Workers Must Keep the Lessons of the MTA Strike Alive

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As we went to press, the situation in New York City transit remains unresolved. The tentative agreement which ended the 3-day strike that paralyzed New York before Christmas was narrowly rejected by a 7-vote margin out of more that 22,000 votes cast (more than 11,000 workers did not vote). The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) responded to the contract rejection with a provocation, proposing an offer  even more onerous than the original one they had quickly abandoned at the beginning of the first  round of negotiations, declaring an impasse and requesting that the state impose binding arbitration. The state public employees labor relations board put this request for binding arbitration on hold for two weeks, and directed the two parties to resume negotiations. There are indications that both management and the union leadership may wait out the uproar and push the rejected contract through in another ratification vote. Meanwhile workers, who already lost wages for the 3 days they did not work in December, are now receiving legal notice from the MTA that they will forfeit an additional 2 days wages each day they were on strike, for a total of six days wages. These wages will be deducted from their checks during March.

As we noted in our statement on the MTA strike published on the Website, this “was the most significant workers’ struggle in the U.S. in 15 years,” because of its international context, the development of class consciousness exhibited by the striking workers,  and the potential impact of the struggle on other workers (the importance of solidarity, resistance to further attempts to slash pensions). Events since December confirm the validity of this analysis.

The transit struggle occurred in an international context in which the working class worldwide is going through a process of returning to class struggle after a decade and a half of disorientation since the collapse of the imperialist bloc system that had prevailed since the end of World War II. The deepening global economic crisis and the escalation of attacks on the working class standard of living has pushed the proletariat into action in an increasing number of countries, including the U.S.  As we noted in December, “The primary task posed by these nascent struggles in many countries was not the extension of struggles across geographic and industrial sector lines, but the reacquisition of consciousness at the most basic levels, of class self-identity and solidarity.”

 This process was clearly demonstrated in the transit strike,  by the clarity by which workers refused to accept the time-honored management-union tactic of trading the erosion of wages and pensions for future workers in exchange for wages for currently employed workers. Instead they willingly defied the repressive New York State Taylor’s prohibition of public sector strikes and imposition of mandatory forefeiture of two days’ wages for each day of strike, and waged the struggle to defend the pensions of the next generation of workers.

The contract rejection reflects the confluence of several factors. First many workers clearly understood the sell out by the union, which originated the crucial proposal that led to the tentative agreement: offering to have workers contribute 1.5% of their wages to help finance medical benefits if management withdrew the demand to have future workers contribute 6% of their wages to the pension fund. In this instance the union proposed to trade the wages of the currently employed workers to finance the pensions of future workers, which is just as unacceptable as the original proposal. Management actually bragged that the tentative agreement was better for them financially over the life of the three year contract than their original plan to have new employees contribute to the pension fund, as it traded the 6% of the salaries of the relatively few new workers that would be hired each year for 1.5% of the wages of the entire 34,000-member workforce.

Second, many workers were angered by the bourgeoisie’s unrelenting propaganda campaign which tried to drive home the message that struggle does not pay. Over and over the media broadcast the message that the strike had been lost, that the workers were losing more by striking in terms of the Taylor law fines and 1.5% payment for medical benefits than if they had accepted management’s offer.

Third, a minority faction on the executive board played opportunistically to this disenchantment with the contract settlement by campaigning for a “no vote.”

Like all “votes” under capitalism, the contract referendum was a no-win proposition for the workers. No matter what the result the workers would inevitably be screwed: ratification would validate a 1.5% salary cut; rejection would leave the workers in the current predicament of being without a contract, with the momentum for struggle definitively broken, and little perspective to improve the contract. This explains why fully one-third of the workers chose not to vote.

The current confluence of events, including the unrelenting MTA propaganda against the contract which attempted to minimize any notion that workers had “won,” and the factional disputes within the union, ironically opened the door to questioning the credibility of the unions, which had not really been posed during the struggle in December. It did so by exposing very clearly the nature of the union sell-out, originally presented, as always, as a union “victory” by union leadership, and by exposing the dead-end offered by union dissidents. Having eked out a triumph in the ratification vote, the dissidents had nothing to offer, no strategy, no tactics, just posturing. It won’t be surprising if union and management stall for a while and then resubmit the same agreement for another vote. Workers have to take struggles into their own hands and go outside the union straight jacket to advance their struggle.

Meanwhile the example of the transit workers resistance to attacks on theis pensions has resonated with other workers in all sectors, especially the public sector. Municipal union leaders in New York have expressed worries that their members will now become increasingly difficult to control, as the threat of the Taylor Law prohibiting strikes has proven ineffective in staunching the militant will to struggle. This is particularly significant as contracts for public sector workers come up for negotiation in the months ahead, in New York, in other cities around the U.S. and even in other countries, where the transit struggle has stood as a shining example of workers’ solidarity.. -JG, 25/3/06.

To illustrate the lengths to which the so-called “democratic” bourgeoisie will go in using repression against the working class for defending itself against its class interests, we publish this excerpt from a letter sent by the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York City to 34,000 transit workers who went on strike for three days in December. The workers have already been docked three days wages for the days they were not a work. In addition, this letter notifies them that they an additional two days wages for each day of the strike (six in total) will be deducted from the March pay checks.  And it seems like only yesterday that the American ruling class used to denounce Russia for denying workers the right to strike. -- Internationalism

Re:  Notice of Taylor Law Violation

YOU ARE HEREBY NOTIFIED that it has been determined by the Chairman, Executive Director and the President, New York City Transit Authority and Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority that you committed a violation of Section 210 of the Civil Service Law (Taylor Law) by engaging in a strike which commenced on December 20, 2005 and continued through December 22, 2005.

Therefore, in accordance with Section 210 (2)(f) of the Taylor Law, a deduction will be made from your compensation of twice your daily rate of pay for each of the three days or part thereof that you committed a violation of Section 210 of the Taylor Law.  This penalty will be deducted over two ore more consecutive pay periods commencing with the payroll checks issued in March. 

Pursuant to paragraph (g) of Section 210 (2) of the Taylor Law, you have the right to object to the determination by filing an objection with the Chief Executive Officer.  Such objection should be addressed to Chief Executive Officer, MTA New York City Transit, c/o Office of Labor Relations, at 2 Broadway, 13th floor, Taylor Law Review Unit,

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