A Contrast to the Contract Just Ratified

1966 Transit Strike Showed Power of Working Class

by Farrell Dobbs

New York City transit workers recently ratified a new contract that removes layoff protections. The contract was negotiated under the pressure of a pointed gun—the notorious state Taylor Act, which bans such strikes. This development only reinforces a point made in the article below: “Young people today have had little chance to perceive the inherent power of the working class.” In January 1966 the Transport Workers Union waged a 13-day strike that halted public transportation in New York City. Following are excerpts from a contemporaneous article by former Teamsters union leader and Socialist Workers Party leader Farrell Dobbs assessing the significance of the strike. Dobbs’s commentary first appeared in The Militant in 1966, and these excerpts were reprinted in that paper in December 2002. Our thanks to the web site Labor Tuesday for Jan. 28, 2003, which posted these excerpts.

Young people today have had little chance to perceive the inherent social power of the working class. All their lives they have seen the unions dominated by a gang of bureaucrats who truckle to the capitalist class. These misleaders of labor support the brutal imperialist foreign policy of the ruling class. They give only lip service to the Freedom Now struggle of the Negro people, the vast majority of whom are workers.

At the point of production the bureaucrats act to cripple the union power, usurping workers’ democracy to impose their own dictatorial rule over the union membership. They keep labor tied to capitalist politics, leaving the governmental power in the hands of greedy banks and corporations.

Detractors of labor point to statistics about a relative decline of industrial workers in proportion to the population as a whole. Like a con man short-changing his victim, they juggle these figures around in an effort to show that history is rendering unionism impotent. Again, and once again, the Marxist view of the revolutionary potential of the working class is proclaimed obsolete.

Workers’ strength as social force

Some 36,000 strikers tied up public transportation in a city of eight million and the powers-that-be couldn’t move a single train or bus in public service during the walkout. Clearly it was not the sheer weight of numbers that gave the transit workers this impressive strength. The decisive factor was the key functions they perform within the city’s economic structure.

Similarly in national terms, it is not the relative numerical weight of the workers in terms of the population as a whole that determines their strength as a social force. It is their strategic role in the total economic complex, plus their distinctive characteristics as a relatively homogeneous social class.

Numerical strength has primary importance in terms of class solidarity among the workers involved in a given struggle, rather than in the relative size of the embattled force. The problem of solidarity begins with the strikers themselves, and it extends from there to a quest for broader labor support according to the needs of the fight. As we shall see, it was in the broader union sphere, especially among the top AFL-CIO bureaucrats, that class solidarity with the transit workers was criminally violated.

Within the Transport Workers Union the ranks stood solid throughout the strike. Not a peep came from inside the TWU that Republican Mayor Lindsay, or his Democratic collaborators at City Hall, could use to smear the strike. It was a case of aroused workers who fought for just demands and who stood united in their common needs as class brothers.

This time the TWU officials didn’t capitulate without a fight as they have done before. Instead of making a deal for a union contract on City Hall’s terms, they fought at least until the union had won a partial victory.

While giving them due credit for the way they stood up to City Hall, it is important to recognize the real reason why they did so. Like everybody else in the line of fire, the TWU officials were up against an aroused membership that wasn’t about to hold still for a fast shuffle from anybody, either inside or outside the union. They had to fight, or else.

What a fight the transit workers made! They brushed aside a court injunction based on an antilabor state law and went on strike in defiance of the judge and the whole City Hall gang. When their top negotiators were jailed as “law breakers,” a second team stepped in to speak for the union. The strikers remained solid in the face of court proceedings intended to impose massive fines on the union. They stood up against savage smear propaganda in the capitalist news media and against a rising capitalist clamor to call out the National Guard against them.

At a crucial point in the strike the TWU ranks met the capitalist attack by demonstrating their solidarity and fighting spirit through a mass picket line at City Hall. Significant bodies of workers from other unions supported the demonstration. Unable to break the strike with injunctions, jailings, and threats of fines, Lindsay appealed to “responsible” top officials of the AFL-CIO for help in stopping the strike.

“Responsible” officials stop the strike

George Meany responded by approving the jailing of the TWU leaders with the remark that Mike Quill “wanted to go to jail.” As though that scabby comment wasn’t criminal enough, he added that Mayor Lindsay, who was trying to break the strike, was “handling himself very well.”

After the strike Walter Reuther proved his “respectability” with a statement that “society can’t tolerate stoppages” like the transit strike.

Despite all obstacles the transit workers won a partial victory by forcing concessions from City Hall that it hadn’t intended to make. The fact remains, however, that the settlement fell far short of the workers’ just demands and they remain victims of gross wage inequities.

Unmoved by the serious economic problems still plaguing the TWU ranks, President Johnson denounced the gains they did win as a violation of his wage “guideposts.” Johnson followed through with a call for further anti-strike laws.

Both the Republican Mayor and the Democratic President proved themselves enemies of the transit workers. The strikers got nothing they didn’t fight for and even then the lackeys of capitalism cheated them out of a just settlement. The workers will get only what they can win through militant use of the union power at the job level and through mobilization of their class political strength in an independent labor party.

Labor’s inherent capacity to take that road is demonstrated by the transit strike, as is the workers’ growing desire to do so.