The following article originally appeared in Proletarian Revolution No. 54 (Spring 1997).

Revolutionary Campaign in New York Transit

March 26, 1997

The upcoming elections in Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 in New York looks to be a hot race. New Directions (ND), the house opposition, is expected to make significant gains.

This should be of particular interest to socialist-minded workers. ND’s Presidential candidate, Tim Schermerhorn, is a supporter of the supposedly socialist Solidarity organization, which has a heavy influence on ND. Yet having started out as a “rank and filist” opposition, ND has increasingly relied on suing the union in the courts and bureaucratic maneuvering, rather than on mobilizing the ranks for action. They have failed to present a fighting alternative to the sellout Willie James leadership. (See PR 53 for background on the recent contract.) This is a direct consequence of ND’s rank-and-filist, i.e. reformist, approach.

ND’s consistent reliance on courts and elections, and its growing disdain for mass action, contributed to the unnecessary contract defeat last year – and has now embroiled them in another suit against the union, related to a rotten pension giveback deal secretly negotiated by the incumbents in 1994. All this has demoralized rather than energized the ranks.

A revolutionary alternative is being put forward. The LRP is supporting the campaign of Eric Josephson for Executive Board Member. In the transit union there exist a small number of subjectively revolutionary workers, people who see the lack of militancy of the U.S. workforce as the main problem in posing socialist goals. As well, there is a larger layer of militant workers who are not currently drawn to revolutionary views. Both of these groupings to one degree or another supports New Directions – because they feel it is better than nothing, not because it represents a real fighting defense for workers.

Eric’s campaign aims to address both layers of workers and actively argue for a fighting alternative. Campaigning as an open revolutionary, Eric will demonstrate that New Directions shies from mass action and the necessary fightback precisely because of its reformist politics.

Eric’s initial campaign statement follows below.

I am running for Executive Board Member from Track Division in the upcoming fall elections. I am a revolutionary socialist. I believe that the only way to end the increasing attacks on workers, especially Blacks and Latinos, in the U.S. and end increasing poverty and misery at home and around the world is to build an international revolutionary party to lead a socialist revolution.

I know that most transit workers today do not consider themselves revolutionaries, but I also know that transit workers need a voice in this election. My candidacy will present that opportunity. I don’t believe that either of the well-known slates – the Sonny Hall/ Willie James grouping on one hand, or the New Directions grouping on the other – represent the needs of transit workers on any of the critical issues. I also don’t believe it is possible to defend transit workers without a strategy for action and working class unity. This strategy must meet our economic needs. It must oppose racism, sexism, anti-immigrant chauvinism, and all the other divide and conquer dictates of the bosses’ system, capitalism. It must stand for working class independence and refuse to support either the Democrats or Republicans, two racist anti-worker capitalist parties.

Lessons of the 1996 Contract: Failure of Leadership

The recent contract debacle was a perfect example of why we need a change. TWU Local 100 President Willie James openly invited TA management to freeze our wages, raid our health fund and even worse – threaten us with 2,000 layoffs if we didn’t approve his racist slave labor deal to force welfare recipients to replace union cleaner positions – the so-called Work Experience Program (WEP), or workfare. WEP workers would get benefits equal to subminimum wages and union members would get a supposed guarantee of no layoffs. All in all, a rotten deal.

None other than the racist anti-worker Mayor Giuliani has stalled implementation of workfare in transit. His beef is that it too nakedly exposes the union-busting connection between the expansion of workfare and the shrinking of union jobs. It harms his ability to impose more workfare across the city. The transit deal showed what workfare is all about, super-exploiting WEP workers in order to destroy the unionized city workforce. While other labor bureaucrats at least pretend to oppose workfare, the TWU is the only union in this city officially on record in support of workfare!

However, the lessons of the 1996 contract go beyond the treachery of James and the hypocrisy of Giuliani. The contract struggle also showed the bankruptcy of New Directions, the nominal opposition in our union. When it came time to lead a real fight for a decent contract, when it came time to propose a serious fight against both workfare and layoffs, ND came up short. They went on record for a “no” vote against the Hall contract but in practice their opposition was weak. They didn’t offer any way to fight management’s threat of layoffs. Instead, in response to the layoff threat, Tim Schermerhorn, ND’s perennial candidate for President, told reporters that ND’s “Vote No” line on the contract “might cost some people their jobs.” In other words, accept layoffs!

Other than this miserable idea, ND had nothing worth saying – or doing during the contract struggle. They didn’t even organize one rally against the contract, which is well within their capacity – especially considering they already lead the train operators and conductors divisions. They said just wait until after the next elections; once ND is elected into more positions, things will change. This is like the old line, “vote for me and I’ll set you free.” Workers’ own actions, not simply elections, will change things for us. ND’s approach lost an important opportunity to mobilize a real fight against the contract.

I campaigned heavily against the contract, proposing an action strategy that included demonstrations and other mobilizations. My motion for a mass rally passed in the Track Division. However, the ND leadership of the Car Equipment Department refused to take up my motion for a rally. As well, the Track Division leadership, which is independent although usually allied with ND, never acted to organize the rally that the members had voted for. (My leaflets and union motions regarding the contract are available upon request.)

My proposals for protest action were based on a perspective of building toward strike action. It’s understandable why transit workers have grown to fear strikes; under the leadership of the treacherous bureaucrats, quite a number of strikes in various unions have been real losers. When the transit union went on strike in 1980, the leaders accepted Taylor Law penalties when the union had the power to defy the Law. All this has left workers with a false sense of weakness. It has tended to bury the fighting spirit of transit workers and the knowledge of our strategic position in the workforce. Transit workers have the power to shut down the whole transit system. Furthermore, united with other workers across the city, we can shut down the whole city. This is not a power that the bosses can ignore.

The TWU is a powerful union which could play a pivotal role in reviving class struggle in this city. In my view, any move toward a strike in transit should aim to kick off a general strike, where the entire class could make a powerful display of unity and avoid the isolation that has led to many local strike defeats. More critically the general strike could begin to wage the political struggle to defend the working class, which goes way beyond the questions of one contract.

What I Stand For

Since we have seen the bankruptcy of the other factions in the division and the whole Local, isn’t it time to give a revolutionary a chance to be heard? My program is based around the essential needs of transit workers and all workers.

Fight Layoffs and Cutbacks with Mass Action!

The recent history of the transit union and its contracts has been almost the same as that of every other union. Facing a constant threat of layoffs and cutbacks our so-called leaders make concession after concession at our expense. This has got to stop once and for all. My policy on these questions is clear: No Layoffs! No Cutbacks! As executive board member, I will fight in opposition to all layoffs and cutbacks in transit and use the board position to mobilize the membership for a mass action fightback against all attacks. Remember, a contract is only a piece of paper that means nothing unless we back it up with action by a mobilized membership.

Jobs for All! Equal Pay for Equal Work!
Union and WEP Workers Unite to Fight Slave Labor!
All Jobs with Full Union Wages, Benefits and Protection!

Throughout the country workers are being threatened with the club of unemployment by the capitalists. When workers protest against lousy pay and lousy conditions, the bosses remind us that there are millions of workers without jobs who would gladly take our positions. One reason there are so few strikes today is that the capitalists are quick to bring in scabs in order to bust the unions. Another union-busting weapon is workfare, which replaces union jobs with slave labor. Given that the imposition of workfare is growing everywhere and will remain a threat to our jobs, I will fight to reverse this trend through a campaign for full employment. The transit union and all unions must stop bowing before the bosses and start fighting for Jobs for All!

In addition, we must be prepared to fight any further attempts to impose slave labor workfare. During the contract struggle, I led a fight that succeeded in passing motions in the Track Division that included Union and WEP Workers Unite to Fight Slave Labor! All Jobs with Full Union Wages, Benefits and Protection! Along with these I propose to add Equal Pay for Equal Work! This means not only opposition to slave labor workfare but a fight against divisive two-tier wage structures. Otherwise union members, Work Experience Program (WEP) workers, and other workers will continue to be pitted against each other for a shrinking number of jobs. Only the bosses can benefit from that.

General Strike Against Capitalist Attacks

In my years of union activity, I have become known not only as a revolutionary, but also as a militant and an advocate of the general strike strategy. In my view, the general strike is a tool of the working class that can begin to address real problems, such as unemployment, which go way beyond the items that come up in the contract. The general strike can provide a real defense against layoffs, cutbacks and unemployment; and by uniting the working class against its real enemy, the ruling class, it can build the fight against the growing racism, sexism and anti-immigrant agenda which is dividing workers in today’s capitalist society.

While today only a few workers are revolutionaries, over time through workers seeing their own power in action, more and more workers will see that we could run society ourselves and do away with capitalism. The revolutionary alternative that I advocate today will become more widespread. More and more workers will join to build the revolutionary party of the working class.

My Record and Perspective

I’ve been a shop steward in the Track Division for over 11 years. I have been an open revolutionary socialist and supporter of the League for the Revolutionary Party. In addition to my fight during the recent contract, I have campaigned against previous sell-out contracts. When then-Local President Sonny Hall tried to force the ‘91 contract down our throats, I joined with thousands who marched and voted against it. Unlike ND, which had no strategy to move the struggle forward, I attempted to convince my fellow workers of the need to fight for a strike to win our demands. ND’s failure to mobilize workers for strike action allowed Hall to push through a contract similar to the one we voted down. Again in ‘94 I fought for rallies to build for a strike. ND made no effort to mobilize the ranks.

While I have fought numerous grievances, I have also worked to expose the grievance and arbitration procedures as stacked against the workers. I have spoken out against safety violations and organized refusals of supervisory orders dangerous to life and limb. When Probationary Trackworker James Frazier almost died from a racist police shooting and was framed for a crime he didn’t commit, I joined with fellow workers to defend him from firing and legal prosecution. I have consistently urged mass action and boycotts against lousy picks: the recent Structure Maintainers’ fight shows that I was right. Despite my political opposition to New Directions and the current Track Division leaders – Toussaint, Rivera, Iglesias, Fredericson and McCarthy – I have consistently defended them against unjust attacks from the top local leadership and their flunkies. I consistently fight management attacks and work to organize resistance throughout the division and the local.

My perspective can be summed up as follows: I am a revolutionary who believes that united action is necessary and also the best way to convince workers of the socialist alternative. If you agree with my perspective for mass action, if you see the need to turn the TWU back into a fighting union that can play a big role in turning back the tide of layoffs, cutbacks, union-busting and racist attacks, you should vote for me as one step in building the alternative that we desperately need.