The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 76 (Winter 2006).

New York Transit Strike Shows
Working-Class Power

January 11, 2006

On December 20, 34,000 New York City bus and subway workers, members of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, went on strike against the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). They struck in the face of New York State’s “Taylor Law” banning strikes by public sector workers, and of court injunctions threatening fines and jail. Management was demanding that the retirement age for all future workers be raised from 55 to 62. The strikers’ commitment to fight in defense of future workers was an act of inspiring class solidarity. They also wanted to reverse decades of union givebacks and win improvements in their wages, benefits and working conditions.

The power displayed by transit workers was electrifying. A union whose majority is composed of Black and immigrant workers, brought the financial capital of the world to a crawl. They showed it is possible to fight back against the capitalists’ racist and anti-worker attacks. But as is so often the case, the fighting workers were burdened by a pro-capitalist union leadership that first tried to avoid the strike and then sold it out at the first opportunity.

After just three days on strike, with active working-class support growing and big businesses suffering pre-Christmas shopping losses, there was an obvious potential for victory. But Local 100 President Roger Toussaint sent the ranks back to work – without a contract. He agreed to a deal that gave workers less than cost-of-living wage raises, while sticking them with a hefty new paycheck deduction for health benefits and big Taylor Law fines that could have been defeated.

The League for the Revolutionary Party, through its supporters inside and outside the Local and grouped around our bulletin Revolutionary Transit Worker, played a prominent role in building the strike movement. Since the sellout, we have been the most active campaigners in a fight to reject the deal and return the union to battle. As we go to press, the struggle lies in the balance, with voting on the contract to be completed by January 20.

Working-Class Solidarity

The capitalist media, the MTA board, Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Pataki – that is, the ruling class and their flunkies – denounced the strikers as “greedy,” “selfish” and “thuggish.” But they failed to win over the working-class population of New York. Thousands of people shouted or honked encouragement when passing TWU picket lines, expressed solidarity in “person in the street” TV interviews and strongly supported the strikers in the capitalist media’s own polls.

One reason for the popularity was that TWU Local 100 reflects the city’s working class as a whole: it is made up in its majority of workers of color and includes many immigrants. Throughout the strike, the New York gutter press hurled racist stereotypes at the union, demanding that Toussaint be jailed and even thrown off a subway train. That campaign backfired, however, since working people decoded its barely concealed racism and class venom.

On top of that, the strike was a courageous response to the nation-wide, decades-long capitalist assault on working-class living standards, now focused on health care and pension benefits. A union victory would have been a major step in inspiring workers around the country to recognize their class power. Whatever the inconvenience to their own lives (and even to their own income), plenty of workers saw the transit strike as their struggle.

And that is one reason why the strike was brought to an untimely end. In the few days between Toussaint’s return-to-work order and the announcement of the final deal, the bosses also took note of widespread rank-and-file opposition in the Local to Toussaint’s retreat. (See Contract Gains Come From Rank-and-File Opposition, RTW No. 30.) Thus the MTA tried to give Toussaint a face-saving way to end the strike and claim victory: they withdrew a demand for raising the retirement age for new hires, which the union had vociferously opposed – in exchange for first-time, precedent-setting health care cutbacks. They added a dubious pension refund promise based on a side deal, which at best would have the MTA refunding what many transit workers had already earned.

After the contract deal was made public, the media aimed their fire at the MTA for offering any sops at all, echoing Governor Pataki, who threatened to veto the pension deal to boost his run for the Republican presidential nomination. But then they realized that the contract was a great deal for the capitalists, reversed course and threw their support behind the contract. (See Racist Anti-Worker New York Post Backs Toussaint’s Contract in RTW 31.)

Why the Sellout?

Toussaint had done his best to avoid a strike, refusing to mobilize his members or make strike preparations. (When the strike was called, rank-and-file members took the lead in setting up and maintaining picket lines with little help from union officials, who were rarely if ever seen.) Toussaint hoped for a last-minute deal with the MTA, as in the previous contract round in 2002. But the MTA, acting as part of the ruling-class assault team, hoped for a knockout blow or an abject retreat. It was pressure from the ranks that forced Toussaint to reluctantly call a strike, four days after the actual contract expiration date.

Then there were the other city union bureaucrats who had agreed to sellout contracts themselves and feared being shown up by a clear-cut TWU victory. These officials had lavishly promised support before the strike, but predictably they did nothing to support or extend it once it was on. The TWU International head, Michael T. O’Brien, scabbed on the strike by calling on the workers to go back from the start. Toussaint in turn covered up this filthy betrayal by telling the press it was a purely legal maneuver!

The union leaders’ Democratic Party friends, who had praised the TWU before the strike, suddenly went into hiding. New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer, a liberal Democrat who had been elected with union support, promptly lodged Taylor Law complaints against the Local. Toussaint & Co. have made no criticism of Spitzer, the likely Democratic candidate for governor, even though he is trying to bankrupt the union and its members. Other union leaders and Democratic politicians have also been silent.

Toussaint, once known as a leftist, had won the local presidency in 2000 as part of the pseudo-militant New Directions slate. He has since ditched many of his former allies, and runs the union in a top-down fashion. He still at times demagogically invokes genuine union militancy of the 1930’s and the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s. But he has become another traditional union bureaucrat and a loyal supporter of the imperialist, anti-worker Democratic Party. The bureaucrats’ role is to broker between the workers and the capitalist bosses, earning ample privileges in return for keeping the workers’ struggle within bounds. That is the fundamental reason for the sellout, as we have explained in our bulletins to transit workers.

Union Opposition

While the Local’s Executive Board voted overwhelmingly to endorse Toussaint’s deal, there is strong and growing opposition to the contract inside the union. Over a hundred members showed up to a Vote NO Coalition meeting on January 4, including RTW supporters, Transit Workers for a Just Contract (the remnants of New Directions) and even a couple of union vice-presidents. The meeting voted to adopt a motion by RTW to not wait for the voting to start but instead to get union meetings to reject the deal and call for mass membership meetings.

At packed borough meetings in Brooklyn and the Bronx on January 9 and 10, Toussaint was sharply challenged. His arrogance and evasiveness in presenting the contract turned opposition into rage, and at the Bronx meeting, most of the members present stormed out, chanting “Vote No!”

It is not guaranteed that the contract will be rejected, despite mass anger at Toussaint. If it passes, it will be because workers see that Toussaint and his supporters on the board cannot be trusted to carry out the struggle further. They therefore draw the mistaken conclusion that further action must wait for the next election or beyond.

The Way Forward

RTW has distributed thousands of copies of ten issues since the contract struggle began, informing transit workers of the contract details and calling for its rejection. The LRP and RTW are also calling for mass meetings of the union to decide the way forward and for an elected Contract Struggle Committee to lead the fight for a new contract – with a big wage raise, no givebacks and amnesty from all Taylor Law penalties.

This committee should also have the authority to lead a new strike if that becomes necessary. In preparation, RTW spells out that Local 100 should organize demonstrations of tens of thousands of workers, the kind of massive confirmation of class solidarity that Toussaint avoided. And in case of a strike, the sold-out and angry city workers, along with railroad workers also employed by the MTA, should be called on to join the transit struggle. This would cripple the bosses, sending out a signal that workers aren’t going to take it any more. That is the way to fulfill the potential that workers showed in the December strike.

A militant transit strike, spreading to other sectors of the workforce, can beat back the bosses’ attacks and win all its demands. It can also show workers’ power and help raise the question of a general strike of all workers, union and non-union, to mount a class-wide defense and fight for class-wide demands. Among these would be guaranteed jobs at union wages, with decent health care and retirement plans for all.

These demands cannot be gained simply within a union framework: a political fight is needed. The LRP and RTW consistently explain that we are socialist revolutionaries and believe that workers need a revolutionary party. At this juncture, when workers are in motion and there is momentum toward a fightback that could have a huge impact on the class struggle, we look for ways to prove the need for a revolutionary party in practice. Therefore we have raised the call for a new fighting leadership for the union as a united front proposal, a tactic by which revolutionaries can fight side by side with other workers who are not yet convinced of revolutionary conclusions. We hope to prove in the course of struggle that revolution is not only possible but also the only solution.

With our small forces, the LRP has already played a major role in building a fighting opposition in a key union and struggle. We fight both to win the immediate, limited, gains because we know that with even partial victories workers gain self-confidence and class-consciousness. But at the same time we aim to convince our fellow workers that the overall and permanent solutions to all the economic and social attacks require a revolution to overthrow capitalism.