Workers Vanguard No. 861

6 January 2006


Strikers Defy Taylor Law

NYC Transit Strike: Union Power vs. Class Collaboration

Break with the Democrats! Build a Workers Party!

JANUARY 2—The 2005 New York City transit strike stunned the obscenely rich capitalist rulers of this society and gave a shot in the arm to all working people. For three days, 33,700 members of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 defied the state Taylor Law banning public workers strikes and shut down the city—the financial center of U.S. imperialism. Finally, here was a powerful union using its strength, not only for itself but also for future transit workers and workers across the country who see their pensions looted and health benefits ripped up by profit-bloated capitalists. Here was a union standing up to the billionaires’ government—from the Bush White House down to Republican governor Pataki, Democratic state attorney general Eliot Spitzer and Republican mayor Michael Bloomberg—and its anti-labor courts and cops.

The strike against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which was joined by Amalgamated Transit Union MTA bus workers in Queens and Staten Island, drew wide support from the city’s ghettos and barrios and from both unionized and unorganized workers. The strike was intensely followed by working people throughout the U.S. and internationally and featured on news broadcasts from Britain to Argentina to Japan. It came at a time of growing popular anger over attacks on workers’ livelihoods, over the government’s racist abandonment of New Orleans’ poor and black population after Hurricane Katrina, over the murderous imperialist occupation of Iraq. The strike was a battle for the rights of labor at a time when the government has taken aim at all of our rights through the “war on terror” backed by both capitalist parties, the Democrats and Republicans.

The strike was provoked by the MTA bosses and carried out by a reluctant union leadership. First the MTA demanded that new-hires work an additional seven years, to age 62, before becoming eligible for full retirement benefits. Not only was this a direct attack on the unity of the union, but seven more years of grueling work—breathing steel dust underground, exposed to toxic chemicals and diesel exhaust, bouncing around in bus drivers’ seats on choked city streets—would be a death sentence for large numbers of workers. The Local 100 leadership under Roger Toussaint kept talks going for four days after the old contract expired. While the MTA dropped its demand for raising the retirement age, just hours before the new December 20 strike deadline MTA chairman Peter Kalikow ambushed the union by demanding that new-hires pay 6 percent of their wages toward their pensions, up from the 2 percent that workers currently pay. This time the union didn’t blink, and the workers walked out.

Bloomberg railed that the leadership of this overwhelmingly black and Latino union was “thuggish.” The capitalist rulers saw this strike as something akin to a slave rebellion. But their attempt to divide and isolate the union through racist vilification backfired. A black worker on the picket line told us that Bloomberg’s slurs reminded him of the accusations of looting leveled by the media against desperate black people looking for food in New Orleans. Others remarked that this vicious treatment is indicative of the “plantation justice” they endure from the MTA with its onerous disciplinary measures. Local 100 reflects the working class of the city: white, black, Latino; immigrants from the Caribbean, the former Soviet Union, Ireland, the Indian subcontinent, China and elsewhere. The integrated picket lines graphically demonstrated how the poisonous racial and ethnic divisions fostered by the capitalists to weaken labor can be overcome through class struggle.

The strike demonstrated the potential to link the power of labor to the anger of the ghetto and barrio masses. On its second day, residents of Brooklyn’s blighted East New York neighborhood pumped their fists in support when hundreds of TWU picketers from the transit facility there marched through the area. Some teachers brought their classes to the picket lines. While strikers were cheered throughout the city, the bourgeoisie’s anti-union demagogy did help fuel some sentiment against the strike, including among shopkeepers and desperate immigrants fearful of losing their jobs. While the gutter tabloid New York Post (22 December) blared “JAIL ’EM!” in a front-page headline with a graphic of Toussaint behind bars, the front page of the Amsterdam News, NYC’s main black newspaper, the same day ran an open letter by Toussaint and other coverage sympathetic to the strike.

The overwhelming popular support for the strike exemplified revolutionary Marxist leader V.I. Lenin’s comment in his May 1912 article “Economic and Political Strikes”: “Whereas the liberals (and the liquidators) 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’.”

The transit strike was a golden opportunity to tear up the anti-union Taylor Law by forging a fighting alliance with all of NYC labor at the head of the city’s minorities and poor. This task raised to the forefront the need to fight for the independence of the unions from the state and parties of the capitalist class. But the union went into battle with one hand tied behind its back because of the ties of its leadership to the capitalist Democratic Party. As we wrote in the 20 December 2005 Spartacist strike support leaflet, titled “Victory to the Transit Workers Strike! United Labor Action Can Smash the Taylor Law!” (see page 11): “Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the other Democratic Party celebrities who were invited to grace the platforms of TWU contract rallies promote the party of the Taylor Law—of Attorney General Spitzer and of Senator Hillary Clinton, who hailed Spitzer’s earlier use of the Taylor Law against the TWU in 1999!”

As Spitzer and the courts slammed the union with injunctions imposing massive fines—$1 million charged to the union and two days’ pay charged to individual members for every day on strike—and possible jail sentences, the traitors in the TWU International and city labor leadership stabbed the strikers in the back. A statement issued the night the strike began by TWU International president Michael O’Brien “notifying” Local 100 members that they had to “cease any and all strike or strike-related activities and to report to work” was posted by management at doors and gates of transit facilities. By the second day of the strike, the Local 100 leadership faced not only a relentless anti-union barrage from the politicians and press but mounting pressure from dozens of labor “leaders” to call off the strike.

At a press conference on the afternoon of December 21, Toussaint powerfully rebuked the racist diatribes against the union and asserted the necessity to defy unjust laws, referring to Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement. But he also offered that the union would end the strike if the MTA took its pension demand off the table, and in fact state mediators were already cooking up a deal. An hour later, a group of labor tops including teachers union president Randi Weingarten, representing the Municipal Labor Committee, mouthed meaningless “support” for the TWU while refusing to utter the four words: “We support the strike.” All they had to say about the Taylor Law was that it should be “reformed,” complaining that it’s not used against the MTA.

Abandoned by the rest of the labor officialdom, facing fines and possible jail time, and with his phony “friends of labor” in the Democratic Party mainly ducking for cover, Toussaint called off the strike the next afternoon. The Local 100 tops contemptuously refused to consult the membership, whose overwhelming response was anger at going back to work without a contract when one of the main slogans on the picket lines was “No contract, no work!” George Perlstein, one of five Local 100 Executive Board members who voted against returning to work, declared, “We had them at a stranglehold. I do not understand the concept of giving up the stranglehold for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to put a stranglehold on us.”

Prepare for Further Struggle

The Toussaint leadership demobilized this effective strike. Now the membership must vote on the proposed 37-month contract. The strike forced the MTA to take back its pension demands and its attempts at further “broadbanding” of jobs—i.e., combining job duties, leading to a reduced workforce carrying heavier workloads in more dangerous conditions. The proposal also expands health benefits for all retirees, including by making it available to those under 65 living outside the metropolitan area. By going on strike, the TWU waged a defensive battle that slows down the capitalists’ onslaught against pensions and working conditions.

However, the Local 100 tops agreed to a major concession that would make members contribute 1.5 percent of their gross pay to offset the cost of retirees’ health benefits. The MTA would also be able to hike this contribution when the plan’s spiraling costs rise further. The health care concession comes with slim annual wage increases of 3, 4 and 3.5 percent. As the Toussaint leadership did not make the demand for amnesty for strikers a condition for returning to work, the union and its membership are also faced with the fines. Pataki is threatening to veto a provision refunding some $130 million in additional pension contributions from union members before 2001 that were kept by the state. Now he’s angry over a reported agreement by which the MTA would provide the money in the event of a veto, railing, “You don’t reward illegal strikes.”

A much-touted new provision for maternity leave is a sham. Workers with newborn children would get a paltry $200 per week for up to four weeks, but only after using up all their vacation and sick leave time. There should be maternity/paternity leave at full pay, and the union should demand free childcare.

Workers at Triboro and Jamaica private bus lines, which are about to be absorbed into the MTA, were the first to go on strike, on December 19. But they are left out of the proposed deal and returned to work without a contract.

The agreement should be voted down. Transit workers are particularly fuming over the health care concession. Instead of atomized voting by mail ballot, there should be mass meetings where the members can reject the pact and debate what course of action to take, up to and including resuming strike action. This requires a hard look at the December strike and how to get the kind of leadership labor needs.

Lessons of the Strike

Like every major strike, this was a bullheaded battle between labor and capital. On one side are the bosses, their government, whether run by Democrats or Republicans, and the repressive capitalist state apparatus, mainly the courts and cops. The role of the courts and government officials during the strike starkly demonstrated that the “democratic” trappings of the capitalist state are but a facade for the dictatorship of the exploiting class. On the other side, the workers have their own weapons: their numbers and power based on their collective labor at the workplace, and their union organization.

This was the first time a major union had defied anti-strike laws since the 1981 PATCO air traffic controllers strike. That strike was smashed after the Machinists and other airline union tops treacherously refused to shut down the airports in solidarity. The union was destroyed, its leaders hauled off in chains. This defeat set the stage for a quarter-century of attacks on labor.

This time around, the transit workers, strategically placed in the economy, faced down the bosses and the state. Unlike manufacturing, transit systems can’t be “outsourced.” The workers went out solid, challenging the anti-strike injunctions. Many on the picket lines chanted “Taylor Law: Rip it up!” and avidly picked up the call for amnesty for strikers. Despite Pataki and Bloomberg’s intransigent stance against the union, the government came under mounting pressure from major retailers and other business interests, which were losing millions every day, to effect a settlement. The TWU ranks went back to work proud. By engaging in this battle, the union became stronger.

Former Democratic mayor and certified racist pig Ed Koch demanded that the state mete out “medieval” treatment to the strikers. A court date is scheduled for January 20 to decide on imposing the fines as well as possible jail time for union leaders. It is the duty of not only every TWU local but also of labor throughout the U.S. and internationally to demand: No fines! Government hands off the TWU!

Spartacist teams mobilized to go to picket lines throughout the city got an overwhelmingly warm response from transit workers outraged by the lies and anti-union venom spewed by the daily papers. Strikers saw that Workers Vanguard was on their side and gave a broader picture of the class struggle and what it takes to defeat the capitalist enemy. Spartacist comrades and supporters distributed thousands of our strike support leaflet and sold some 1,000 copies of WV during the strike.

For a Workers Government!

The same Wall Street bloodsuckers who screamed about “overpaid” public workers and “unaffordable” pensions and union health benefits just gave themselves close to 20 billion dollars in holiday bonuses. Top execs commonly get $2 million or more in bonuses; the money that 16 of these parasites rake in this way equals the entire annual health care payment that TWU members are being told to fork over! When the MTA moaned about future deficits as a pretext to demand union concessions, it was sitting on a $1 billion surplus. Much of MTA revenue goes to pay off debts to Wall Street bondholders anyway. And billionaire mayor Bloomberg had the audacity to call transit workers “selfish” and “greedy”!

Giving a sinister twist to Bertolt Brecht’s poem “The Solution,” the American capitalists act like they can no longer afford the people. With the destruction of the Soviet degenerated workers state through capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92—a historic defeat for the world proletariat—the arrogant U.S. imperialists thought they had no obstacle in their drive to dominate the world and control its riches. Increasingly irrational in their drive for profit, the capitalist rulers have massively deindustrialized the U.S. Infrastructure is rotting. With the unions taking huge hits, the capitalists are fixated on destroying every shred of social benefit that might still be available to the populace, who, if they have jobs, are supposed to work like slaves and then drop dead. Airline and auto companies declare bankruptcy, or threaten to, in order to rob workers of their pensions. The labor movement must fight tooth-and-nail in defense of retirement benefits as well as for free, quality health care for all!

Every decrepit ghetto is testimony to the sickness of this class society. As for the racist MTA bosses, only with the current contract proposal is Martin Luther King Day finally being made a paid holiday! This profit-driven system can’t meet the needs of the population—it must go! It will take a workers revolution, led by a multiracial workers party, to rip the means of production from the capitalist class and institute a collectivized, planned economy where the masses will be able to fully enjoy the fruits of their labor.

The transit strike gave a taste of the enormous potential power of the working class. But to wield this power against this deadly profit system requires fighting against the current labor misleadership, which supports the capitalist system and sees “allies” in the political parties and state agencies of the class enemy. The last thing that Weingarten & Co. wanted to do was jeopardize their privileges and connections in the Democratic Party by engaging in actual struggle, like supporting the transit strike. As a Democratic state assemblyman, NYC Central Labor Council president Brian McLaughlin embodies the class collaborationism of the labor bureaucracy.

Toussaint is part of that bureaucracy and embraces Democratic Party politicians. The Local 100 tops spent hundreds of thousands in union dues to elect Democratic candidates in the last state elections, while AFL-CIO unions nationally spent hundreds of millions in support of John Kerry’s bid for the White House. In a speech at a December 10 TWU rally, Jesse Jackson linked the fight for “job security” with “national security.” This talk of “national security” promotes the lie that American workers have common interests with the U.S. capitalist exploiters, who are on a murderous rampage against working people and the oppressed from New Orleans to Iraq and Afghanistan. Toussaint retails this lie with his proposals for TWU members to act as auxiliaries to the cops by watching for “terror suspects” in the transit system—i.e., racist profiling.

We say: Break with the Democrats! Workers must rely only on their own class power. That means forging a multiracial workers party—not a party of electoral reformism but one like the Bolshevik Party of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky that led the workers of Russia to power in the October Revolution of 1917. Such a party, based on declassed revolutionary intellectuals and class-conscious workers in the unions and among unorganized workers, would lead the workers in struggle. It would promote international proletarian solidarity and seek to mobilize workers against U.S. imperialism’s predatory wars—U.S. out of Iraq and Afghanistan! It would lead the fight for black liberation through socialist revolution. It would fight to mobilize labor in defense of the rights of women and gays. It would demand full citizenship rights for all immigrants and fight to unionize immigrant workers. Forward to a workers government!

For a Class-Struggle Leadership!

The Local 100 tops were under intense pressure from the membership when they called the strike. Once the battle was engaged, workers increasingly felt they should stay out for as long as it took to beat back the MTA, Pataki and Bloomberg. The workers started to really feel their power. The Local 100 tops at that point were on their own with an aroused membership. Fearful that the strike would deepen and extend in the face of further attacks by the bosses, the Toussaint bureaucracy called it off.

Toussaint had signaled his willingness to end the strike by getting UNITE HERE president Bruce Raynor and Mike Fishman of SEIU Local 32 B-J building service workers, who supported Bloomberg in the last election, to put in a word with the mayor. “Enter the mediators,” as the New York Times (23 December 2005) described the intervention of the state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB). This agency is in no way “neutral.” The presence of former AFSCME DC 37 chief negotiator Alan Viani on the PERB is a ploy to make this agency appear “impartial.” The PERB, NLRB and all such government auxiliaries have only one purpose: to demobilize labor struggle and maintain class peace.

The Toussaint leadership refused to employ the kind of tactics that could win victory outright. Union leaders at the regional rail lines—Metro-North, LIRR, PATH—not only kept workers on the job, even when some were themselves without a contract, but allowed Metro-North and PATH to run extra train service to help bail out the city rulers. When WV salesmen at Grand Central Station handed out our leaflet to Metro-North workers, they asked us: Where are the TWU pickets? Several of these unionists said they knew the bosses wanted to crush the TWU and then go after them and everyone else. Yet the Local 100 leadership did not appeal directly to the ranks of these unions, or to city and state workers, over the heads of their misleaders.

While turning away from the ranks of labor, Toussaint from the beginning of this battle turned to Police Benevolent Association head Patrick Lynch, whom he has embraced as a “labor” ally ever since becoming Local 100 president in 2000. Lynch appeared on TWU speaker’s platforms and at one of Toussaint's press conferences. During the strike, as Toussaint powerfully spoke of the plight of city workers, he kept invoking the cops as part of that workforce. Many workers on the picket lines voiced the illusion that cops were workers, too.

No! The PBA and the other police “unions” are enemies of labor whose job is to safeguard the bosses’ private property. The cops, security guards and the MTA’s Property Protection Agents have no place in the labor movement. One white worker responding to Bloomberg’s racist slur about union “thugs” said, “Yeah, the thugs are here—the thugs in blue.” That’s right! It is the job of the cops to enforce Taylor Law injunctions against the union. It’s their job to terrorize minorities.

The anti-strike injunctions and massive fines were an object lesson in the role of the courts as part of the capitalists’ state machinery. The same lesson should be drawn over the use of the courts to intervene into the TWU, which can only undermine the very purpose of the union: to defend the workers from the bosses.

Toussaint along with a bevy of fake-militants and their “leftist” supporters have long turned to the courts against their opponents in the union. Five Local 100 vice presidents, including Ainsley Stewart of the Car Maintenance Division and John Mooney of Stations, have a lawsuit against Local 100, although it was put into abeyance leading up to the contract expiration. Prior to taking office, Toussaint dragged the union into the bosses’ courts, as did other members of the former New Directions caucus. Nevertheless, Marty Goodman, supported by the reformist Socialist Action group, was long a member of New Directions and supported Toussaint’s election. Eric Josephson, supported by the fake-socialist League for the Revolutionary Party, also called for votes for Toussaint, adding a fig leaf of “criticism.”

The Spartacist League has always opposed the intervention of the capitalist courts into the labor movement on principle. Thus we opposed Toussaint’s candidacy, headlining our article in WV No. 746 (17 November 2000), “Sellouts, Traitors, Finks: No Choice in TWU Local 100 Elections.” Labor must clean its own house! Cops, courts out of the unions!

Labor needs a leadership based on a program of class struggle and the political independence of the proletariat. This was the type of leadership, composed of Trotskyists and their supporters, that conducted the historic 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes, which helped forge the Teamsters into a powerful industrial union. Summing up the lessons of Minneapolis, Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon said in The History of American Trotskyism (1944):

“The modern labor movement must be politically directed because it is confronted by the government at every turn. Our people were prepared for that since they were political people, inspired by political conceptions. The policy of the class struggle guided our comrades; they couldn’t be deceived and outmaneuvered, as so many strike leaders of that period were, by this mechanism of sabotage and destruction known as the National Labor Board and all its auxiliary setups….

“Our people didn’t believe in anybody or anything but the policy of the class struggle and the ability of the workers to prevail by their mass strength and solidarity. Consequently, they expected from the start that the union would have to fight for its right to exist; that the bosses would not yield any recognition to the union, would not yield any increase of wages or reduction of the scandalous hours without some pressure being brought to bear. Therefore they prepared everything from the point of view of class war. They knew that power, not diplomacy, would decide the issue. Bluffs don’t work in fundamental things, only in incidental ones. In such things as the conflict of class interests one must be prepared to fight.”