Insurgents Take Charge in Big New York Transit Union
by Steve Downs, Executive Board, TWU Local 10
NOTE: The following article is from the February issue of Labor Notes. We are making both this and Marty Goodman’s article available on our web site because of the outstanding importance of this victory for militant rank-and-filers in the labor movement. Steve Downs is a train operator and a founding member of New Directions.—The Editors, Labor Standard.
What a difference a year makes!
A year ago Willie James, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, was crowing that he would smash his opposition, the 11-year-old reform caucus New Directions, in the December 2000 election. Members, bus and subway workers in New York City, had just ratified a contract negotiated by James — and opposed by New Directions — by a 2-1 margin. Many people in the 36,000-member union said that New Directions should have endorsed the agreement and claimed credit for the militancy that had wrung extra money out of management. Some predicted the end of New Directions.
But when the ballots were counted on December 13, Roger Toussaint, New Directions’ candidate for president, had won 60 percent of the vote against two opponents. Willie James came in third. New Directions candidates had also won seven of the other nine top spots and three-quarters of the executive board. And the division between bus and subway workers that had been a feature of Local 100’s politics for years had been broken down.
New Directions’ victory showed that its activists had a better feel for the membership than Willie James had. The caucus opposed the 1999 contract — knowing it would probably pass — because it was a bad contract.
Even though the money was better than other unions had gotten (and most members knew it was the mass rallies, slowdowns, and threat of a strike spurred by New Directions that made this possible), it also contained serious givebacks. Skilled maintenance workers had their job rights by seniority virtually eliminated.
What New Directions recognized was that many workers voted for the contract only because they saw that James would not fight for anything better. By helping the mayor enforce an injunction against even saying the word “strike,” he had given away the leverage they had had during the holiday shopping season.
That giveaway at a crucial moment is part of the story of why, on New Directions’ fourth run for the presidency, Local 100 members finally decided to back the reformers. It helped that things quickly began to unravel for the officers after the contract was ratified. A falling out on the union’s staff revealed that a vice president had used her union credit card for personal expenses — hundreds of dollars worth of cheesecake, among other items. An audit resulted in several officers having to repay thousands of dollars.
In the summer, Willie James announced that because of illness he would not seek reelection. Then, just as the remaining officers had settled on a new candidate, James decided to run after all, having enjoyed a miraculous recovery.
Long Years of Work
New Directions’ election victory was a testament to the long years of work that had gone into building the reform movement in Local 100. Building on support for the rank and file newsletter Hell on Wheels, which had started in 1984, New Directions first ran candidates in 1988 and won the board seats representing train operators, traditionally the most militant members of the union, and the most powerful. In each election New Directions won more seats on the board and on the divisional committees.
But in many ways it was what went on between elections that was more important. The reformers opposed concession after concession and mobilized members for contract fights. In 1992, the caucus led a thousand transit workers in a march over the Brooklyn Bridge to protest a concessionary contract agreed to by the local’s leadership. New Directions members shut down unsafe work and organized their co-workers to work-to-rule to resist speed-up.
It was New Directions that forced the local to call a rally during negotiations over the 1999 contract — and 10,000 members came. And they forced James to call the first local-wide membership meeting in over 20 years for the day the contract expired. At the morning and evening sessions of that meeting, over 8,000 Local 100 members roared their support for a strike—in opposition to a court injunction and their union’s top officers.
Over the years, New Directions has organized for greater membership control of the union by pushing for election of staff reps and the election of vice presidents by specific divisions rather than local-wide. This reform was won in the fall of 1999 when the incumbents backed it out of fear that they would lose all the vice presidential spots if they didn’t.
In 1998, New Directions won 49.5 percent of the vote for president and 21 of 46 seats on the local’s executive board.
Playing It Safe
Ironically, the near certainty of victory in 2000 led many in New Directions to urge that the militant message be toned down — just to be safe. Instead of talking about how the union could be transformed to take on management — that is, by helping members organize themselves — some argued that the slate should focus on the financial scandal and present its candidates as simply more honest and competent than the incumbents.
As a result, most of the literature for the local-wide campaign had a bland, generic “good unionism” feel to it (“Real Leaders for a Real Union”). It seemed to say that the key to change was electing the right leaders rather than an active membership.
Despite this backpedaling within New Directions, the election of new officers opens up real possibilities. The new officers are more honest and competent, and they have opposed the previous leadership’s policy of giving back to management. The huge local is one of the most powerful in the city, if it chooses to be so, and it makes up a third of the TWU International.
Many of the New Directions officers, as well as its rank and file activists, continue to hold a vision of unionism that goes beyond simply providing a better service to the members. How the debate over the two different approaches plays out in the local will go a long way in determining the success of the new leadership of TWU 100.