The following article originally appeared in Proletarian Revolution No. 53 (Winter 1997).

Transit Workers Railroaded with Slave-Labor Contract

The slave-labor transit contract is a crude union-busting effort by the New York City Transit Authority (TA) to replace union jobs with workfare. It eliminates 500 union jobs by forcing welfare recipients to do subway cleaning work for their welfare checks. Thus it attacks union members and the poorest layers of the working class simultaneously.

The contract allows TA management to use thousands of WEP workers to “perform cleaning and related functions.” Further, WEP workers are not to work alongside union members but rather are to be kept segregated – in order to avoid “embarrassment” to union and management. Despite claims that a few WEPs will get real jobs – permanent, full-time union positions – the vast majority will be kept out of the union, with the agreement of the TWU leadership.

This openly anti-union and racist agreement exposes the bankruptcy of capitalism. After a period of downsizing through layoffs and attrition, accompanied by propaganda about how the system could run just as well with a less bloated work force, the TA now admits it needs thousands of laborers to keep the trains clean. Under the profit system, thousands of essential jobs go unfilled because the capitalists cannot afford to pay living wages. A system that can only maintain its vital infrastructure by forcing the poorest, most insecure members of the working class to work for starvation wages doesn’t deserve to exist.

Why did the powerful TWU allow it to pass? Essentially because President Willie James and the TA bosses were able to convince enough workers that unless they accepted this deal, the union would be hit with as many as 2,000 layoffs. For several months before the vote, the TA used this threat to intimidate workers into accepting givebacks. In fact, the contract was re-opened more than a year before it expired.

Despite the threats and intimidation from management and their own union leaders, transit workers still nearly voted the contract down. Passed by only 773 votes (8183 to 7410), the margin of victory was the narrowest ever; subway workers actually voted it down. However, the votes from bus drivers, the traditional base of the union leadership, insured the contract’s passage.

Weak Leadership And Opposition

The close vote exposed the weakness of James’ leadership. James negotiated the deal behind the backs of workers. His previous claim that he would never reopen the contract proved to be an outright lie. Particularly pathetic was the effort by James, who is Black and a one-time welfare recipient, to claim the contract was a humanitarian attempt to help workers on welfare. When James saw this wouldn’t sell, he pushed the real message – vote yes or face layoffs.

Unfortunately, James’ threats worked in the end, thanks to a big assist from New Directions (ND), the main opposition in the union. Typically reformist operations like ND adapt to the bureaucratic character of the unions and become conveyor belts into the bureaucracy. ND already holds nine executive board positions and anticipates capturing leadership of the local in the next elections.

New Directions is a reformist caucus influenced by Solidarity, an opportunist left group that claims to stand for socialism. In reality, no one could expect Solidarity to fight for a revolutionary program or party in their transit work or anywhere. They work uncritically in ND, an outfit that has lost any right to call itself militant.

For years ND has proclaimed itself a rank and file opposition that stands for mass mobilizations to defend transit workers. However, the more votes it acquires, the less it emphasizes mass struggle. Thus, while it leafleted against the contract, it made no effort to organize mobilizations against it. Worse, in response to the layoff threat, Tim Schermerhorn, ND’s perennial candidate for union president, told reporters that ND’s line on the contract “might cost some people their jobs.” The idea of accepting layoffs played right into the hands of James, who was running around trying to scare workers into a Yes vote. Schermerhorn’s comment reflected ND’s attempt to separate the contract vote from the need for a mass struggle against layoffs. Workers demoralized by the failure of both James and ND to fight the threat of layoffs were more easily convinced to agree to the contract.

New Directions’ Old Methods

ND organized no rally against the contract, just as it failed to build a mass struggle against layoffs. Apparently ND hopes to avoid any major confrontations with management until after the next elections. This approach, openly stated in meetings of some divisions they lead (Train Operators and Conductors), is to wait for local elections next fall: now, when they have only a minority of local leadership positions, they say “We can’t do much, but when we win a majority, we will see some real change!” A classical bureaucratic outlook – don’t fight, vote! Posts before struggles! Given this strategy, Schermerhorn was only being honest in stating that following ND’s lead could result in layoffs.

A different approach was possible. An LRP supporter raised a motion in a Track Division meeting for a rally against the proposed contract that would seek a turnout from WEP workers, other unions and minority groups. The rally would oppose all slave labor schemes and call for all jobs having full union wages, benefits and protection. The motion passed almost unanimously. As a motivating leaflet explained,

A demonstration by itself can be only a beginning: it can mobilize and build support for further actions. We’ll have to strike against layoffs and union-busting. Rallies, mass meetings, etc., can prepare us and help build our confidence. The best situation for this will be right upon rejecting this contract: the ranks will have momentum and increased confidence to build on.

Getting motions passed in all divisions was not possible, given the way the local is organized and the domination of James’ supporters in certain divisions. But wherever ND had significant representation, including elected posts, raising such a demand made sense. If even a few divisions had initiated a rally opposing the contract, they would have had the authority to call on TWU members, WEP workers and others to participate. (During the 1991-92 contract round, New Directions had held a couple of rallies drawing 2000 people each – before they collapsed rather than organize a strike.)

When asked, the New Directions leadership of the Car Equipment Department refused to take up the motion for a rally, showing its business-as-usual attitude. As well, the Track Division leadership, which is independent although usually allied with ND, never acted to organize the rally its division had voted for.

Revolutionary Answer Needed

New Directions’ weak opposition in this contract fight was predictable, and it will continue even if ND wins the union leadership. It is not that ND wants to accept layoffs or slave wages; but they know as well as we do that a real struggle, once launched, could not be resolved by even a heavy show of union militancy by the TWU. The fact that the transit contract was part of a much broader anti-worker attack by the capitalist class means that a class-wide fight is the only practical alternative to capitulation.

Indeed, the only real answer is revolutionary. That is why, in contrast to New Directions, the method of the LRP and its supporters was to fight for mass action to link the contract struggle to a fight for jobs and against layoffs. As we said in our Transit Bulletin during the contract campaign:

The League for the Revolutionary Party believes that classwide mass action is key to building a defense against the capitalist attacks. We see the struggle to defeat this contract as a crucial battleground for all workers. As revolutionary socialists, we in the LRP see that the only way for the working class to put an end to the increasingly vicious attacks on our working and living conditions is to overthrow the capitalist system that breeds them and build a new society of equality and abundance. There is no fundamental solution to poverty, joblessness, homelessness, racism, sexism and all the other ills of this society short of smashing the capitalist state and replacing it with a workers’ state on the road to socialism.