Workers Vanguard No. 1001
27 April 2012
Revitalize the Unions! For Class-Struggle Leadership!
Transit Workers Under the Gun
New York City
Emboldened by the anti-union offensive against public employees in Wisconsin, Indiana and many other states, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has in its crosshairs the 34,000 NYC subway and bus workers organized in Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100. With negotiations over the union contract that expired on January 15 dragging out, the transit bosses have not wavered in their major giveback demands: a three-year wage freeze, the near-doubling of worker-paid health care costs and the creation of additional workforce tiers. From slashed wages and looted pensions to massive job cuts, public workers in New York and across the country are facing similar attacks carried out by both Democrats and Republicans.
But Local 100 is not just any municipal workers union. For more than a century, New York’s mass transit system has been integral to the city’s economy. To this day, commerce in the financial center of U.S. imperialism remains heavily reliant on the dense subway and bus network and the commuter rail lines that feed it. When transit workers withhold their labor, it causes a crisis for the city bosses.
A transit strike in 1966 brought the bosses and bankers to their knees, winning a pension for workers after 20 years of service and setting the standard for better wages and working conditions throughout the city. It reduced the New York State Condon-Wadlin Act, which banned strikes by government employees, to a paper tiger. Strikes in 1980 and 2005, deemed “illegal” by the capitalist rulers but widely popular among working people and the poor, also put the union’s might on display. However, the TWU tops caved in to the bosses and their political and judicial enforcers, folding the strikes as the bourgeoisie was really beginning to feel the pinch.
Today, Local 100 finds itself in a weakened state, thanks in no small part to the disastrous policies of its leadership. The union is still deeply fractured from the betrayal of the 2005 strike, which was called off by Local 100 president Roger Toussaint without a contract in hand or an amnesty protecting strikers and the union from the reprisals that soon followed. Recently, Toussaint and his successor as Local 100 president, John Samuelsen, have taken to pleading their grievances against one another through interviews with the Wall Street Journal, the house organ of the capitalist class enemy.
Samuelsen goes so far as to disavow the 2005 strike, declaring it “detrimental to the union’s ongoing ability to organize members in a fight-back.” It is all too typical of labor’s misleaders to renounce strikes and other tools of labor struggle, which are central to the very existence of unions. Consequently, in New York transit workers face the losing proposition of either binding arbitration, where the bosses call the shots, or a negotiated sellout in the stalled contract talks.
Against this backdrop, it is not uncommon to hear transit workers question the value of even having a union. It is a mistake to identify the unions—the basic defense organizations of the working class—with their pro-capitalist misleadership, whose policies impede the ranks from resisting the attacks of their exploiters. While those like Toussaint and Samuelsen may have their differences on secondary matters, the union bureaucrats are in full agreement on the essentials, namely, adherence to the capitalist profit system. Politically, this is expressed through support to the Democratic Party, which no less than the Republicans is a party of capitalist rule.
The unions, which have been gravely undermined by the labor tops, were built through fierce class battles involving mass pickets and secondary boycotts in defiance of anti-labor laws and court injunctions. Revitalizing them will take the same kind of hard class struggle. And that will pose a fight to oust the hidebound labor officials and replace them with a new leadership, one that understands that the working class and the capitalist class have no common interests. Such a class-struggle leadership would play a crucial role in building a workers party that fights for a workers government.
Why Workers Risked Their Lives for a Union
The TWU’s own history shows that a union makes a life-and-death difference in the workplace. Before the TWU was forged in the 1930s, the largely immigrant, mainly Irish workforce was subject to poverty-level wages, brutal management practices and deadly conditions. Seven-day workweeks and split shifts spanning 14 hours were commonplace. Dozens of transit workers died on the job each year. With the union, workers won a means to wrest a living wage from the transit bosses, beat back punitive measures and assert some control over safety.
The establishment of the TWU as an industrial union was the culmination of many decades of bitter struggle. Beginning with organizing drives by the Knights of Labor at the end of the 19th century, trolley, bus and subway strikes pitted workers against the owners of the private lines that evolved into the current municipal system. Strikers risked their lives in pitched street battles with cops, company agents and National Guardsmen.
Organized by Mike Quill as well as other Communist Party (CP) supporters and Irish Republicans, the TWU emerged amid the outpouring of class militancy across the country that would give rise to the CIO. Erupting in the period of the Great Depression, this militancy reflected a broader social ferment out of which a workers party could have taken root. But the very leaders of the new industrial union movement, not least the CP Stalinists, crippled it through their support to Roosevelt’s Democratic Party and its “New Deal coalition.”
Quill himself was repeatedly elected to the New York City Council as a part of the New Deal coalition. He continued his political service to the ruling class in the post-World War II Cold War against the Soviet Union, breaking with the CP and launching an anti-Communist purge of the TWU. Throughout Quill’s career, he worked in cahoots with the city’s Democratic Party machine. It is no accident that the first citywide TWU strike coincided with the inauguration of liberal Republican mayor John Lindsay in 1966.
On the eve of the strike, Quill ripped up an anti-strike court order. He is especially known for going to jail rather than calling off the strike, proclaiming, “The judge can drop dead in his black robes.” The union returned to work only on the condition that there would be no reprisals, forcing the government to revoke its threats to fire strikers under the Condon-Wadlin Act. Soon after, the law was repealed. However, Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller announced that he was “determined that this should never happen again,” and in 1967 the Taylor Law was enacted, substituting massive fines of union members and the union itself for mass firings as penalties for striking.
Backed by the rest of labor, strike action by transit workers, teachers, sanitation or other public workers could render the Taylor Law a dead letter. In the course of such a struggle, the unions would need to draw behind them the ghetto and barrio poor, who suffer disproportionately from the service cuts that accompany the attacks on public workers. Mobilizing the power of labor to champion the interests of the oppressed would also strike a blow against the racial and ethnic hostilities whipped up by the rulers to divide and weaken working people.
The Sellout of the 2005 Strike
The December 2005 strike was reluctantly called by the Toussaint leadership, which was caught between an intransigent MTA on the one side and a restive membership on the other. Unfolding at the height of the holiday shopping season, the walkout stunned the arrogant capitalist rulers and drew immediate blowback from the government. As Democratic state attorney general Eliot Spitzer moved to issue a series of Taylor Law injunctions, a chorus of bourgeois politicians and their media mouthpieces railed against the strikers. Billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg called strike leaders “thuggish” in a clear attempt to stir up racist animosity against Local 100, whose membership is heavily black and immigrant, and its leader Toussaint, who was born in Trinidad.
On the picket lines, transit workers were pumped up, solid and determined. Other city workers with expired union contracts intently followed the strike. The shutdown of transit drew support from working people across the city and beyond at a time when U.S. imperialism was waist deep in its occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and outrage at the racist abandonment of black people after Hurricane Katrina was still simmering. Pickets were cheered in poor and working-class areas near maintenance barns and bus depots. As revolutionary Marxist leader V.I. Lenin commented a century ago, whereas liberals “tell the workers: ‘You are strong when you have the sympathy of “society”,’ the Marxist tells the workers something different, namely: ‘You have the sympathy of “society” when you are strong’” (“Economic and Political Strikes,” May 1912).
Strike headquarters should have dispatched flying pickets to shut down the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, New Jersey Transit and PATH commuter lines, cutting off public transport in and out of Manhattan. That did not happen. By the second day of the strike, the Local 100 leadership was under mounting pressure not only from the class enemy but also from numerous labor officials to throw in the towel. The city union tops let Local 100 hang out to dry, refusing even to mouth support for the strike, while the scabherders of the TWU International told strikers to return to work.
By issuing anti-strike injunctions and fines, the courts provided an object lesson in their role as part of the repressive capitalist state apparatus, together with the cops and prisons. Even as it was feeling the pressure from the capitalist state agencies, the Local 100 bureaucracy remained firmly committed to its class-collaborationist strategy. For the umpteenth time, it trotted out Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Pat Lynch as the union’s “ally,” reinforcing the suicidal notion that the cops, whose job is to break strikes and terrorize the ghettos, are fellow workers. Local 100 officials went on to endorse Democrat Spitzer, the single person most responsible for bringing the hammer down on the TWU, in his gubernatorial bid the following year.
After barely 60 hours, the TWU leadership folded the strike with no real gains to show for it. The sellout encouraged Spitzer and the courts to slam individual strikers and Local 100 with heavy fines. The Toussaint leadership only complained about the “excessive” character of the state’s vendetta against the unions. A substandard contract was eventually forced on transit workers through a nearly year-long arbitration process after they first voted it down. With the union in retreat, the automatic dues checkoff was punitively taken away by the courts in June 2007. It was restored 17 months later only after Toussaint agreed to sign a “no strike” pledge.
Ending the popular walkout as it was on the upswing had a corrosive effect on many workers, as the consciousness of labor’s power they acquired during the strike rapidly eroded. Moving from feeling strong on the picket lines to becoming increasingly cynical about the union, many drew the wrong lessons. Out of anger at Toussaint & Co., half the membership fell behind in their dues after the checkoff system was stopped. With one-third of the workforce still in arrears, the cohesiveness of the union has been torn and its financial resources diminished.
Across the country, the abolition of dues checkoff, along with “right to work” laws, is being wielded as a club against unions. When the capitalists and their state agencies take away dues checkoff, these efforts to bankrupt the unions must be combatted. But dues checkoff is actually a form of financial blackmail, leaving a union’s money in the hands of the bosses. The arrangement allows labor officials to evade the responsibility of facing the membership to collect dues. It also expresses the bureaucrats’ desire for harmony with the bosses, since making the companies the unions’ bankers undercuts the capacity to strike. Of course, the labor traitors are generally more interested in wasting the union war chest on electing capitalist politicians. Workers must fight for the unions to directly control dues collection.
For a Class-Struggle Perspective!
The lie of the partnership of labor and capital preached by the TWU bureaucrats finds expression in their patriotic salute to U.S. imperialism’s “national interests” and their enlisting the union to act as an adjunct to the cops in the reactionary “war on terror.” In every election, the labor officialdom mobilizes votes for the Democrats, sowing the vain hope that these representatives of capital will come to the unions’ aid. Then like clockwork, TWU leaders dispatch teams to go to Albany and Washington to beg for mercy.
With Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo slashing the pensions of state employees, John Samuelsen has hailed the fact that transit new-hires were kept from suffering the worst of the cuts as vindication of such lobbying efforts. But the deal brokered for future transit workers is a concession by the union that further fragments an increasingly divided workforce. While many municipal new-hires will have to work to age 63 to retire, new transit workers retain the right to retire at full pension at age 55 after 25 years of service. However, they will pay more and get less than current transit workers. Refusal to sell out “the unborn” (future hires) was one of the issues that sparked the 2005 strike. Now the bureaucracy is packaging its betrayal of the same workers as a victory.
The Samuelsen leadership has also acquiesced to the reintroduction of the racist union-busting “workfare” program first rolled out by the MTA in a deal cut with the union in the 1990s. The Work Experience Program (WEP) compels welfare recipients to do work normally done by TWU cleaners in exchange for their paltry government checks. Drafted into near slavery, the WEP workers are treated with racist contempt by the bosses. The TWU must fight to bring WEP workers into the union at full union pay, protections and rights. More broadly, the labor movement should fight for union control of hiring.
Class collaboration is the calling card of all wings of the TWU bureaucracy. Take, for example, Train Operators Chair and Executive Board member Steve Downs, who is supported by the fake-socialist outfit Solidarity. Downs was a founding member of the now defunct New Directions caucus, an instrument for promoting the careers of phony “militants” inside the union. Before helping propel Toussaint into office, for years New Directions brought court suits against their opponents in the union, treacherous actions that opened up the TWU to meddling and intervention by the bosses’ state. Continuing to do his part in chaining workers to the capitalist system, on March 30 Downs voted in favor of an executive board motion to endorse imperialist Commander-in-Chief Obama in the 2012 presidential race. We will not hold our breath waiting for Solidarity to chastise Downs for crossing the class line. In 2008, these reformists supported Cynthia McKinney, the presidential candidate of the small-time capitalist Green Party.
In a March 30 letter to Obama, Samuelsen pledges “to do everything we can to help you continue your vision for the future of our nation on all the pressing issues of our time,” including “economic justice for the 99 percent.” Obama is a Wall Street Democrat whose “vision” has meant engineering a bailout for the auto bosses that slashed workers’ wages, expanding domestic repression in the name of the “war on terror,” and raining devastation down on Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. Alarmed by Obama’s waning popularity, the Local 100 tops were in the vanguard of those union officials who threw support to the Occupy protests last year. The labor bureaucracy sees in Occupy’s populism a vehicle to rekindle enthusiasm for the Democrats in the November elections.
The global economic crisis that set the current union-busting assault on public workers in motion is the product of the anarchic capitalist system of production for profit. From transit workers clinging to their pensions to families trying to keep their homes, working people are being sacrificed to the vultures of finance capital.
There is a burning need for a working-class counteroffensive—including a fight for free, quality health care and education for all, for all pensions to be guaranteed by the government, for free mass transit and other vital services. A struggle by public workers to defend their hard-won gains and expand social services could mobilize broad support among working people and the poor. A determined, militant campaign to organize the masses of unorganized workers would go a long way to breathing new life into the unions. In waging such struggles, the unions will have to champion the fight for black freedom and the defense of foreign-born workers, demanding full citizenship rights for all immigrants.
To transform the unions into class-struggle battalions will require breaking the chains that tie them to the exploiters, above all the support to the Democratic Party. The key to unchaining the power of the working class is the building of a revolutionary workers party. Such a party would not only fight against the immediate ravages of capitalism but also would lead the struggle to expropriate the parasitic bourgeoisie through socialist revolution, establishing a workers government where those who labor rule.