The 2005 New York City Transit Strike
Report on the First Day, and Other Thoughts

by Naomi Allen

[This article, edited slightly for Labor Standard, was posted on the Internet the evening of December 20, 2005. The author is a longtime member of Transit Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 and has worked for many years in the New York City transit system.]

This story starts three years ago, when the December 15, 2002, deadline for transit contract negotiations was allowed to pass, and the next day [TWU Local 100] President Roger Toussaint accepted a three-year contract with a $1,000 lump sum, in lieu of a first-year raise, and givebacks in health benefits, bus consolidation, discipline, and job security. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) learned that Toussaint talked a good line but that it was all bluster—he was afraid to go out on strike (a fear he later expressed openly while he was defending the contract), which meant that transit workers had no leverage to get their demands, and the MTA could impose a bad settlement by calling his bluff.

On Thursday, December 15, 2005, at a press conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Toussaint was accompanied by several local labor leaders expressing their support for transit workers: heads of the hospital workers, the teachers, and the police benevolent society pledged support; the heads of the MetroNorth commuter lines, also an MTA subsidiary, pledged that they would not cross Local 100 picket lines.

Nevertheless, later that night, Toussaint’s slogan “A Deadline Is a Deadline” became another embarrassment, as the MTA insisted on a “final offer” that would require future hires to pay 2% of their wages for their health benefits and give them a 30-year age-62 pension. The offer was for a 3-year contract at 3%-3%-3% [that is, annual wage increases of 3% per year for current employees]. Toussaint correctly rejected this offer, since it would gain (modest) benefits for current employees at the expense of the next generation of transit workers, and would doom the rest of the municipal labor force to copycat givebacks in pensions and health benefits. But he faltered at the prospect of a strike, instead calling another deadline for the following Monday morning, when, if no progress was made in negotiations over the weekend, he would call out two private bus lines in Queens that were being consolidated within the MTA but were not yet legally subject to the New York State Taylor Law’s severe anti-strike penalties.

To get the workers on the two private bus lines to agree to strike for the benefit of their municipal co-workers, Toussaint promised to pay their wages out of the union treasury while they were on strike. Toussaint was probably hoping for some concession from the MTA that he could sell to the members as a victory. It was clear that he would call a strike only if he was backed into a corner with no possibility of a face-saving formula from the MTA. The Queens bus strike took place Monday, inconveniencing 50,000 New Yorkers but still bringing no concessions from the MTA.

By extending the deadline, Toussaint squandered precious pre-Christmas days, the most important days for transit workers because they are the days the city economy needs us most. Wall Street estimated that every day of pre-Christmas strike would cost the city economy $400 million.

We spent 20 years fighting to move our contract expiration from springtime to December. Now the problem was to find a leadership with the guts to make use of it.

On Monday night, December 19, the Local 100 Executive Board met to evaluate the latest “final offer” by the MTA. The MTA dropped the demand for a 30-year age-62 pension, but insisted that new hires would have to pay 6 % of their wages into their 25/55 pension (current employees pay 2%); and they lowered their request for new hires’ health benefits premium to 1%. The MTA sweetened the pot with an offer of 3%-4%-3.5% raises. The Executive Board met late Monday night and finally rejected the deal; the Board then voted to strike by a vote of 28 for, 10 against, and 6 abstentions. The International officers who are on the Local 100 Exec Board either voted against striking or abstained on the vote. TWU International President Mike O’Brien, who was present at the Local Board meeting, advised the Board that the International would not sanction a strike—he thought a satisfactory deal could be reached with the MTA.

On Tuesday morning the city awoke to a transit strike, the first in 25 years. Subway operations were shut down 100%. The only buses running were Green Line buses, which are not MTA. In spite of poor preparations, compliance with the strike among transit workers was almost complete, with only a few isolated individuals slipping through picket lines into maintenance facilities. Turnout for the picket lines was high, and spirits were high too, in spite of the bitter cold. And surprisingly, support for transit workers was widespread among the riding public, which might have been expected to react to the personal inconvenience above the political principles. The union had done a decent public relations job, especially in campaigns linking transit jobs to public safety (the fight to keep conductors in the trains and station agents in the booths), Also, the MTA’s $1 billion plus budget surplus was common knowledge, so New Yorkers tended to blame the MTA rather than the strikers for their misery. (Like the high spirits of the strikers, the benevolence of the riding, now walking, public will certainly diminish if the strike is prolonged beyond a few days.)

New York City Mayor Bloomberg went to court to seek contempt charges against Local 100 and transit workers, and by the end of the day the judge had imposed a fine of $1 million a day on the union. But even worse than that, TWU International President Mike O’Brien announced publicly that the parent union did not agree with the strike and was not responsible for it (echoing the tactic of his predecessor, Sonny Hall, three years ago), and that he would seek to take over the Local and impose a receivership upon it. With this public stab in the back by the International union, our prospects seem to have dimmed considerably. Any likelihood that the MTA would be cowed by the strike into offering rapid concessions now seems remote.

For transit workers, the prospect of dueling jurisdictions raises some truly frightening possibilities. If the International takes over the Local and orders workers back to their jobs, we will be saddled with a terrible contract; we will lose the chance to overturn Taylor Law penalties (2 days pay for every day on strike); and at that point, members staying out on an unauthorized strike would be risking losing not just money but their jobs. According to the latest news reports, Toussaint is saying his members will stay out indefinitely to win their contract demands; the International is urging the members to “stop their illegal strike and return to the bargaining table.” The Mayor is saying the MTA should not negotiate with the union until the union calls off the strike. And Governor Pataki, who appoints the MTA Board and who is a prospect for the 2008 Republican nomination, is keeping a low profile, hoping to appear remote from the conflict in pro-labor New York and tough on labor to the country at large.

Finally, it is likely that the deposed Local leadership will initiate a campaign to disaffiliate from the International union, which would win overwhelming support among an embittered membership.

That’s the news from the front lines.