angry about the previous round of contract negotiations in 1996, which forced most public sector workers to endure a two year wage freeze (called "double zero" by the workers), and a series of givebacks in working conditions (under the guise of increasing productivity) and by the fraudulent ratification vote at District Council 37, the largest municipal union, which was used to ram the agreement down workers throats. The bourgeoisie had undertaken a year-long campaign to reestablish the credibility of the unions and develop an active left-wing faction within the unions to control the growing discontent. Within the Transit Union, there was an already existing left-wing faction, called New Directions, which controls 22 of 46 seats on the local executive board, and has close links to the trotskyist International Socialist Organization.

The Struggle in Transit

Within this context, negotiations began in the fall on the transit workein the fall on the transit workers contract, the first of the contracts to expire (Dec. 15th). Technically, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which controls the subway and buses is a state, and not a municipal agency, and both the unions and the city maintained the fiction that these workers are not "city employees." The leader of the right TWU faction, union president Willie James, a former police officer, announced that the union was demanding a three year contract with 10 percent raises each year and threatened a possible strike on New Year’s Eve, two weeks after the contract’s expiration date. This threat was made very early in the bargaining process and was never really mentioned again. During the rest of the negotiating process neither the right-wing nor the left-wing of the union bureaucracy ever called for a strike. The union soon decreased its wage demand from 10 percent a year to 9 percent, and the bosses announced their wage proposal: a 2-1/4 raise per year over 4 year contract — in other words 9% raise over a 4 years, which not only would not make up for the lost wages under the old contract, but would not even keep workers even with inflation.

This provocation prompted a large turnout at a December 8th rally, attended by 12,000 -15,000 workers, more than 1/3 of all the employees of the transit system workers, at a time when many transit workers were still on the job (i.e. it was evening rush hour). Several spontaneous attempts by workers to break out of the side street where police barricades confined them and spread the demonstration to Madison Avenue resulted in a series of shoving matches with the cops. Reacting to the militancy of the workers, and needing to appear in control, Willie James declared it might be necessary to strike, but made no specific threats. Workers not only chanted "Strike, strike, strike," but after the rally began to disperse, some began making impromptu speeches to the public who were passing by on their way home from work, explaining to them why there was going to be a strike and asking for their support. After the rally was officially over, workers spontaneously began marching en masse down the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue chanting "Strike, Strike, Strike." Hundreds of workers gathered in the plaza by the library on 42nd Street and impromptu discussions seemed to be occurring randomly.


From this moment on, the stage was set for a possible strike at 12:01am on December 15th, not because of the union’s maneuvering, but because the workers made it clear that they were prepared to strike when the contract expired. Transit workers discussed little else. Distrust of the union, the threatened penalties of the Taylor law, a New York State law banning public sector strikes, and the blackout on information about the contract were central topics discussed by the workers in shops and depots across the city in informal meetings, outside union control. Workers said that they weren’t afraid of the Taylor law’s penalties of two days wages for each day on strike, and a million dollar fine against the union. The threat of a December 15th strike was very real, but it was a threat that emanated from the workers themselves, not the union. Willie James had only mumbled something vague about New Year’s Eve. New Directions was still not calling for a strike on December 15th; indeed their spokesman said they were afraid that Willie James would take the workers out on strike on the 15th without "> without "adequate preparation." Momentum grew for a formal decision to strike at a mass union meeting on the evening of December 14th.

The threat of draconian repression provides political cover union sabotage

To help its union pals, left and right, regain control of the movement, on the morning of the 14th, Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration obtained a sweeping court injunction against the strike, which not only threatened the standard Taylor law penalties, but also threatened to fine each worker who engaged in a strike individually the sum of $25,000 for the first day of the strike, and doubling each day thereafter (i.e., 50,000 the second day, 100,000 the third, etc.). The average transit worker who earns $39,000 per year, would have incurred fines of $175,000 for a 3-day strike. Not only that, members of the public were enjoined from advocating or instigating a strike, i.e. political groups, other workers, who might issue a leaflet or make a speech calling for a strike, could face fines and jail on contempt of court charges. on contempt of court charges. The injunction specifically barred the union from taking a strike vote at the union meeting. Both the union right and left wings quickly used the injunction as political cover to sabotage the strike movement among the workers, and thereby fulfill their obligations to the bourgeoisie.

Breaking the strike dynamic

The mood at the December 14th mass meeting attended by over 4,000 workers, was very militant. Despite the injunction, workers overwhelmingly wanted to strike. In their view the purpose of the meeting was to make the formal decision to strike. For the union, the purpose of the meeting was to let off steam and derail the strike movement. The left-wing New Directions executive board members were deemed best qualified to manage the process, and given control of the meeting. Despite pretenses at a democratic discussion, the only floor microphones that consistently worked were the ones located in the front of the meeting hall, near where the executive board members and the leftists were concentrated. Even when other microphones were finally working, the presidium called on their cronies at the mikes up front to speak disproportionatelynt to speak disproportionately. The presidium ignored calls for a strike vote and insisted this was an "informational" meeting only. A demagogic pledge that the meeting would continue all night was soon forgotten when it was announced that the executive board members had to leave for a secret meeting at union headquarters and the meeting would have to adjourn.

The leader of the New Directions group introduced a motion that the executive board be authorized to call a strike if there wasn’t a good contract offer, and to extend negotiations for 24 hours. Though this completely contradicted the whole discussion and sense of the meeting, which was that the workers wanted to decide themselves, it was quickly rammed through and the meeting was adjourned. Workers were stunned. People left the hall dazed and demoralized. New Directions had accomplished its task. About 500 workers rushed to the union hall to put pressure on the executive board, but by the time they got there the union had already ordered the elevator doors locked and the police arrived to seal off the building, and protect the union from the workers. Shortly after 2am, the union and the government announced that they had reached agreement on a contract offering 12% wage increase over 3 years. The strike was averted. The The strike was averted. The injunction, the confusion sown at the union meeting and the tentative contract had ended the movement of the workers. The strike dynamic was broken.

Confronting the Taylor law

The failure of the workers to take control of the meeting into their own hands prevented an open discussion of how to confront the legal repression of the Taylor law. The leftists from the extreme trotskyist groups employed a demagogic "fuck the Taylor law" rhetoric, which appealed to the workers’ defiance and emotion, at the same time that it kept them stuck in the straight-jacket of union control. Workers needed to discuss the threat of the Taylor law in the same manner in which they would discuss how to respond to any other threat of repression, such as police violence – with conscious action. In the case of the Taylor law this clearly required the mobilization of the broadest possible political support, by extending the struggle to the rest of the working class.

Under the changed circumstances of the repressive injunction, for the 4,000 workers at the meeting to call for the strike under union control was a trap. Instead, workers should have decided upon a plan to return to their shopsn to return to their shops and depots to hold meeting to discuss the situation and to elect delegates to genuinely represent what the workers thought and to meet again the next day to decide what to do. This would have provided a means not only to successfully confront the state repression, but also posed in a very concrete manner a way to challenge the control of the union, left and right.

While the bourgeoisie thus successfully averted a strike, it did not do so without "casualties." Rather than strengthening the union apparatus, the union has been exposed and is being questioned by the workers. Both the left and right are scampering to repair their tarnished images, the right by exaggerating the gains of the contract, and the left by radicalizing its language, calling for a rejection of the contract. At the same time unprecedented legal repression has exposed the lie of bourgeois democracy, not just for transit workers but for all public sector workers. There are many discussions going on among the workers.

There is a sense among workers that you can struggle, that you can go out on strike, that you can successfully resist attacks, and that neither the left nor right of the union can be trusted, but there is not yet an understanding of how to push the unions aside. Contracts for another 200,000 municipal workers are going to expire in the coming period. The Giuliani administration has already announced that it will offer only merit increases to perhaps 10 percent of the workforce, not across the board wage increases. The stage is sent for renewed confrontations in the public sector in New York. The ability of workers to build upon the lessons of the transit struggle will be a decisive factor in the struggle.

Jerry Grevin


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