General Membership Meeting Now!

No Health Fund – No Work! Prepare to Strike!

by Eric Josephson, Vice-Chair Track Division, TWU Local 100

Today’s rally can be an important step in the fight to defend our health benefits and beat back other management attacks. Our mass rally on March 28 won a partial, temporary victory: MTA management backed down from their threat to immediately cut our health benefits. But the MTA continues to refuse to restore their funding of our Health Benefit Trust (HBT). As a result, every passing day sees our HBT get closer to bankruptcy. No-one knows how long it can sustain the current level of pay-outs. Instead of using one big cut against us, the MTA hopes to bleed us to death!

Management continues to insist that they will not restore funding unless the union agrees to job speed-up and co-pays. That is, they are holding the health of the members and their children hostage to their speed-up drive! Further, they are maintaining and even stepping up “plantation justice,” the use of disciplines and drug-screening to intimidate the members. And they are set to go ahead with their plan to eliminate 237 Station Agent jobs as they close token booths. The MTA’s efforts to increase their take on the backs of workers must be met with a massive struggle.

We Have the Power – Let’s Not Waste It!

The rally on March 28 showed our potential power, but what followed showed why it is so important that workers take up the call for a clear program of mass action that can defeat the MTA’s attacks. As the edition of Revolutionary Transit Worker (RTW, No. 2) distributed at the rally warned:

A massive, militant rally ... can be a great step forward in fighting to defend our health benefits. But it’s not likely that one big demonstration will scare NYCT into backing down. It must be the first step that builds toward even more powerful action. Otherwise our efforts will be wasted – management will just sit back and wait for our anger to boil over and then press ahead with their attacks.

So we proposed that the rally be used to raise workers’ sense of power and confidence, and be built on by calling a general membership meeting where workers could debate and vote on the way forward.

Immediately after the rally, under the heading “Leadership Wastes Our Momentum,” the next RTW explained:

Unfortunately, neither Local 100 President Toussaint nor anyone else from New Directions channeled the militant spirit of the ranks into a clear plan for mass action. Toussaint and his leadership team, instead of saying, “We brought out 8,000 workers this time, and we can bring out more next time!“, are allowing the membership’s momentum to dissipate. They should have called a general membership meeting right after the rally, when the members were stoked. There the ranks would have discussed and voted on the way forward.

Later, at the Joint Executive Board meeting of May 19, Pres. Toussaint admitted that he’d failed to follow-up on the March 28 rally. However he still hasn’t put forward a clear strategy for defeating the MTA’s attacks, and he still isn’t planning to call a general membership meeting before September.

OK, Give Roger a Chance – But Will He Deliver?

Most militant workers who want to see a massive fightback defeat the MTA’s attacks still want to give the Toussaint leadership a chance to prove itself and lead the struggle. While we believe the Toussaint leadership won’t deliver, we will join with our fellow workers in giving them that chance. But that means we all must push for the greatest membership involvement in the struggle, and for a clear program of action that can defeat the attacks.

Given what happened after the last rally, we shouldn’t allow the union leadership to simply call a demonstration and put forward no plan for mass action to win the fight. We must show the bosses that transit workers are ready to take whatever actions are necessary to beat back their attacks.

Pres. Toussaint is promising to “Give Management A Long Hot Summer.” The official announcement for today’s rally says it will be “just part of a larger campaign of sustained action.” Exactly what this means remains vague, but it apparently involves “pressure on the job, in the streets, with the politicians, the press, the public,” and “using our new stewards to carry our fight into every nook and cranny of the system.” RTW has previously said that “increas[ed] union presence on job sites to enforce job safety,” and media exposure of “the MTA’s grossly unsafe and negligent practices ... could and should be part of an explicit campaign to build workers’ mass actions.”

But with the MTA moving ahead with its attacks, clearly more is needed. They’ve upped the ante, and we must as well. We said at the March 28 rally, and we say again now, that we have to prepare to strike if the MTA allows the HBT to go bankrupt and goes forward with its other attacks.

No Health Fund – No Work! Prepare to Strike!

The slogan No Health Fund – No Work! Prepare to Strike! is proving popular among militant workers who understand the need to fight fire with fire. Supporters of RTW made hundreds of placards with the slogan for the March 28 rally, and they were snapped up in minutes. The front page of the April edition of Local 100 Express showed a big photo of the rally with a worker holding the placard up high next to the Local’s placards which also called for our health benefits to be saved, but typically put forward no way to win them.

Of course, we can’t jump right into a strike. Many members are already convinced it’s necessary, others aren’t yet as sure. They have to be convinced of the need to strike, and preparations for a strike must be made to raise workers’ confidence. A strike isn’t a guaranteed necessity. Given our power, just the threat of such a massive shutdown could scare the bosses into a retreat. But showing weakness only invites attacks rather than avoiding them — not being prepared to strike tells the bosses they’ve got little to fear from us, and encourages them to attack us more and more.

The fact that hundreds of workers have volunteered to become shop stewards means a new layer of worker leaders can play a role in organizing to prepare a strike. Shop stewards should be elected (and not appointed by the leadership as they are right now in Local 100) so that they are held accountable to the members and not the higher ups. But the new shop stewards should nonetheless take it on themselves to play a leading role in the struggle, and the rank-and-file should accept nothing less.

Of course we do face the Taylor Law that bans strikes by public sector workers, and we saw how Giuliani used it against us in 1999. But Giuliani’s desperate mobilization of his cops and courts showed how terrified the bosses and politicians are of a transit strike. By shutting down the city and bringing profit-making to a halt, a transit strike would have the power to smash the Taylor Law and win our demands.

The key to smashing the Taylor Law is winning popular support for a strike, and the MTA’s attacks make that easy. Workers everywhere are angry about the horrible state of health care. A strike against attempts to further attack workers’ health care would have the sympathy of workers everywhere. The fact that the MTA’s closing down of token booths would make travel more dangerous would only reinforce that public support. Moreover, Giuliani, who was at the height of his dictatorial powers when he attacked our 1999 strike movement, is now a limp laughing-stock. We can give the bastard the send-off he deserves.

General Membership Meeting Now!

Many among us remember the thousands-strong general membership meeting of December 14, 1999 which voted unanimously for this author’s motion to strike. Many of us remember the feeling of power we had and the terror we struck into the MTA, the mayor, and the capitalist class in general. Many of us are spoiling for another such show of workers’ democracy and power. Key to that meeting’s success in giving voice to workers’ fighting spirit was that it closely followed big rallies. That’s what should happen this time.

But a careful search through Local 100 Express (June 2001), reveals a modest announcement (p. 12, lower right-hand corner) of a membership assembly on September 29, over 3 months after today’s rally! After the March 28 rally, some workers took forward our call for a general membership meeting and raised motions for one in their divisions, only to be told that Pres. Toussaint would hold one in May. The motions were defeated, but then Toussaint didn’t follow through on his promise. There’s a real danger that the same thing will happen again. So we encourage all workers who see the need to build on today’s rally by calling a general membership meeting to:

  1. Raise motions for a general membership meeting in division meetings; win other workers’ support and don’t back down.
  2. The new shop stewards should fight for a general membership meeting and convince other stewards to do the same. Rank-and-file workers should urge their stewards to do this.
  3. Tell your Executive Board rep’s to move and support a motion for a general membership meeting as soon as possible.

Private Lines Workers Stew, Local 100 Leaders Lobby

More reasons for why we should prepare to strike can be found in the situation faced by Private Lines workers. In February, workers for Liberty Lines (within Westchester County) and Liberty Lines Express (between Westchester and NYC) buses went on strike for a day. The brief strike won the Liberty Lines workers significant wage and benefit hikes.

But their victory was not built on by the Local 100 leadership. Liberty Express workers settled for management’s lousy previous offer, later to change to whatever the rest of the Private Lines workers get. The other Private Lines, mostly in Queens and Brooklyn, however, have shown no signs of settling, and the workers are waiting, with increasing frustration.

This contract fight is now stalled because the TWU is lobbying City Council members to pass ordinances guaranteeing contractual job, wage, seniority and benefit security to employees for the duration of the contract if the Private Lines sell their franchises to other capitalists. According to Pres. Toussaint, because the politicians that are being lobbied are currently running for office, the union has to treat them very delicately and can’t afford to anger them (stated at the Joint Executive Board meeting, May 19) .

RTW supports the legislation in question. But we will never win it by treating the politicians, Democrat or Republican, with kid gloves. The politicians represent the capitalists, not the workers. As we explain in the article on the back page, while the Democratic Party’s mayoral candidates attended our last rally, at Pres. Toussaint’s invitation, to lobby for our votes, they all soon after came out against our right to strike. And as Local 100 Express‘s coverage of the Local’s mayoral candidates’ forum reports, all these candidates’ support WEP slave labor (June, p. 15). These politicians, bought and paid for by Wall Street, will give us nothing out of their supposed love for working people. They’ll make concessions only when we make it clear that they can’t afford to anger us!

As with the issue of the health fund, Toussaint and the leadership appear to be again pulling their punches and not preparing the union for an all-out fight. To win job security ordinances from the City Council, and wage and benefit gains from the Private Lines bosses, the Toussaint leadership should prepare the whole Local for a massive strike. They should prepare the Private Lines workers to go out – they have the legal right to strike! – and stay out till they win their demands. They should prepare and mobilize the MTA employees in the Local to join Private Lines pickets and refuse overtime set up to cover struck bus routes. One week of such serious preparation would get more concessions out of the capitalist bosses and politicians than over three months of stroking them has.

When the Liberty Lines workers struck, they weren’t just willing, but in fact eager to go out. They relished the chance to stand up to the bosses. Many of the other Private Lines workers still feel the same way. If they lose that spirit and become demoralized, the Toussaint leadership and its attachment to the capitalist politicians will deserve all the blame.

The Question of Leadership

As we hope we have made clear, the supporters of Revolutionary Transit Worker want to work with all militant workers, and, indeed, with the Toussaint leadership, to organize a successful struggle against the attacks. We will join with our fellow workers in giving the Toussaint leadership a chance to prove itself and lead the struggle.

But we believe that because workers’ interests are absolutely opposed to those of the capitalists and their politicians, the only leadership that can be relied on to not compromise and sell out our struggles is one that is committed to the overthrow of capitalism – a revolutionary socialist leadership. The Toussaint leadership is hardly committed to such ideas. While Roger used to think he believed in socialism, he seems to have given up on that a long time ago, and with many of the other members of his leadership team, he is committed to working within the system’s shrinking limits.

That’s why we have explained that we don’t think workers can afford to place their faith in the Toussaint leadership’s ability to lead our struggles to victory. We believe that the Toussaint leadership’s first six months in office have confirmed our warnings. From their time-wasting in the struggle to defend the HBT and their failure to build on the Liberty Lines strike which has left Private Lines workers hanging, to their playing games with Democratic Party politicians only to be predictably stabbed in the back, the Toussaint leadership has avoided mobilizing the real power we have – the power to shut down transit to win our demands.

We want to work together with militant workers who agree with our program for preparing to strike in defense of our health benefits but who still hope the Toussaint leadership will live up to the task. By working together, we will best serve transit workers’ interests, and will not allow the Toussaint leadership any excuse for not leading a mass struggle to defeat the bosses’ attacks. In the course of this united struggle, we are confident many workers will come to agree with our vision of the need for a struggle against capitalism, and for a new leadership for our Local and for the working class as a whole, one that’s prepared to take the struggle all the way. If you agree with our program of militant mass action, contact us and share your thoughts. Many transit workers already have. Together, we can make sure the days of givebacks and declining living standards are things of the past.