Transport Workers Union Rebels Win in New York

by Marty Goodman

The following article was published in the January 2001 issue of the newspaper Socialist Action. It is posted on our web site by permission of that publication. To subscribe, send $6 for one year to SA, 3425 César Chávez St., San Francisco, CA 94110.

NEW YORK, N.Y.—A decisive election victory on Dec. 13 by the insurgent New Directions caucus (ND) of the Transport Workers Union Local 100 won them the right to represent some 36,000 subway and bus workers here.

New Directions, a rank-and-file organization that began 15 years ago with a handful of activists, received 60 percent of the votes in a three-way race.

New Directions has led the fight against contract concessions and management abuse in the world’s largest transit system. The aggressive stance of New Directions will likely trigger the rebirth of this once powerful and militant union. The election may also signal positive shifts within the labor movement.

The New Directions slate was headed by presidential candidate Roger Toussaint, a track worker and elected chairman of the 1,800-member Track Division. A combative officer, Toussaint had been framed and fired in 1998 by New York City Transit (NYCT). His name quickly became a rallying cry at worker protests against discipline policy.

Today, Toussaint’s defiant persona has been widely compared to the Irish-born Mike Quill, the legendary founder of Local 100. An experienced political activist, Toussaint was forced to flee Trinidad in his youth due to his anti-colonial activities.

The New Directions slate received its impressive vote against two opponents who split the remaining votes between slates led by incumbent president Willie James, who came in last with 3,786 votes, and a competing wing of the bureaucracy led by Eddie Melendez, who received 4,347 votes.

The election sweep of New Directions was aided by a scandal that involved the free-spending practices of union officers on food, travel, and entertainment at the members’ expense. Former president James, stung by ND’s exposés, ordered officers to repay a total of $52,000, which included some $7,000 that James himself owed.

In addition to the top spot, New Directions won 37 of the 45 Executive Board seats and leadership of five of the seven Local 100 divisions. The two remaining divisions are two of the three bus divisions. But even in these two divisions ND came closer than ever to toppling these last bastions of a union bureaucracy that has been centered for decades in the bus divisions.

ND’s crushing victory was largest in the subway divisions, where two-thirds of the membership is located. In the two largest subway divisions, United Motormen Division and Station, ND’s margin was nearly 4 to 1 over the combined totals of its presidential rivals.

The election culminated a 15-year struggle to oust the entrenched bureaucracy that had strangled the union for more than a generation. An election bid in 1997 came heartbreakingly close — ND lost by less than 2 percent. A rerun election in 1998, following an arbitrator’s decision to uphold ND’s charges of election fraud, saw only slight advances. ND’s ability to survive was in serious question if this year’s effort had failed.

New Directions was formed by a handful of union activists gathered around the rank-and-file newsletter “Hell on Wheels.” Over the years ND won many divisional and Executive Board posts and its activists were seen as leaders throughout much of Local 100. Many New Directions activists view themselves to be socialists.

Respect for ND by the Local 100 membership was enhanced by its defiant role in the contract fight in December 1999. James was discredited when he capitulated to anti-strike injunctions levied against the TWU by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the umbrella transit agency. Without protest, James willingly negotiated with a gun to his head and accepted a mediocre contract.

The capitalist politicians of the Democratic and Republican parties voiced no opposition to the unconstitutional injunctions which included impossibly huge fines, a prohibition on merely talking about striking and likely jail sentences for violators. Democratic Party senatorial candidate Hillary Clinton voiced support for the mayor’s actions.

Toussaint: “Riding public just got a friend”

On election night, President-elect Toussaint outlined the union’s new priorities to the press: “The disciplinary system, the plantation mentality that says the workers are the inmates and the bosses are the wardens, is something we’re going to be tackling.”

Toussaint added, “Instead of being in alliance with the company, and protecting the image of the company, we will be in alliance with the public against the Transit Authority on issues of public safety, schedules, even potential fare increases. The riding public just got the best friend they’ve ever had in a Transport Workers Union president.”

The impact of ND’s victory on the labor movement is bound to be great. The impact on the TWU International itself, of course, will be greatest. Local 100 is the largest local in the TWU, which includes major transit systems in Philadelphia, Miami, and San Francisco. The New York election will be encouraging news for rank-and-file currents now modest in size.

San Francisco’s Local 250A carried out effective overtime boycotts last fall during contract negotiations there. Transit workers in the Bay Area appear to be more receptive than ever to change.

Outside the TWU, ND’s victory is likely to have an impact on the labor movement and the political climate in New York City and beyond.

However, ND’s victory is a great blow to TWU International President Sonny Hall, a kingmaker to several Local 100 presidents, including the deposed Willie James. Hall himself rose within the Local 100 bureaucracy to become the International President. Now his power base is in ashes.

But for New Directions winning a union election may be one thing, but it is quite another to defeat the combined power of the New York state-run transit system and the capitalist class of the richest city in the world.

What next for Local 100?

What are the prospects? For decades Local 100 has been in decline. Except for an ineptly executed strike in 1980, union bureaucrats have excused their inaction by citing the severe anti-strike Taylor Law, passed by both Republicans and Democrats in the wake of the successful 1966 transit strike led by Mike Quill, who died shortly afterwards.

As a result, transit management has been on the offensive. ND activists have been targeted for termination and harassment with the gleeful cooperation of union officials. Toussaint himself, like Quill before him, had been framed and fired before being elected union president.

After Toussaint’s termination in 1998 a well-publicized defense campaign was launched that included many worker protests against the hated discipline system. At a jubilant victory party, Toussaint called transit policy “an unchecked reign of terror for 20 years that stops now!”

To underscore the point Toussaint announced the appointment of ND activist Tito Ortiz, fired in 1996, as the new head of the safety department. Said Toussaint, “Tito will be walking the railroads, the depots, and walking the terminals of the superintendents that fired him. We will apply the principle ‘You mess with us, we mess with you!’” The appointment was met with thunderous applause and shouts.

As the transition proceeds, ND officers have been on the lookout for sabotage. ND members discovered a garbage bin in the union garage full of union documents wrapped in clear plastic bags! The evidence was seized and the bin wheeled into the office of International President Sonny Hall!

But even though ND ran on a platform of aggressive unionism, ND’s practice has not always lived up to its goals. ND has focused much of the time on running battles with the reigning bureaucracy rather than management. As a result ND has not succeeded in building a grassroots network of activists experienced in combating management. That was painfully evident in the contract struggle last December, despite ND’s high-profile challenge to NYCT and the union leadership.

However, with the installation of the new regime on Jan. 1, that will likely change. Toussaint has been a consistent critic of the former approach. He won respect for his hands-on defense of track workers’ rights and his organizing of Local-wide opposition to discipline policy.

Toussaint also helped lead opposition to the racist “workfare” program, a union-busting scheme approved by the Clinton administration. Workfare replaces union workers with the slave-labor of unemployed welfare recipients.

ND ran on a platform which outlined fundamental changes for the union, some of which include: A sharp reduction in officers’ salaries; regular Local-wide meetings missing from the life of the local for at least a generation (except for one meeting last December when ND forced it on the bureaucracy at contract time); a greatly expanded shop-stewards system; an overhaul of discipline policy; an elected, not appointed, staff; and being prepared to strike, if necessary, when the current contract expires in December 2002.

However, while ND’s platform also includes “seeking political alternatives to the Republican and Democratic parties” there is no clear break with the two wings of the bosses’ parties. Labor must break with the twin parties of capitalism or be shackled to the enemy class.

Whatever the final outcome of a New Directions regime, it is certain that no other union reform movement in recent decades has challenged the status quo to the degree that New York’s transit workers have. The victory is truly historic.