The meaning of the New York City transit strike

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A common tactic in the capitalist onslaught against pensions and medical benefits is the attempt to create “multi-tier” systems, in which new employees receive lower benefits or pensions, whether this takes the form of decreasing the value of benefits received by new employees or requiring them to pay in higher contributions to medical insurance or pension funds. Veteran workers are bribed with the promise that the cuts won’t affect them, but only the unknown persons who will be hired in the future. The unions traditionally help ram through these “deals,” hailing their efforts at having saved the benefits of the currently employed workers as “victories”. This tactic divides the workers against themselves, pitting the interests of longer employed workers against newer workers, the older generation against the younger – a recipe for disaster for working class unity – allowing management to divide and conquer.

It was precisely this attempt to divide the workers that was at the heart of the recent struggle in NYC transit. The Metropolitan Transit Authority, controlled by the governor, and to a lesser extent by the mayor, sought to increase the age of retirement for new hires, from the current 55 to 62 and to require that new hires would have to pay 6 percent of their wages into the pension fund. The 55-year-old retirement age (after 25 years service) had long been in place out of recognition of the extremely harsh working conditions under which transit workers toil in the 100 year-old subway tunnels, with foul air and fumes, rat infestation, and general lack of sanitary facilities. The government proposal would not have effected the retirement age of any currently employed workers.

But the transit workers were definitely NOT buying this bit of divide and conquer flimflam. On behalf of a working class that has been enduring a full scale attack on its pensions, transit workers essentially drew a line in the sand and refused to accept any change whatsoever in the pension. They struck to protect the retirement pension of workers who are not yet on the job, what they called “our unborn” – their future, unknown colleagues. As such, this struggle became the clearest embodiment of the movement to reaffirm working class self-identity and solidarity to date. It not only had a profound impact on the workers who participated in the struggle, but upon the working class in other sectors as well. The transit workers struck out of a sense of class solidarity with the future generation, those who were not even hired yet. It resonated with many workers in many industries, who can see that someone had finally stood up and said, “Don’t mess with pensions!”

The Significance of the Transit Struggle

The strike by 33,700 transit workers that paralyzed New York City for three days during the week before Christmas was the most significant workers’ struggle in the U.S. in 15 years. It was important for a number of interrelated reasons: 1) the international context in which it occurred; 2) the development of class consciousness amongst the strikers themselves; and 3) the potential impact of the strike on other workers. The significance of this strike should not be exaggerated; it cannot be compared to strikes in the 1980s which challenged the authority of the capitalist trade union apparatus that serves to control and derail workers struggles and posed the question of extension of the struggle to other workers. However, in the context of the difficult conditions in which the working class struggles today, it’s significance must be clearly understood.

Though it remained firmly under control by a local union leadership dominated by leftists and base unionists, the transit strike reflected not only rising working class combativeness, but also more importantly significant strides in the development of a renewed sense of working class self-identity and self-confidence, and understanding of class solidarity, uniting workers across the boundaries of generations and workplaces. The transit workers undertook this struggle even though they knew it was in violation of New York State’s Taylor Law, which prohibits publicly sector strikes and automatically penalizes strikers two-day’s wages for every day on strike, which means they would lose 3-days salary for each day on strike (one day for the day not worked and two-days penality). The city further threatened to seek a civil fine of $25,000 against each worker for going on strike, doubling each day -- $25,000 for the first day, $50,000 for second day, $100,000 for the third day. With such stiff penalties threatened by the bourgeoisie, the decision to strike was not taken lightly by the workers but represented a courageous act of militant defiance.

The International Context of the Struggle

The New York transit strike occurred in a context of an international tendency for the working class to return to open combat in defense of its class interests after a reflux in class struggle that has lasted nearly a decade and a half, since the collapse of the two imperialist blocs that had been in place since the end of World War II. In 1989, the collapse of the Stalinist bloc led by Russian imperialism, which was followed by disintegration of the rival western imperialist bloc, led by the U.S. and increasingly chaotic events on the international stage, opened up a period of disorientation for the working class on an international level. The changed historic conditions, the unrelenting propaganda barrage by the bourgeois state, including its mass media, proclaiming the death of communism, the triumph of capitalist democracy and the end of classes, took its toll on the proletariat. The process of clarification that had been going since the late 1960s became disrupted and gains in class consciousness had receded. This was particularly problematic in regard to the understanding that the trade unions which had once been organizations for working class self defense had long since been integrated into the state apparatus of decadent capitalism and now served as the shopfloor cops for capitalism, and in regard to the search for new forms of struggle that would enable workers to take the class struggle into their own hands. So deep was this reflux in class struggle and so thorough was the ideological attack of the ruling class, the working class showed signs of a loss of self confidence in itself as a class and a difficulty in even recognizing its own identity as a class.

However, the seriousness of the global economic crisis and the consequent escalation of attacks by the ruling class on the workers’ standard of living made it inevitable that this terrible period of proletarian disorientation could not last forever. In 2002 we began to see a turn in the international class struggle, which was characterized not by dramatic outbreaks of militant struggles, but rather by the beginning of a difficult, hesitating attempt to return to the historical center stage. 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 has been well underway in the U.S., as the examples of the grocery workers struggle in California, the struggles at Boeing and Northwest airlines, the transit strike in Philadelphia, and the graduate assistants strike at New York University demonstrate. What makes the New York transit strike so significant in this process is not simply that it is the biggest, most impactful strike in the sense that it paralyzed the largest city in America for 3 days, but on the level of progress in the development of class consciousness that it reflects.

As we have said, the main issue in the strike was the defense of workers’ pensions, which are under incredible attack by the bourgeoisie everywhere in the world but especially in the U.S. In the U.S. government social security pensions are minimal and workers rely upon their company or job-related pension funds to maintain their standard of living in retirement. Both types of pensions are in danger in the current situation, the former through the Bush administration’s efforts to “reform” social security, and the latter through outright financial default and efforts to reduce pensions payments. Since the collapse of the Enron corporation, in which thousands of employees lost their entire pensions, countless American corporations have reneged on their pension obligations. Most recently, in the face of corporate bankruptcy, major players in the airline industry defaulted on their pension funds. The federal government agency that assumes responsibility for these failed corporate pension funds can guarantee workers only 50% of what they would have normally been entitled to receive. So many pension funds have gone under, this agency is operating with an anticipated $24 billion deficit.

The automobile industry, with bankruptcies threatening at General Motors and Ford, has also put pension funds in jeopardy.

The Development of Class Consciousness Amongst the Strikers

The reaffirmation of the working class’s ability to see and comprehend itself as a class could be seen on many levels and in many manifestations in the transit struggle. Clearly the central issue itself – protection of the pensions for future workers – embodied this aspect. This was not just on an abstract level, but could be seen and heard on a very concrete level as well. For example, at a picketline at a bus depot in Brooklyn, dozens of workers gathered in small groups to discuss the strike. One worker said he didn’t think it was right to strike over the pensions for future workers, for people we don’t even know. His co-workers countered by arguing that the future workers affected by accepting the cuts in the pensions, “could be our kids.” Another said it was important to maintain the unity of different generations in the workforce. He pointed out that in the future, it would be likely that the government would try to cut the medical benefits or pension payments to “us when we retire. And it will be important for the guys working then to remember that we stood up for them, so they will stand up for us and keep them from cutting our benefits.” Similar discussions occurred elsewhere around the city, clearly and concretely reflecting the tendency for workers to see themselves as a class, to look beyond the barriers of generation that capitalism seeks to use to divide them against themselves.

Other workers driving by the picket lines honked their horns in solidarity and yelled cheers of support. In Brooklyn, a group of teachers at a nearby elementary school expressed their solidarity by discussing the strike with their students and brought their classes of students ranging in age from 9-12 years old to visit the picket line. The kids brought Christmas cards to the strikers with messages like, “We support you. You are fighting for respect.”

The children were assigned by their teachers to interview the strikers, and the kids asked the workers what kind of jobs they did and why they were striking.

The day after the strike was over, one of our comrades boarded a city bus and had a conversation with the driver that illustrated the strides made in this struggle. After he paid his fair he told the driver, a 35-year old Latino worker, “You guys did the right thing.”
The driver responded, “But we didn’t win. We went to back to work without a contract.”

“But what really matters is what you did. You said don’t fuck with pensions, workers need to stick together, no matter what. It’s an important example for other workers,” said our comrade.

To this the driver replied, “Yeah, it’s true. It was important that we stood up for the working class.”

Impact of the Struggle on Other Workers

The transit strike became a point of reference for workers in other industries. Alongside the displays of support and solidarity mentioned above, there were countless other examples. Non-transit workers were welcomed at the picket lines. In one instance, a group of striking NYU graduate assistants visited the picket line in Brooklyn, introduced themselves and discussed strike issues and strategies with the workers. In countless workplaces around the city, other workers in other industries talked about the importance of the solidarity being exemplified on the defense of pensions. Among municipal workers, many of whom had gone for 3 or more years without a new contract, the transit workers adherence to the slogan of “no contract, no work” showed the importance of struggle.

So strong was the sympathy for the strikers that the capitalist media’s own surveys showed that Roger Toussaint, the president of the transit workers union, scored a higher approval rating than the mayor of the governor on the first day of the strike. The existence of $1.02 billion Metropolitan Transit Authority surplus made management’s hard line appear particularly harsh and ruthless to other workers. The bourgeoisie countered with an all out campaign on day two of the strike to demonize the strikers. The tabloids, like the Post and the Daily News, called the strikers “rats” and “cowards.” Even the liberal New York Times denounced the strike as “irresponsible” and “illegal.”

The theme of “illegality” was picked up by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki. Pataki declared that the strike was criminal and that no negotiations would occur until the strikers returned to their jobs. Bloomberg echoed this stance, denouncing strikers as “thugs” and “criminals.” The billionaire mayor suddenly championed the cause of poorer workers who were being inconvenienced by the strike, supposedly suffering at the hands of the striking, comparatively well paid transit workers. For his part, Toussaint denounced the mayor and governor for their outrageous accusations, and championed the transit workers against the “insults.”

Television news reports focused on the hardships inflicted by the strike on people trying to carpool to work or walking over the city’s East River bridges to get to work in Manhattan. But even after this media barrage, the city’s rulers knew working class solidarity with the strike remained strong. A local judge threatened to jail union leaders and fine individual strikers for defying a court injunction to stop the strike and return to work, but Mayor Bloomberg urged that the court should increase the fines, and not jail the union leaders, which would make Toussaint “a martyr” and risk provoking sympathy strikes by other public sector employees.

The illegality of the strike itself triggered considerable discussion within the working class throughout the city, and around the country as well. How could it be illegal for workers to protest by withdrawing their labor? asked many workers. As one worker said in a discussion at a school in Manhattan, “It almost seems like you’re only allowed to go on strike, if you won’t have any effect.”

The Role of Union in Sabotaging the Struggle

Many workers were painfully aware that the union’s new, militant leadership had capitulated three years ago to a contract that gave 0% raise the first year, and 3% in the second and third years. The union was thus pressured by the rising militancy and anger of the workers to act more militantly in the current situation. While the base unionist/leftist led Transit Workers Union Local 100 clearly controlled the strike, employed militant rhetoric and adapted the language of solidarity to maintain firm control of the strike, the role of the union was nonetheless to undermine the struggle and minimize the impact of this important strike. Early in the strike the unions abandoned the demand for 8% annual wage increases for three years, and focused entirely on the pension. The union meeting that voted on the strike authorization permitted no discussion or debate but was conducted as a union rally, featuring a demagogic address by Rev. Jesse Jackson.

The collusion between union and management was revealed in a post-strike report in the New York Times. All the vicious name-calling between the union and government officials was a sham. While the mayor and the governor were stridently screaming that a return to work was a precondition for the resumption of negotiations, secret negotiations were in fact underway at the Helmsley Hotel, and the mayor secretly accepted a proposal by Toussaint to have management withdraw the pension demands in exchange for an increase in worker contributions to their medical care coverage to compensate the government for the cost of maintaining the pensions for future workers.

This union-government orchestrated end to the struggle is of course not surprising, but simply a confirmation of the anti-working class nature of the trade union apparatus, and in no way undercuts the significance of the important gains made in the development of class consciousness. It reminds us of the important tasks that remain ahead for the working class in breaking free of the union straight jacket and taking control of the struggle into their own hands.

Internationalism, December 2005


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