New York Transit Between Old and New Directions

Steve Downs

IN ATC 74 (“Transit Workers Try a New Direction”), Marian Swerdlow described the fight taking place in Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) between the entrenched Willie James bureaucracy and the reformers in New Directions.  Local 100 represents New York City’s bus and subway workers.  Written earlier this year, Swerdlow’s article concluded as the stage was being set for the rerun election ordered when the International TWU was forced to admit that the narrow victory by the incumbents might have been the result of their cheating in last December’s election.

After a short, intense, and frequently bitter campaign, the ballots were counted on May 21st: James’ slate, by an even narrower margin than in December, was reelected to the local’s top positions.  Willie James, the incumbent president, defeated New Directions candidate Tim Schermerhorn by a mere 670 votes out of 20,000 ballots cast (10,252 to 9582).

ND’s top vote-getter among the vice-presidential candidates, Darlyne Lawson, missed winning a seat by only 113 votes while ND’s eight other local-wide candidates lost by 130-400 votes.

Any competent spin doctor can easily put a positive spin on New Directions’ results.  After all, ND has steadily gained ground from the 3,000 votes it received in its first run in 1988.  New Directions picked up an additional seat on the local executive board in the May election, giving New Directions twenty-one of the thirty-six seats directly elected by the membership.  However, since the ten top officers also sit on the executive board and are elected at large, the James slate has a twenty-five to twenty-one majority.

A Polarized Union

A look at the two slates respective bases shows a deeply divided union.  New Directions support comes almost entirely from the members in the subways (roughly 60% of the local’s total membership), while the support for the James slate comes from the bus drivers and maintainers (68% of the subway workers voted ND while 80% of the bus workers voted for the James’ slate).  This divide grew between December and May: ND’s vote among subway workers went up both relatively and absolutely, but went down among bus workers.

Because vice presidents are elected on a local-wide basis, the incumbents who will be in charge of four subway divisions (Rapid Transit Operations, Maintenance of Way, Stations, and Car Equipment) will do so in spite of the fact that they lost the vote inside those divisions.

This sets the stage for instant conflict between the VPs, who appoint the full-time staff and are charged by James with running the divisions and limiting ND’s influence, and the division officers and other executive board members, ND candidates who were elected by the members they work with and who view themselves as the legitimate representatives of those division members.

New Directions Almost Won

For over ten years, the managers of New York City’s transit system have been working to cut jobs, privatize maintenance work, and undermine the few protections transit workers had won for themselves in the past. Management has not sought to implement its restructuring package all at once. Instead, it has carried it out bit by bit, contract by contract, singling out different sections of the workforce for cuts at different times.

Far from opposing management’s plans, Local 100’s bureaucracy has embraced them. In 1992, after the membership rejected a proposed contract, then-local President Sonny Hall (now International President) stated that downsizing was inevitable and the union’s job was to get something out of it for the workers who were left.

Faithful to this approach, Willie James responded to the Transit Authority’s threat to lay off 2000 cleaners in 1996 by proposing that the contract be reopened.  In exchange for a three-year no-layoff pledge, James agreed to the elimination by attrition of over 500 cleaner jobs. He agreed to let the Transit Authority bring in an unlimited number of “workfare” workers to do cleaning work.

James also agreed to a lump sum payment instead of a raise in 1997 and allowed the Transit Authority to absorb the $40 million surplus in the Health Benefit Trust.  As for its claims of poverty, one week after the contract was ratified the Transit Authority announced a $356 million surplus, not the more than the $200 million deficit previously claimed.

New Directions has been the only force in the local that has consistently opposed the leadership’s strategy.  ND has gained support among the membership by proposing a strategy of organizing the members to resist management through direct action on the job.

ND has also advocated allying with subway and bus riders to fight for improved service and lower fares.  As a result, New Directions almost won control of one of the most important unions in the nation’s largest city!

This was not done with vague promises or feel-good slogans.  ND didn’t say to transit workers, “Vote for us and your problems will be solved.”  Indeed, New Directions stated that it didn’t matter who was elected if the members were not involved in the union and prepared to fight management.

While considering why the New Directions slate lost, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that it almost won. Close to 10,000 transit workers voted for the candidates who promised heightened conflict on the job. While the prospect of increased conflict with management was certainly not the only factor that motivated people to vote ND, and discouraged others, those who voted ND did so knowing what it meant.

Analyzing Why We Lost

It’s tempting to blame ND’s loss on cheating by the incumbents, and that may even be accurate.  In the bus divisions where James won (and needed to win) overwhelmingly, ND was prevented from checking whether, and how many, supervisors or retirees, who are not eligible to vote, voted.

We were able to establish that ballots were mailed to retirees, but we have not yet been able to prove that retirees voted, or voted in enough numbers to affect the outcome of the election.  And of course there was considerable campaigning by union officers and staff while they were on the union payroll.

Even if the incumbents did cheat it is nonetheless important to understand what motivated those members who voted for the James slate.  Incumbents always have a tremendous advantage.  But why was that advantage so evident in the bus divisions, and totally lacking in the subways?

The fault lines in Local 100 between the buses and subways go way back. When Mike Quill, one of the founders and the first president of the TWU, broke with the Communist Party in the late 1940s, he turned to conservative, Catholic trade unionists for the activists and officers he needed to replace his former left-wing allies.  Many of these Catholic activists worked for the private bus companies in Manhattan and the Bronx.*

In the early 1960s these companies were taken over by the city, and Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority (MaBSTOA) was created.  For fifty years, MaBSTOA (or the private lines that preceded it) has been the core of the bureaucracy’s support: It has provided all but one of the local’s presidents, and it gave James 3121 votes to 243 for Schermerhorn.

A key factor in the bureaucracy’s support in MABSTOA is that the leadership has built and maintained a machine there that is absent in the subways.  Every bus depot has a full-time union chairperson.  Grievances or disciplinary matters are usually handled at the depot, rather than at Transit Authority headquarters, the procedure for the workers on the trains and in the stations.

The union chair controls the assignment of overtime and granting of favors, such as changes in vacations or days off. So, in the buses, the union has a daily presence and a more direct role in making the job more bearable or remunerative than is the case in the subways.

Some ND members believe that the depot chairs use the powers they have to intimidate the bus operators into supporting the incumbents.  For example, if you are perceived as a supporter of ND, you won’t get the time off you need for a family occasion.  No doubt some of this goes on, but that explanation misses the more important point:

The union works better in MABSTOA than it does in the subways. The chairperson gives the bureaucracy a human face and delivers some benefit for individual members.

It is not surprising that out of loyalty, a fear of the unknown, gratitude for some favor done, or simply a feeling that things aren’t so bad as long as the overtime is plentiful, Local 100 members in MABSTOA are inclined to support the incumbents.

Yet as important as the union machine’s functioning in the buses was to James’ victory, it’s not a sufficient explanation.  What has to be added to the mix is that bus workers seem to have experienced, and reacted to, the attacks from management in a very different way from the subway workers.  There are instances in the subways where the union has a structure similar to that in buses.  For instance, each subway inspection or repair shop has a union chair.  Yet ND has won the Car Equipment Division since 1994.

Whether it’s the result of the history of the union, the nature of the job, the character of supervision, the role of the union chair, or the specific way cuts have hit different sections of the workforce, workers in the subways are more aware than the workers in the buses of the losses, and/or more aware of the need to do something to prevent further erosion of their working conditions.

Thus, the strength of the union apparatus in the buses helps to maintain support for the bureaucracy and turn out the vote where support is already strong.  But that apparatus is of little use in a division where the workers feel the local leadership has failed.

Several other factors turned the inclination of the bus division’s workers to support the incumbents into an overwhelming vote. Fear was a prominent part of the incumbents’ campaign.  Drivers employed by the private bus companies represented by Local 100 were told that their companies would close if New Directions was elected.  James and his supporters spread the word that ND would take transit workers out on strike within weeks of taking office.**

The James slate also heavily redbaited New Directions’ candidates.  But in the end it was Willie James’ promise to win an improved pension for transit workers that proved decisive.

The Pension Election Ploy

In 1968, after having won a strike in 1966, Local 100 negotiated a pension that allowed its members at the Transit Authority and MaBSTOA to retire at age 50 if they had twenty years of service.  No worker contribution to the pension fund was required.  The essential provisions of this pension soon spread throughout the public sector unions in New York state.

In the early 1970s, the State Legislature eliminated the right to bargain over pensions.  Since then, pensions have been set by the legislature and governor in Albany.  This power was used to lengthen the service requirement, raise the minimum age, and impose a required contribution on the workers.

The standard pension for workers hired after mid-1976 was thirty years of service, 62 years of age, and a 3% contribution from the member (the pension itself would be an annual payment equal to roughly 50% of the last year’s pay).  Returning to a twenty years of service, retiring at 50, and a non-contributory pension became the Holy Grail for most public workers, including transit workers.

Around 1990, the leaders of public employee unions proposed that members pay for any pension improvements.  Since 1994, transit workers have had a 25/55 pension, requiring a 5.3% contribution.

In Spring 1997, facing what he knew would be a tough upcoming election, Willie James announced an all-out campaign to win a 20/50, non-contributory pension.  All James had to do before the election was have a bill introduced in the legislature.  He didn’t have to deliver any improvements before the ballots were counted.  This was the horse that James counted on to carry him into office.

Despite considerable pressure to unite behind James’ campaign for an improved pension, ND refused to help him scam the members.  We pointed out that James was raising the issue as an election ploy: Three years ago the union’s own analysis concluded that a 20/50 pension would cost each member upwards of 12%.  And the fact that 1998 would be an election year for both the governor and the legislature virtually guaranteed the bill’s failure.

As it turns out New Directions was right: The 20/50 pension bill never made it out of committee.  And thought many transit workers accepted our argument that James wouldn’t deliver, they thought he would have to produce something, and even a small improvement would be welcomed.  This possibility helped James win the rerun.

Though New Directions had known that James would come back from Albany empty handed-and he did-we also knew that hundreds of votes would turn on this issue.  That’s why we had argued that the rerun election should be held in September, when the fate of the 20/50 bill would be known.  We were not the only ones who recognized the power of this issue, however-when the International ordered a new election, they made sure it would happen before the legislature adjourned.

What Next?

No matter how much positive spin one puts on the outcome, the victory of the James’ slate sucks.  Workers in the subway divisions were stunned to learn that James had won. We had known from the December results that we had a good chance of winning.  We expected that events since the fall election-the revelations of the financial crisis in the union and the lack of movement on the 20/50 bill-would work in our favor.

Members are now dreading the expiration of the contract next year because they’re sure that James and his VPs are incapable of negotiating a decent agreement.  Some, figuring there will never be a fair election, are urging ND to try to split the subway divisions off from the TWU or to decertify the union.

New Directions, however, is not a group of people who stay demoralized for very long. We don’t go into suspended animation between elections.

New Directions represents TWU members in the subway divisions.  ND slates were also elected to serve as the division officers in Track, Line Equipment/Signals, Car Equipment, Conductor/Tower, Train Operators, and Westchester/New York Bus (private employer) divisions.  Division officers represent the members in their day-to-day dealings with management (the equivalent of chief stewards).

While the local’s by-laws state that division officers shall administer the affairs of that division, the local’s practice is that VPs and their appointed staff do. So now ND is acting to force the local officers to honor the by-laws.

In the context of preparing for the expiration of the contract, ND will be working to carry out our responsibilities as the elected representatives of the subway divisions-almost 20,000 workers.  In the face of full-time officers and staff who are hostile to ND’s goal of an active membership and a militant union, this means confronting the bureaucracy as we carry out our work.

Building A Second Party in a One-Party Union

The TWU, like most U.S. unions, functions as a one-party state.  There is no institutional way in which policy differences can be ironed out. The executive board is expected to present a united front to the membership.  Any criticism of the leadership or its policies is treated as treason to the very principles of unionism.  New Directions would probably have developed very differently if this had not been the case.

Local 100 has no local-wide membership meetings, so there is no way for the members to determine the local’s policies.  There is no stewards council.  There is no way for members in different divisions to mix in the normal course of union business.

There is no membership initiative for by-law changes.  And, after an ND-led recall campaign helped force Local 100 President Damaso Seda out of office in 1995, Sonny Hall and Willie James engineered the removal of the right to recall from the TWU Constitution at the 1997 Convention.

The “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” attitude of the local’s officers led members who disagreed with them to say, “OK, we’re against you.”  But it was the capitulation of the bureaucracy in the face of management’s goal of shrinking the workforce and forcing people to work harder that led ND to articulate an alternative strategy that started from the need to organize the membership to resist management.

The officers’ failure to represent aggressively members facing discipline led ND to run alternative candidates.  The election of VPs on local-wide slates forced ND to organize throughout the local to challenge the entire leadership.  ND had to develop a political, strategic, and organizational alternative to the Local 100 bureaucracy because change wasn’t possible any other way.

Despite the large vote its presidential candidate received, despite the board seats and division officer seats it won, New Directions cannot directly affect the policy of the union.  There is no system of checks and balances.  There is no openness to debate.

Sonny Hall and Willie James have pledged, at different times, to drive ND out of the TWU. James refers to New Directions members as “phony labor trade unionists” while preaching unity out of the other side of his mouth.

Given the strong support that ND enjoys, the unwillingness to open up the union’s structure to ND’s participation virtually guarantees that the hold of the bureaucracy will continue to become weaker and the politics of the union will remain unstable.  But then, the deep strategic and political differences that exist between the two parties probably guarantee the same thing.

Over the last ten years, New Directions has built a second party in this one-party state.  Although Local 100 is now a two-party state politically, it still maintains the structure that was built in the one-party era.

Among ND’s goals are structural changes that will make it possible for the membership to hold their representatives accountable and changes that will make a two-party (or multiparty) system feasible.  Our goal, as stated by one of our board members, is to make it easier for the members of Local 100 to remove us from office than it was for them to get us in.

Local 100’s Future

Let’s keep in mind that increasing the membership’s control of the union and its officers is a means to an end. And that end is a more militant union.  Whether or not Local 100 will move in that direction is still being fought out.

The current contract with the Transit Authority and MABSTOA expires in December, 1999.  Those negotiations will be a major test for both the bureaucracy and ND. In fact, the outcome of the local’s next election, set for December 2000, may be decided by the contract that is negotiated in 1999.

The incumbents have lost support with every contract they’ve negotiated in the last ten years.  They cannot afford to lose any more. But they’re clearly incapable of fighting for a good contract.

The Transit Authority has had a surplus for three years in a row. It is in a position to offer real improvements in wages and benefits.  But it remains intent on getting even more cuts in the workforce, a freer hand to contract out and major changes in work rules.

What will James have to agree to give up in exchange for a decent raise?  And if he can’t persuade management (and the mayor, who will be worried about the effect the transit contract will have on the demands of the city’s workers) to bail him out, there is a real chance that James will posture as a militant, even to the point of leading the union into a poorly prepared strike.

A union’s future is not determined by an election.  Ultimately, Local 100’s will be determined by the members of the union and the decisions they make about what is important to them and how hard they are willing to fight for those things.  For its part, New Directions will be organizing to increase the involvement of the members in the union and their readiness for a fight with management, whether at contract time or everyday on the job.

The election did nothing to resolve the major issues facing Local 100.  The incumbents were returned to office, but they lack a perspective for how to move the union forward or overcome the split within the membership.  New Directions showed that it has considerable support among the membership, but it is not in a position to implement its ideas for taking on management.  Local 100 remains stuck between an old and a new direction.

Steve Downs is a train operator in New York City’s subway, a member of the New Directions cacus of TWU 100, and a supporter of Solidarity.  The author wishes to thank Susan Cahn, Marian Swerdlow, and Marc Kagan for their comments, suggestions and criticisms of an early draft of this article.  Of course, they bear no reposnsibility for the analysis, views, or gramatical errors in the final draft.  That responsibility is soley the author’s.

ATC 76, September-October 1998