Workers Vanguard No. 944

9 October 2009


Bosses’ Rules: A Losing Game

MTA Moves to Scrap Arbitration Ruling, Transit Workers Seethe

Break with the Democrats! For a Fighting Workers Party!

New York City

The following article was issued as a leaflet by the New York Spartacist League on September 28. It was distributed at a mass rally of transit workers the following day.

On September 8, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) filed papers in New York Supreme Court to scrap a contract imposed by an arbitration board a few weeks earlier on some 35,000 members of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100. According to the MTA bosses, billionaire mayor Mike Bloomberg and the capitalist gutter press, transit workers don’t deserve the paltry wage hikes and minuscule reduction in health care costs included in the pact. With this 2009-2012 contract and their livelihoods in limbo, transit workers are seething, angry not only with the greedy MTA brass and the arrogant mayor but also with their own union misleaders. Since the transit workers’ powerful December 2005 strike, which was cut short and sold out, this is the second contract imposed through arbitration under the machinery of New York’s slave-labor Taylor Law. The lessons are clear: arbitration is a trap and playing by the bosses’ rules is a losing game.

The MTA and Bloomberg’s latest attack on TWU Local 100 is further “payback” for the 2005 strike. But it’s also part of a broader bipartisan assault on the living standards of the entire working class, from the Obama administration’s “bailout” of the Big Three automakers that gutted United Auto Workers jobs and contracts to anti-union cutbacks imposed by state governments. This offensive is being carried out to make working people pay for Wall Street’s sinking portfolios and capitalism’s deep economic crisis.

The new arbitration deal is hardly the “great train robbery” decried by the bosses, but neither is it the “good contract for tough times” as claimed by the Local 100 bureaucracy led by President Roger Toussaint. The contract is supposed to cap the 1.5 percent “health care tax”—the most hated concession agreed to by Toussaint during the 2005 transit strike—at 1.5 percent on a 40-hour workweek. It also calls for an 11 percent wage hike over three years (an amount that the arbitration panel chairman determined that the MTA can easily afford).

But workers are incensed that these wage increases would begin in April instead of January when the contract expired and are staggered in a way that saves the MTA tens of millions of dollars. What’s more, the MTA court challenge could delay the wage increase for up to a year, amounting to a wage freeze. The deal also creates a poorly paid “handyman” job title, Station Maintainer Helper, that attacks hard-won work and safety rules (“broadbanding”) and threatens the jobs of skilled trades workers. On the plus side, if the pact is ever implemented, several thousand “MTA Bus” division workers are supposed to finally get a near-parity contract with the rest of the bus and subway workforce. These former private bus line workers have been working without a contract since before the 2005 strike (!) and still have substandard pension benefits. There should be equal pay for equal work!

Even before the arbitration ruling was announced, it provoked howls of outrage from City Hall and elsewhere. In a 24 July op-ed piece in the Daily News, former MTA chief Peter Kalikow attacked the 1.5 percent cap on health care contributions and claimed that transit workers enjoy the “kinds of lavish benefits that caused General Motors and Chrysler to go bankrupt”! This is pretty rich, coming from a multimillionaire real estate baron who owns a fleet of sports cars, but it speaks volumes about the greedy, corrupt and racist ruling class that is going after TWU Local 100 yet again. In the same piece, Kalikow all but admits that he provoked the December 2005 strike by demanding a union-busting new pension tier that would have foisted a 6 percent pay deduction on new hires. In response to that MTA provocation (and many others), subway and bus workers walked off the job and gave the transit bosses a taste of union power.

But since that time, the Local 100 misleaders have played by all the bosses’ rules, demonstrating allegiance to the MTA, the Taylor Law and the capitalist Democratic Party at every turn. Toussaint even backed Democratic state attorney general Eliot Spitzer for governor in 2006 after Spitzer had put him in jail! In response to the MTA’s latest move, Toussaint & Co. issued a flyer titled “MTA Tries to Weasel Out—Get Ready to Rock ’n’ Roll” (August 27) that makes one obvious point: “It seems that arbitration is ‘binding’—but only when it goes against us, and not ‘binding’ if it doesn’t go their way.”

Long a weapon in the bosses’ anti-union arsenal, binding arbitration is designed to short-circuit workers struggle, stop strikes and leave union members with no say in the final contract. Arbitration is a trap that puts the fate of union members in the hands of a supposedly “neutral” board that is in reality stacked on the side of the capitalist class. The interests of the capitalist class and the working class are irreconcilably counterposed, but the pro-capitalist trade-union bureaucracy embraces arbitration to keep the lid on workers struggles, like the kind that built the unions in the first place and won genuine gains for our class. The labor traitors push illusions that the Taylor Law can be used against the bosses and that the capitalist state can be neutral, when in fact it is the main instrument for maintaining capitalist wage slavery. That’s why the TWU tops and the rest of New York’s labor officialdom talk only about “reform” of the Taylor Law through pathetic lobbying efforts in Albany.

TWU Local 100 and MTA negotiators jointly agreed to arbitration even before the last contract expired on 15 January 2009. Shortly before that, Toussaint and the Local 100 Executive Board signed a no-strike pledge that was the quid pro quo for the restoration of the union’s dues checkoff, which had been revoked following the strike (see “TWU Local 100 Tops Sign No-Strike Pledge,” WV No. 926, 5 December 2008). In fact, the arbitrator’s decision comes in the context of numerous sellouts by the TWU tops, not least their refusal to wage any serious struggle against the recent fare hike or the MTA’s longstanding plan to ax 600 station agent jobs.

Now that the deal is threatened, the Toussaint bureaucracy has correctly warned that “every single worker in New York City subject to the Taylor Law should pay heed.” If the city rulers get away with putting the squeeze on Local 100, it will be open season on the rest of NYC labor. But the TWU misleaders’ idea of “fight back by any means necessary” is to file legal papers defending the anti-labor Taylor Law and the system of arbitration that keeps union power in check. This is an example of their class collaboration, which subordinates workers to the capitalist class enemy.

The Local 100 tops are trying to focus workers’ ire at Mayor Bloomberg while covering for the Democrats. Toussaint & Co., bowing to pressure from an angry membership, have called for a mass union rally at MTA headquarters on September 29 and for a “day of outrage” at work locations in October. But at the same time the bureaucrats are attempting to channel this anger into boosting the electoral fortunes of city Democratic Party politicians, including mayoral candidate Bill Thompson. Some Dems talk a “labor friendly” line around election time, but they all support the Taylor Law and serve the Wall Street rulers with the same “due diligence” as the Republicans. The upcoming union rallies, like many before, will be built to boost Democratic Party politicians. Labor must break with the Democrats and all other capitalist parties.

Every wing of the current TWU Local 100 bureaucracy shares this program of reliance on the political representatives and agencies of the class enemy, including the “Take Back Our Union” (TBOU) and “United for Change” slates headed by John Samuelsen and J.P. Patafio respectively. Both of these former close allies of Toussaint ran in the recent union elections (for which votes will not be counted until December) against the in-bureaucrats loyal to outgoing president Toussaint. TBOU issued a leaflet titled “The Union’s Arbitration Fight Back Strategy is Missing a Key Component”—which turns out to be pressuring the governor and not letting him “off the hook.” The way forward is to mobilize labor’s power, not begging capitalist politicians for “support.” Following the practice of New Directions, these out-bureaucrats see nothing wrong with launching anti-union court suits, which put the union under the thumb of the capitalist state.

One left-talking grouplet, Revolutionary Transit Worker (RTW), supported by the League for the Revolutionary Party, sometimes attempts to distance itself from the pro-Democratic Party pack. In a September 2 leaflet, the RTW criticizes those who “mostly share Toussaint’s affection for the Democratic Party of workers’ enemies.” But when it counts, RTW buries its paper opposition to the Democrats, as it did in an April 17 election campaign leaflet for the TWU International Convention. In their candidates’ “immediate demands” and proposals there was not a word against the Democrats. The RTW’s real program is to cover for and try to push the pro-capitalist union bureaucracy into more militant action. Echoing Toussaint, for whom they hustled votes in 1999, the RTW titles their latest leaflet “Defend Our Wage Increase!” which inflates the sorry “award” and reinforces illusions in arbitration. It concludes by beseeching, “Keep the pressure on, force the Toussaint crew forward—or out!” Such fake socialists are obstacles to raising workers consciousness and forging a class-struggle leadership of the unions.

It is an indictment of the current TWU leadership that many transit workers—after proving their militancy and desire for struggle during the December 2005 strike—have drawn the wrong lessons from that strike and its aftermath. Left hanging by the sellout TWU and AFL-CIO tops, many embittered workers falsely equate the union with the sellout pro-capitalist bureaucracy. A class-struggle leadership would educate and mobilize transit workers and the rest of NYC labor on a totally different program. For example, the TWU should resurrect its historic call for free mass transit, cutting against the bosses’ campaigns to pit workers against the riding public. The unions should fight for free, quality medical care for all; for full citizenship rights for immigrants; and against racist cop terror in the ghettos and barrios. The Taylor Law can be defeated, but that requires joint labor action with the other key city unions, such as teachers, sanitation and hospital workers unions. At a real TWU mass meeting—not just a pep rally for the bureaucracy—transit workers would be able to speak, debate and decide on a strategy to stop the MTA’s union-busting attacks.

The struggle to forge a class-struggle leadership in the unions goes hand in hand with building a multiracial workers party that fights for a workers government. As long as capitalism exists, the working class and all the oppressed can only hope to survive from one economic crisis, one bloody war, one racist clampdown to the next. The Spartacist League is dedicated to building a revolutionary workers party that can lead us out of this morass and toward a socialist future for all mankind.