Transit Worker Heroes Stand Up for All Workers, Stave Off Pension Giveback
But Toussaint Caves In, Gives Up on Healthcare Premiums

by Andrew Pollack and Marty Goodman

Marty Goodman is a station agent and executive board member of Transport Workers Union Local 100. This article was written for the January 2006 issue of the newspaper Socialist Action.

NEW YORK—In the face of vicious attacks by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the courts, and the media, 33,000 New York City subway and bus workers stood tall for three days on the picket lines the week before Christmas. Their courage and willingness to strike despite state Taylor Law fines of two days’ wages for every day out and a million dollars a day from the union treasury—and threats of even worse—inspired workers throughout the country.

Particularly admirable is the fact that their courageous fight was primarily on behalf of other workers—that is, to protect the pensions of workers not yet hired in transit, and to stop the bosses from setting a precedent for other workforces.

Unfortunately, the members’ determination was not matched by their leadership. The tentative agreement approved Dec. 27 by the Transport Workers Union Local 100 executive board is a mixed bag that may be a draw financially but also includes a huge, new concession. For the first time all workers will have to pay health benefit premiums—a giveback far more costly in dollars than the pension giveback against which they struck.

Why TWU struck

The issues in dispute before the strike included wages, health care, discipline, and job combinations. But the one that became central due to management’s last-minute provocation was pensions. The MTA wanted to create a lower pension tier for new hires, with higher contributions and a retirement age raised from 55 to 62.

Then, just hours before the contract expiration at 12:01 Friday, Dec. 16, management dropped the higher retirement age demand but now demanded that new hires contribute 6% of their wages to pensions (as opposed to the current 2%).

The union rightly said no. At the rally that evening, leaders of other unions stressed this was a fight for all workers, and TWU Local 100 head Roger Toussaint made the connection with the fight of autoworkers and others to save their pensions and health care.

TWU members were at a higher level of combativity than ever before.

Executive board member Marty Goodman said that in the 19 years he has worked in transit he’s never seen members this angry—angry at the previous contract’s first-year wage freeze, at the loss of the no-layoff clause and other givebacks, and at the indignities of working for the MTA.

In a workforce of 33,000 people, there were 15,000 disciplinary actions last year. When sick, many members are checked on by phone and in person. A union rep told the Daily News about a member with cancer and another recovering from a heart operation who faced harassment and even threats of dismissal. Said the rep: “We’ve been fed up with the MTA and wanted a strike for years.”

New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis, in his article, “Workers right to defy MTA,” pointed out that few riders know that transit workers have to sleep on cots to try to be first in line to ask for a holiday off, don’t know the fear of driving through tunnels filled with debris, nor of “rusted, filthy, freezing bathrooms” provided for female workers.

Management bullying was matched during the strike by the media. The always-rabid Post called strikers “rats.” (In 2002 it accused Toussaint of waging “jihad.”) The low point of the everyday slander from the Daily News came when it advocated Toussaint’s murder by outraged riders in its editorial, “Throw Roger from the Train.”

Billionaire Mayor Bloomberg called strikers thugs, cowards, greedy, morally reprehensible, etc. Toussaint pointed out the hypocrisy of Bloomberg’s taking part in activities honoring the late Rosa Parks, saying that by defying the unjust Taylor Law strikers were the ones following in her footsteps. When asked how they explained to their children that they were breaking the law, a striker said: “We tell them slavery was legal once too.”

The MTA’s own lawbreaking went unmentioned. The MTA has arbitrarily imposed new work rules and defied court orders to stop unilateral imposition of One-Person Train Operation (OPTO). Even its pension demands were violations of the Taylor Law. (On top of Taylor Law fines, Bloomberg asked a judge to fine the union $1 million and each worker $25,000 on the first day of a walkout, both to double every day thereafter.)

But polls showed majority support for the strikers, and honking horns and cheering by passing drivers was continuous.

Bargaining issues

Before the strike one of the biggest concerns was whether members could win wage increases large enough to make up for the last contract, which included no increase in the first year, a highly-taxed $1,000 lump sum payment, plus 3% raises in the second and third years, lagging behind inflation by about 9.5% over those years.

Goodman and three division heads—Station VP John Mooney, Car Equipment Division VP Ainsley Stewart, and TA Surface VP Bill Pelletier—demanded that the union fight for a 10% increase each year, job security, and no givebacks. Only in the last week of bargaining did Toussaint make his demand of 8% a year, dropped to under 6% if management agreed to a 25% reduction in disciplinary actions.

In response, the MTA offered a two-year contract with 3% and 2%, IF the number of sick days dropped. Management refused to budge on improving bathroom access, and demanded more job combinations, such as having station agents perform more duties outside their booth (a station agent was recently beaten while doing so). The MTA persists in trying to close some booths entirely, which is dangerous for riders stuck far from an exit in an emergency.

Another MTA demand was for new hires to contribute 3% (versus the current 2%) of their pay to pensions, that their retirement age be raised to 62, and that they work 30 years versus the current 25 before qualifying for full pension. The MTA also demanded new workers pay 2% of wages as health insurance premiums; current workers pay no premiums for the basic plan.

The day before the first strike deadline, management changed its wage offer to two 3% raises over 27 months and demanded even more concessions on pensions, health insurance, and productivity.

The same day, MTA head Peter Kalikow demanded that the union agree to arbitration of the contract, which Toussaint correctly rejected, saying only the members would decide their fate.

The union hit hard in its publicity on the MTA’s billion-dollar surplus. As if hoping to provoke the union, the MTA board had voted the week before the strike to spend most of that surplus on items such as a holiday fare break.

MTA pension hypocrisy

The importance of the pension demand has been shown in recent media propaganda claiming that cities and states around the country can’t pay for retirees’ health and pension benefits—stories that ignore management’s role in underfunding such benefits, and the fact that they were paid for in part by foregone wage increases.

The Taylor Law banning strikes also states that retirement benefits cannot be negotiated; only the legislature can approve pension changes. Contracts can include agreements to jointly petition the legislature for pension changes, but management can’t force a union to agree to changes in a contract, much less declare a bargaining impasse over it, as the MTA did.

So the union appealed to the state Pension Employees Retirement Board (PERB), which responded that the strike was not due to the MTA’s pension demand, adding that “any injury to the union because of the strike would be self-inflicted.” This is the same PERB that sent a mediator to work out a deal.

The amount the MTA would have saved by the pension demand was a drop in the bucket for their finances, about $20 million over the next three years—and far less than it had spent on recent management pension increases. Some contrasted this figure to the $300 million lost by the MTA through fraud and cost overruns, leading Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to say, “The MTA is the most mismanaged, least competent [authority] out there.”

In its own publications the MTA says that its debt problems, and thus its supposed future deficits, come from the state’s failure to fund capital spending. They also admit that increased pension costs come from the plummeting stock market. Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez explains that during the stock market boom, contributions by the MTA to pension funds plummeted from 21% of payroll to less than 1%!

When you see the MTA or other agencies claiming their pension costs have “doubled” or “tripled,” that’s just a way of saying that they’ve resumed building up pension funds from non-stock sources. As CWA Local 1180 head Arthur Cheliotes said: “If you are stupid enough not to budget for it, you should be left holding the bag, not the workers.”

But however small the immediate savings, the MTA—like bosses and officials around the country—has its eye on the far larger long-term gains to come from slashing or even eliminating secure pensions (thus, for instance, the recent failed attempt by California Gov. Schwarzenegger to attack state workers’ pensions). Their strategy is to leave the working class holding the bag not only for their own spending errors but for their declining profits as well.

In fact, after the strike ended the Daily News quoted a Brooklyn businessman who said Bloomberg had told him he was urging the MTA to “hold fast” on pension and health benefits to “establish a precedent.”

Support from city’s workers

It’s not surprising, then, that other city union leaders joined Toussaint in publicly criticizing the MTA’s pension and health benefit demands.

But neither Toussaint nor the other union leaders were interested in a fight to the end. The New York Times quoted NYC Central Labor Council head Brian McLaughlin as saying Toussaint had “worked feverishly, behind the scenes, to address the concerns of powerful constituents.” McLaughlin and Toussaint met with representatives of New York’s biggest companies, says McLaughlin, and Toussaint “showed them he’s a man of reason…They recognized... he’s not a strike-happy maniac.”

McLaughlin asked union members to contribute a dollar each to a $1.5 million “solidarity fund”—yet never said where to send donations. During the strike other unions never organized their members to come to picket lines nor to protest the threats of Taylor Law fines.

The most militant expression of solidarity came when the Troy, New York, Labor Council called for a statewide general strike. In contrast, Local 100’s own International stabbed it in the back.

At the executive board meeting before the first strike deadline, International President Michael O’Brien told the local he opposed the strike and they would get no support—a statement he then repeated to the press. Toussaint tried to play this off as simply complying with the law (which forbids even verbal support for a strike!), but the craven language used makes that unlikely.

Union officials from the commuter rail parts of MTA—Metro North and LIRR—pledged support if strikers set up pickets at their worksites. This would have completely shut the city down, shifting the burden to better-off riders on those lines, and turning crawling auto traffic into impassable gridlock.

Metro North workers have been without a contract for three years, and among their main demands are also pension and health benefits. But in the end no solidarity action was taken by these unions, who work for the same employer.

First deadline passes

Nonetheless, Local 100 members were ready to strike at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 16. Bus drivers proved they were ready the week before, refusing to drive unsafe rigs subjected to surprise inspections by union reps, and blocking a Queens road for hours. The city’s largest yellow cab and limo unions said, “We’re not going to scab for the city,” in response to Bloomberg’s demand that they pick up multiple passengers.

But the night of the deadline, bargaining went on until 4:30 a.m. Kalikow didn’t arrive until 11 p.m., another insult. At that point raises of 3, 4 and 3.5% were on the table, as well as the 6% pension contribution by new hires. The demands to raise the retirement age for new hires to 62 and for them to pay health premiums had been dropped, and Martin Luther King’s Birthday was added as a holiday.

Toussaint rejected this and headed to union headquarters. (This bargaining session, like almost all others, was attended only by Toussaint and a couple of close advisers, with no elected bargaining committee and not even the right of executive board members to attend all sessions.)

Toussaint proposed to the executive board postponing the system-wide strike to 12:01 am Tuesday and instead striking the two private bus lines on Monday. (These lines won’t be subject to the Taylor Law until finalization of the MTA takeover.) In 2002 Toussaint pulled a similar maneuver, stopping the clock at midnight and reaching a mediocre deal 19 hours later; this year he told a Daily News reporter that he would not immediately strike at 12:01 a.m. unless there was a “provocation” by the MTA.

By the time of the 5:30 a.m. meeting, going on strike that morning would have meant bringing workers to work but leaving them no way home. After criticizing the impact of missing the deadline, Goodman made a motion to go out system-wide at 12:01 a.m. Monday, but was ruled out of order.

Management returned the favor Toussaint had done them by announcing later that morning that the offer then on the table was their best and final offer.

The strike is on!

The themes of the contract mobilization had been “A deadline is a deadline,” and “No contract, no work.” The first was violated at the strike’s beginning, the second at its end.

Transit workers (including also Amalgamated Transit Union Local 726 members in Staten Island) fought the good fight from Tuesday to Thursday and were ready to keep going. Morale was high and strikers proud. Management convinced only a handful of provisional and probationary employees to scab, mostly to do cleaning.

Then, shortly before noon on Thursday, Dec. 22, PERB mediator Richard Curreri announced that the union had agreed to return to work. The day before Toussaint had offered a return to work if pension cutbacks were dropped. The MTA made no such promise and that was not what ended the strike. Curreri announced that the MTA had not withdrawn its pension demands but would discuss “whether adequate savings may be found [instead] in the area of health costs.”

Toussaint not only agreed to a media blackout but would give no details to the executive board, asking them to “trust my judgment” and to take a “leap of faith.” When a board member asked if there would be amnesty from fines, the reply was a flat no.

Goodman, reminding Toussaint of his “No Contract, No Work” slogan, moved to continue the strike and not go back until amnesty was won, which was seconded by V.P. John Mooney but ruled out of order.

The vote to return to work was 36 yes, 5 no, and 2 abstentions. John Mooney called the deal a disgrace and said the strike’s power had been needlessly abandoned. He told reporters: “No details were provided to the executive board, no details at all.” Ainsley Stewart said the deal was “more than a disappointment…We have no knowledge of what led to the strike termination.”

There was also no agreement with the private bus lines, which previously was said to be a condition of settling. Board member George Perlstein said his members “are screaming bloody murder, they’re demanding full amnesty. We got absolutely nothing.”

Some speculated the strike was ended because repression was stepping up. The day of the mediated deal, Toussaint and other local officers were scheduled to appear before a judge to face possible jail time. It’s likely, though, that Toussaint felt a deal he could sell the members was in sight.

Fellow bureaucrats help craft a deal

At strike’s end Local 100 activist John McCarthy asked a pointed question: “Where were the leaders of the AFL and Change to Win?” Where indeed?

The New York Times detailed how they had pressured Toussaint: “[O]ther labor leaders had become more blunt in counseling Mr. Toussaint, suggesting that his union was in real peril. In an early afternoon telephone conference call with 40 union leaders...Mr. Toussaint showed his frustration as he sought a public showing of support.” After the strike, Local 100 attorney Arthur Schwartz told WBAI that before Toussaint had joined the conference call the other labor bureaucrats were griping about the strike.

At a press conference, said the Times, other union leaders supported Toussaint’s pension demands. “What they did not do was declare support for the strike. Privately...they had warned Mr. Toussaint that the fines, public anger and contempt citations from the strike could be disastrous.”

Significantly, the Times portrays the deal brokered by the labor fakers as being between Toussaint and Bloomberg, not the MTA or its master, Gov. Pataki. Some of these unions had knuckled under to Bloomberg in their own negotiations yet still endorsed him for re-election. Now they helped him end the strike without a contract.

Toussaint called Bruce Raynor, head of UNITE-HERE, and Mike Fishman, head of SEIU Local 32BJ, and asked these two Bloomberg supporters to ask the mayor to pressure Kalikow. Raynor floated the idea of trading pension cuts for higher health-care contributions, and Bloomberg agreed.

But whatever pressure was exerted dovetailed with Toussaint’s own desire for a quick end to the strike. This is not to deny the role he played in crafting consciousness around some issues. The solid front on pensions shows that if an issue is explained properly the membership will understand and take action.

But strike preparation was lacking. Calls by dissidents for mass meetings and mobilizations were ignored. There were no mass rallies until the night before the first strike deadline. And with the death of the New Directions (ND) caucus, dissidents had no organized local-wide way to counter this.

After running as ND presidential candidate and winning in 2000, Toussaint purged ND members and independents from the union hall. In spring 2001, paid staff packed a caucus meeting to get rid of any ND officers who disagreed with Toussaint. ND’s popular newspaper Hell on Wheels never appeared again.

The debate over the 2002 contract led to more purges. Management claimed it had a budget deficit—but in April 2003, the city controller revealed a secret set of books used to hide a surplus of over $500 million. Local 100 members were infuriated, but Toussaint ignored calls to reopen the contract.

In the 2003 election some former dissidents made a bloc with their old opponents, the local’s old guard and its International sponsors. Not surprisingly, most members, whatever their doubts about the 2002 contract, wouldn’t support such an “opposition,” although the dissatisfaction did lead to the election of three Toussaint opponents as division vice presidencies (joined later by two division V.P.s who had become disenchanted with Toussaint).

The deal is revealed

Many members questioned why they went back to work with no contract, and they had to wait until the Tuesday after the strike’s end to find out any details. On the way into the executive board meeting to vote on it, VP Mooney said that with a billion dollar surplus “it would be outrageous for us to even consider giving back. I’m totally against paying into health benefits, and the wage increases are too low.”

VP Stewart said, “the numbers don’t add up, there’s no amnesty, and we have to pay for health? It’s unbelievable.” But the board voted 37 for and 4 against, with one abstention, for the proposed agreement.

In the end, the new-hire pension demand was dropped—in return for payment for the first time by ALL workers toward health-care premiums. The amount will be 1.5% of their wages—to start.

The new premiums will save the MTA about $32 million a year—more than triple the $20 million over three years that the new-hire pension demand would have supposedly saved, and which was the main strike issue!

What’s more the contribution to premiums could go up. The proposed contract says: “In future years the 1.5% contribution rate shall be increased by the extent to which the rate of increase in the cost of health benefits exceeds general wage increases.” Before voting the members need to be told what oral discussion was held at the table on how this would be calculated. Employer health-care costs in general have been going up by far more than the 3 to 4% wage increases in this contract.

The wage increases remained the same as the last pre-strike offer: 3, 4, and 3.5% raises, but now it’s over 37 months instead of 36. The MTA estimates this one-month extension will save it over $11 million. And the union would lose the bargaining power obtained from having the contract expire before the Christmas holidays.

The proposed contract also seems to include some gains on issues of discipline, maternity leave, improved health coverage for retirees not yet eligible for Medicare, fending off some attempts at job combination or elimination, etc. However, the MTA is notorious for granting contract language on such issues and then ignoring it, knowing the union won’t enforce it.

Probably the biggest sweetener—and one certain to go over big considering the fines—was a clause committing the MTA and the union to lobby Albany to refund some past pension contributions, with a goal of securing such legislation by the first week of July 2006. The refund would go to about half the membership who paid 5.3% of their wages over six years to get into the “25 years, 55-years-old and out” pension plan, while others were paying only 2% (starting in 2000 all members paid only 2%).

The press claims this could affect 16,000 workers and could amount to as much as $14,000 for some. This is actually money agreed upon in the past but never paid due to Pataki vetoes.

There’s no guarantee that the state legislature will agree, and even if they do, Pataki vowed on Dec. 29 to use his veto again, with his spokesperson saying: “The governor, still fuming over [the] strike, isn’t going to help the union get a cent.” This may mean the MTA will have to foot the bill, and the day after Pataki’s announcement the local claimed there was a written side agreement pledging the MTA would do so.

In any case, the refunds would go to only some workers, and it’s a one-time payment. It does not make up for the precedent set of all transit workers paying health premiums for the rest of their lives, nor for the precedent set for other unions’ negotiations.

It’s hard to know how the members will vote, but both management and union leadership know that once a strike is called off, building momentum back up is difficult even in a high-morale strike like this one.

The way the strike played out is reminiscent of the historic TWU bargaining pattern set by the local’s founder, Mike Quill—knowing beforehand what management was willing to give, and then using rhetoric, and a strike if absolutely necessary, to convince members that this amount was the product of a hard fight and worth settling for.

Quill and successors would meet behind the scenes with their counterparts in management to work out the final deal but go through a public charade of disagreement, and then sign just before the midnight contract expiration. The exceptions to this—the 1966 and 1980 strikes—came only because Quill and John Lawe respectively faced dissent, which threatened their hold on their presidencies.

In the same way, Toussaint may have intended a more peaceful resolution but was caught off guard when the MTA brought in the provocative pension demand at the last minute, leading, based on the members’ pent-up anger, to the need to call a strike.

Just before the executive board approval, Newsday said: “According to state budget documents, the MTA in July set aside funds for a wage and fringe increase at the regional inflation rate [of] 2.9 percent per year. This could come close to the final rate when the health insurance concession is taken into account.” Even if Toussaint never held any pre-strike discussions with management about the final outcome, his actions—postponing and then calling off the strike, and his surrender on healthcare—show his willingness to be a team player with management.

What next?

If the members approve the contract, the final message sent by the strike will be mixed. On the one hand, the union members’ superb efforts will have yielded only a financial draw and a dangerous precedent. On the other hand, the strikers can hold their heads high, knowing they did what they could under the circumstances, and knowing that other workers will take inspiration from their struggle. And perhaps they will start to discuss what more needs to be done in these fights.

Most union leaders use such militancy as a bargaining chip with their employer partners, and so don’t feel the need to forge a strategy of the type needed to see the fight through to the end—including proper strike preparation, mobilization of members to reach out to other unions and the public, and a plan to garner ever stronger supporting action from other unions to meet the bosses’ escalating attacks. In the case of transit, this would have meant starting with securing commitments for action by other unions against imposition of Taylor Law fines.

As recent attacks on autoworkers show, the ruling class has raised the stakes in an attempt to permanently reverse the gains made by workers in the private sector in the 1930s, and now those made in the public sector since the 1960s. But the transit strikers, and those who drew inspiration from them, have shown they are willing to fight, and in time will produce a leadership from within their ranks willing to launch the kind of fight needed in this period.