NYC Transit Workers’ Fight: “No Contract–No Peace!”

Against the Current, No. 41, November/December 1992

Steve Downs

EARLY THIS YEAR for a few months it looked like the pattern of concessions and retreat, followed by more concessions, which had been the lot of public sector workers in New York City, would be broken. Subway and bus workers represented by Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) rejected, by a two-to-one margin, a contract that their local officers had urged them to accept.

But they did more than just vote down a poor contract offer. Transit workers mobilized independently of their officers: Through demonstrations in the street and slowdowns on the job, they began to prepare for an all-out confrontation with their bosses and union officers to win a good contract.

Ultimately, however, the rank and file of Local 100 was not able to break the union bureaucracy’s control over the bargaining process. Through the combined efforts of the union officers, the employer (Metropolitan Transit Authority–MTA) and the governor’s office, the transit workers were compelled to accept a contract little different from the one they first rejected.

What’s significant about this particular contract fight is not the failure of the transit workers to win a good contract. Hopefully that is only a short-term setback. What’s important is that the fight happened at all and that it happened among transit workers, a group of workers who have the power to make sure there is no business as usual in New York City. Rank-and-file transit workers came close to breaking through the barriers set up by the union bureaucracies, management and government to enforce their agreement that working people will bear the brunt of the city’s and the state’s fiscal crises.

Like most upsurges by workers, this was neither a totally spontaneous outburst nor something planned and controlled by a small faction in the union. It was the product of workers who were fed up with the abuse they take from management every day, and who were looking for an opportunity to fight back, meeting the efforts of a group of activists in the union who had been working for years to build an alternative to the dead-end policies of the TWU bureaucracy.

It is that intersection which holds the key to this year’s contract fight, and to the possibility of transforming Local 100 into a democratic and militant union in the foreseeable future.

The Background

Local 100 has about 35,000 members. Roughly 32,000 work for subsidiaries of the MTA, the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) or Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transportation Operating Authority (MABSTOA), and run the subways and public bus lines in New York City. The majority of members of the local, especially in the operating titles (train operator, conductor and bus operator) are Black or Latino and about fifteen to twenty percent are women. Most of the top officers are white and male.

The local is run by an entrenched, but rather inefficient, bureaucracy which was almost toppled by a rank- and-file upsurge in the late 1970s. That upsurge culminated in an eleven-day transit strike in 1980.

Even though the strikers won a substantial pay increase and beat back a number of management’s takeaway demands, most workers perceived the strike as a defeat because they were fined after they returned to work. (Under the provisions of the Taylor Law it is illegal for workers to strike in New York state. The most common penalty is a fine, paid by each striker, equal to two days pay for each day on strike.)

This is precisely the conclusion that the union officers wanted the members to reach. They had not conducted an aggressive strike nor proposed a way to win amnesty for the fines. After the strike the momentum of the upsurge was lost, the organizations of the rank and file collapsed and the leaders of the movement were either bought off by the union or driven out by management. (For more background information see the articles by Steve Burghardt in ATC 1, old series, and Steve Downs, ATC 8.)

The Transit Authority hired thousands of workers in the early 1980s. These new workers experienced deteriorating conditions on the job and saw union officers without a clue about how to stem the decline. These workers had not gone through the demoralizing experience of the 1980 strike, though they were frequently told by senior workers and the union officials that the strike showed that fighting back didn’t pay.

Life in Hell

In 1984 a handful of these new transit workers began producing a newsletter called Hell on Wheels. This was the seed that bore fruit during the contract fight in the spring of 1992. Hell on Wheels was started in order to break down the divisions among job categories that existed in transit, and to provide an alternative source of information and analysis for transit workers.

The newsletter did focus on the usual concerns of union reformers: democracy, and how the lack of it weakens the union and how membership involvement would be necessary to halt the union’s retreat. But the activists writing for HoW did not limit themselves to those issues. We placed those issues within a broader understanding of what the fight to reform the union entails, and tried to conduct the fight in Local 100 in a manner consistent with that broader understanding.

We were well aware, for example, that the decline of Local 100 was not an isolated occurrence. Nor was our fight to turn the situation around unique. We made a point of not limiting ourselves to what our officers considered “legitimate union issues” to do so would be top accept the definition of “unionism” that had contributed to the decline of unions in the United States.

In HoW we analyzed and opposed police brutality in the community, as well as racism on the job. We not only expressed our view of solidarity by adopting a P-9 (Austin Hormel meatpacking strikers–ed.) family and chasing newspaper hawkers off our trains during the Daily News strike, we also explained why working people should be opposed to the Gulf War and side with the Black and Latino communities in Los Angeles who rose up against the verdict in the Rodney King police beating trial.

We also argued for the need to stop relying on the Democratic and Republican parties, and to use our union’s COPE (political education–ed.) funds to begin building a working people’s political alternative to them. These kinds of articles did not make up the bulk of the copy in HoW, but were an important part of defining how our view of unionism differed from that of the officials who run our union.

In 1988, once we had defined our alternative vision of unionism, we ran a partial slate in the local elections. In alliance with a few other activists in the local, we ran as the New Directions Slate. Our candidate for local president, Tim Schermerhorn, received just under a quarter of the vote, and we elected three members from the train operators’ division to the Executive Boards of the local.

A year later, in elections for delegates to the TWU convention, we again won in the train operators’ division. We also won two more seats on the Local Executive Board in elections to fill vacant seats, one in the Car Maintenance Division (the workers who maintain the subway cars) and one in the Conductors’ Division. This gave us about ten percent of the seats on the board.

It also presented us with the problem of how to maintain our position that winning offices was not the key to changing the union, at the same time that we were running for and winning office. The fact that we were a long way from having a majority of the positions in the union made it easier to argue that we had to keep our focus on changing the union from the bottom up.

Still, some of us were attracted to the idea that, with a few more elections, we would take over and then im<->plement our ideas and reform the union from the top down. Those who thought this tended to want to downplay the so-called “political” aspects of our vision of unionism and stick to “bread and butter” issues. This approach was supported by the fact that many of the members who voted for this just wanted someone who would do a better job of representing them and negotiating contracts. They did not want to have to play a role in a more activist, membership-controlled union.

This is not the kind of question that can be resolved once and for all. We have continued to de-emphasize the importance of winning and holding offices, but not the importance of running. We have warned our supporters not to count on the few of us who have been elected to change the union for them–in fact we have tried to alert them to the danger of reformers selling out. This is really a critical concern, since we continue to win offices with increasing levels of responsibility in the union.

So far, the few defections we’ve had have strengthened the determination most of us feel to build a strong, independent rank-and-file movement to control the union.

Building a Contract Coalition

Local 100’s contract with the Transit Authority and MABSTOA was scheduled to expire April 30, 1991. The fight for a decent contract was going to be a major test for us, and it proved to be a time when the work we had done over the previous years paid off.

In October 1990, in coalition with others in the local, we organized Transit Workers for a Just Contract, a rank-and-file committee to fight for a good contract. We took the position that, based on the concessions they negotiated in 1985 and 1988, the union officials could not be counted on to negotiate a good deal. We also argued that a good contract could not be won without the active participation of the membership and a recognition by management and its bosses–the mayor and the governor–that the union was prepared to do whatever it took to win a good deal.

TWJC discussed contract demands and defined a set of goals for the negotiations. More importantly, we advanced a strategy to achieve these goals. We argued for regular reports from the negotiators, for the membership’s right to approve the bargaining package, for demonstrations and job actions, and for the establishment of Contract Action Committees throughout the local to involve the members in the fight.

All these proposals were made by our supporters on the Executive Board, and all were rejected–but they weren’t rejected by the membership. The rank and file supported this approach, and thousands of members wore “No Givebacks!” buttons sold by TWJC.

We did not, however, call for a strike when the contract expired. Our supporters on the Exec Board voted to extend the contract, since we felt the timing was bad for a strike. Moreover, we had no confidence in the bureaucracy’s ability or willingness to lead a strike to victory. We argued that the union should use the time provided by the extension of the contract to organize demos and job actions, and to prepare for a strike. We also argued that, if we struck, it should be when the weather and the needs of business in the city would make it most effective, such as during the Christmas shopping season.

A New Directions Slate

The fact that the officials had not negotiated a new contract became the central issue in the elections held in the fall of 1991. Transit Workers for a Just Contract became the New Directions Slate and ran candidates for nine of the top ten positions in the local, and for twenty of the thirty-seven Executive Board seats that are directly elected.

We didn’t want the election to be simply about the contract, but we did use the contract and the bureaucracy’s approach to it–leaving the membership in the dark, concessions, separating the contract fight from the day-to-day confrontations with the boss–to make some aspects of our platform and campaign more concrete.

For their part, the bureaucracy used the continuing negotiations to argue against voting for New Directions. They claimed that a strong vote for the opposition would tell management that the union was divided and weak, and argued that the union needed experienced people at the bargaining table.

In the end New Directions’ candidates for local-wide office received about 5,000 votes, or just over one-third of votes cast. We won a majority among train operators, conductors and track workers, electing nine members to the Exec Board. We also won four of the five positions on the committee that represents train operators on a day-to-day basis. (Although this division is ninety percent male, two African-American women who ran on the New Directions slate were elected to seats on this committee.)

We now had about twenty percent of the seats on the Exec Board and responsibility for administration of the contract in one (key) division. Now that the election was over we expected a contract proposal at any time. But before that happened there was an important test of the membership’s willingness to fight–and of the new officers’ willingness to lead that fight.

In early January, before the new officers were actually sworn in, the TA announced a change in the way subway crews picked their jobs. Twice a year the crews have a “pick” where, in seniority order, they choose the jobs they’ll work, their days off, holidays and once a year, vacations. The changes would reduce the choices open to the crews, taking away one of the few aspects of scheduling over which the workers had a little control. The crews who were affected bitterly opposed the change and were willing to follow the lead of the people they had just elected.

The train operators division went on record that they would refuse to participate in the “pick.” They backed up this position by organizing crews to follow the TA’s rules and safety procedures to the letter, resulting in massive disruptions in service and increases in overtime costs. New Directions activists were central to coordinating and extending the rank-and-file actions.

After a few days the TA postponed the “pick” and agreed top let the arbitrator decide whether they could make the changes. In the face of continuing and spreading job actions, the arbitrator ruled against the TA, and the old method of job selection was preserved. This was an important victory, not least because it showed that direct action by the workers could be effective. The stage was now set for the workers’ confrontation with management and the union bureaucracy over the contract.

“Transit Union’s Members Are Divided on Contract”–New York Times 3/5/92

In late January Sonny Hall, president of Local 100, presented the Executive Boards with a contract proposal. He told the Board, and later the membership, that it was the best that could be won given the city’s financial crisis and recommended that we approve it. We did not agree.

The proposal was very similar to the contract negotiated in 1988, which we had opposed. Nothing lost in 1988 had been regained, and there were a few new features that would even further weaken the position of the union. The proposal provided for a lump-sum bonus of $1,000, instead of a raise for the first fifteen months of the contract. Most of that money came from Hall’s having agreed, along with other public sector union presidents in New York, to allow the TA to reduce its contribution to our pension fund.

The proposal called for a “Work Smarter Program.” This was basically a straight productivity scam where a part of future wage increases would have to be offset by savings. In a labor intensive industry like mass transit, any real savings could only come at the expense of jobs. Hall confirmed this when he stated that the TA was cutting jobs anyway, so he wanted to get a piece of the savings for the workers who remained. For the first time, we would have co- payment on our medical bills. (We learned later that the union trustees had agreed to co-payment regardless of what happened with the contract.)

The nine New Directions Board members were joined by only two others in voting to reject the contract.

“Transit Protesters Lengthen the Rush Hour”–New York Times 3/13/92

Two months of frenzied activity followed as New Directions/TWJC tried to channel the clear desire of the membership not to accept a bad deal into a movement that would reject the proposed contract and win a better deal. For their part, the bureaucrats and wannabees worked to convince the membership that the price of rejection would be too high. The first round would go to those opposed to the contract, the second to the bureaucracy.

Within days of the vote on the Executive Board, TWJC had its first leaflet out analyzing the contract and arguing for its rejection.Thousands of members started wearing small black and white “VOTE NO!” buttons. On one of the coldest days of the year, over 1,000 transit workers rallied at the Transit Authority headquarters to protest the agreement. At the close of the rally they marched to the Brooklyn Bridge, where they pushed past the police and marched across the bridge, closing down one side for almost two hours.

Several hundred members then rode the subway to the union hall where, despite the presence of several dozen police officers called by the union officials, they attended a Conductors Division meeting to demand full disclosure of the contents of the contract from the officers present.

New Directions/TWJC did not just call for a “no” vote. We proposed a clear alternative to the bureaucracy’s strategy, an alternative that was built upon the work we had done during the previous eight years.

We argued that negotiations should be opened up. We called for full reports of the negotiating sessions to the membership, and the expansion of the negotiating team to include members of the opposition. We argued that only direct action on the job would convince the leaders of government and business in New York City that it would be worthwhile to them to give us a decent contract–less costly, that is, than disruptions by angry and militant workers. In keeping with this we called for the union to prepare for a strike, and discussed ways
in which we could successfully prevent the imposition of the Taylor Law penalties.

We called for reaching out to the community and putting the union on their side in fights for better service and lower fares. We eventually produced one flyer directed at other union and community activists, to let them know what was going on and why we voted against the proposed contract. We sought to identify with the activist elements in the Black movement. Some of the tactics and the language we used reflected this, and we produced a button that stated “No Contract, No Peace” in the last month of the struggle.

Finally, we extended our call for independence from the Democratic and Republican parties by calling for a strike deadline to coincide with the presence of the Democratic National Convention in New York City in July 1992. This became a very popular idea.

“Workers Reject Pact for Buses and Subway”–New York Times 3/19/92

“Hold the Line on the TWU Contract”–New York Post editorial 3/23/92

Clearly, our arguments found an audience. On March 18, 1992 the contract was rejected by a 2-1 margin, with two-thirds of the membership voting. This was the first time that the membership had voted to reject a contract, and it was a stinging defeat for Sonny Hall.

Although a defeat for Hall, it should not be read narrowly as a victory for New Directions. We were able to give direction and form to the already existing anger and desire to fight. The work we’d done in the past, the continuity provided by our newsletter, our intransigent opposition to the approach of the bureaucracy, and the perspective we offered enabled transit workers to believe that voting “no” was the rational thing to do, that it was possible to resist and to win.

After the contract was rejected, enormous pressure was put on transit workers to back down. All of the daily papers editorialized against our “irresponsible” vote. They implied that the vote was largely the result of an internal union squabble, downplaying the importance of the working conditions and harassment that we’re subjected to every day.

Transit workers responded with pressure of their own, including a rally of over 2,000 at MTA headquarters and a march through midtown Manhattan during rush hour. The actions by transit workers kept our contract fight in the news and raised the specter of a transit strike. Representatives of TWJC were regularly interviewed and were invited to debate Hall by several radio stations and the New York Times.

To counter the impact we’d had, Hall and the rest of the bureaucracy then turned up the heat by playing on the members’ fears. Hall did not want us anywhere near the Democratic Convention without a contract; he was determined to force the issue to a resolution before then. Hall warned that the contract would end up in binding arbitration and that we would get screwed there. (It should be pointed out that it was Hall and his predecessors who had negotiated binding arbitration as a way to resolve our contracts. We agreed that we wanted to avoid binding arbitration; we disagreed that the contract had to end up there.)

Hall informed the membership that the union’s Health-Benefit Trust was broke and that, since we had rejected the contract, benefits were going to be cut off. (Hall is chair of the trustees.) He then postured, saying that he would never accept working without benefits and would call an immediate strike if the benefits were cut. This fed into two fears the membership had: of being caught without health insurance, and of an ill-timed strike led by officers who lacked the commitment or aggressiveness to win.

TWJC offered a way to overcome the first problem. We argued that the union should get a short-term loan from the AFL-CIO to keep the Health-Benefit Trust solvent till we had a contract. Hall & Co. rejected this out of hand. The second fear was harder to deal with.

“Transit Union Head Threatens Strike Over Benefits”–New York Times 4/15/92

“Cuomo Warns Transit Union Against Strike”–New York Post 4/22/92

TWJC exposed the bureaucracy’s tactic of calling for a strike at a time when we would have the least effect on business in the city. We continued to call for a series of job actions and for targeting the Democratic Convention. Many members who openly said they would cross lines if the union struck in the spring, articipated in demonstrations and rulebook actions and supported the idea of a strike in July. They expressed their willingness to strike if there was the possibility and the intention of winning.

Ultimately, our biggest problem was that neither TWJC nor the membership was organized to take control of the negotiations. Hall still determined the content and pace of bargaining. On April 29, after announcing that benefits would be cut as of May 1, Hall gave the membership another chance to get it right. Coming directly from a meeting with management in the governor’s office, he presented the Exec Board with a revised contract and a revised voting procedure.

The only significant change in the contract was that it had a regular (small) raise in the first year, rather than a lump-sum “bonus” payment. We would still have the “Work Smarter Program,” although it was renamed “Gain Sharing,” and copayment on medical bills. The voting procedure was the key: The ballot would be worded so that the membership could either vote “yes” for the contract or “no,” which would automatically be a vote for binding arbitration.

At the Board meeting Hall refused to consider any amendment to the wording of the ballot, which, it turned out, had already been printed. TWJC urged people to mark their ballots “none of the above,” but not many followed our advice. This time the contract was ratified by a two-to-one margin, again with about two-thirds of the members voting.

A Few Lessons, A Few Plans

The outcome of this contract fight was very frustrating for us. It had been twelve years since our union had experienced the high level of participation and militancy demonstrated by the membership; yet the membership had still been unable to impose its will on the officers.

Unlike the aftermath of the 1980 strike, the rank and file in the local has not concluded that it doesn’t pay to fight back. They recognize that we have a bad contract because the leadership was unwilling to fight, not because we fought and lost. The alternative strategy, supported by the most active part of the membership, was never given a chance. Thus, they view the contract as a sellout, not a defeat.

For its part New Directions spent much of the summer assessing the contract fight, our strengths and weaknesses, and what to do in the future. There were differences among us over whether we had missed opportunities and whose fault, if anyone’s, that we had lost the initiative. But there was agreement that our inability to retain the initiative and establish the membership’s control over the negotiations was rooted
in our weakness as an organization.

Few of us had expected the level of confrontation that developed around this contract. We were not prepared for it and had to make do with an organization more suited to distributing newsletters or running an election campaign. Since we knew the bureaucracy wouldn’t lead a real fight, would not organize the membership for action on the job, we had to be the ones to do that. Unfortunately, we were unable to make the transition from newsletter/election committee to contract actions/strike committee in time.

Therefore, on September 15, 1992 we founded the New Directions Caucus of TWU Local 100. Our intention is a more formal organization than we’ve had in the past, one that will organize work sites throughout the local to prepare the rank and file to take action in their own behalf. We are convinced that transit workers must be able to act, regardless of the outcome of elections. At times they may support the actions of the union’s officers, at others they may oppose them, and they will act accordingly. Our goal is to make it possible for the membership to act independently.

The Left In Local 100

Historically, socialists have played important roles in the labor movement, especially during upsurges. Although socialists are often not the most militant workers, they do bring a sense of history, a commitment to fighting the boss, a recognition of the role of class struggle in the development of society, an dentification with the struggles of others outside their union or workplace and, often, a longer-term perspective that makes it easier to recover from setbacks and defeats.

The situation in Local 100 is no different. Not all socialists bring these qualities with them, nor do all socialists make a positive contribution in advancing the organization and consciousness of the working class.
But the scale of the fight against the proposed contract in Local 100 last spring, and the relative success of New Directions, vindicates the approach of a minority among the socialists in Local 100.

Supporters of three socialist groups–Solidarity, Fourth Internationalist Tendency and Freedom Road Socialist Organization–have worked within Hell on Wheels since its inception. Several independent socialists have also been involved. While they haven’t always agreed on the best way to move forward, they have agreed on the importance of building a strong rank-and-file organization of transit workers. While not hiding their politics, they have tried, and generally succeeded, to put the general interest of building Hell on Wheels and New Directions ahead of the narrow interests of their groups. They recognize that a “caucus” which is just a front for a left group is not what transit workers need.

Throughout its existence HoW has been attacked by socialists to its left and its right. Supporters of the Communist Party (now supporting the Committees of Correspondence) and Workers World Party have generally acted as critical supporters of the Hall bureaucracy, although they did oppose the recent contract. Others, supporters of extreme-sectarian currents such as the pseudo-left Workers League and the Spartacist League, have accused us of opposing strikes and fronting for Hall and the Democratic Party. Their work in the local
has been largely limited to selling their papers and resolution-mongering at union meetings.

Only Hell on Wheels/New Directions, with the participation of a handful of socialists, has been able to effectively challenge the bureaucracy’s monopoly on information and their strategy for the union. Only Hell on Wheels/New Directions has been able to win mass support for a platform of union democracy and militant struggle against the boss.

There are many challenges and much struggle in front of us. But at this point it is clear that the approach of New Directions in building a rank-and-file organization able to confront the boss despite the wavering or treachery of the bureaucracy, and the approach of the socialists in building New Directions in a loyal, principled and nonsectarian way, are both correct.

November-December 1992, ATC 41