Memoirs of An Underground Woman

— Rachel White

UNDERGROUND WOMAN. My Four Years as a New York City Subway Conductor
by Marian Swerdlow
Temple University Press, 1998; $18.95 paper

MARIAN SWERDLOW’S UNDERGROUND Woman is a smart, snappy book, part general description of everyday worklife on the NYC subways during the years 1982–1986 and part personal memoir. Quick and amusing dialogue propels it along, and the frequent railroad terms create a vivid sense of real life in her account of time on the job.

And what an exhausting job! Swerdlow relates the difficulties of keeping trains operating despite serious mechanical problems – doors that won’t open or stay shut, inadequate or no heating or cooling, failing motors and brakes, dirty and decrepit tracks covered with rubbish that would frequently smolder and ignite.

Because of breakdowns and delays, work hours were unpredictably long, leading some drivers to fall asleep on their feet. During her time as a conductor, more than a few lives were lost to accidents caused by faulty trains, signals and switches, disintegrating catwalks and management’s general lack of concern for workers’ safety.

An addition problem was the stress caused by the thousands of riders on the trains, from annoying comments that blame every delay on the only visible employee (the conductor) and “lady drivers,” to the occasional mayhem – the Goetz shootings occurred during Swerdlow’s tenure – of New York at night.

As anyone who works with the general public knows, people will take their frustration out on you.

One of the conductor’s several duties is to “observe the platform” by sticking her head through a porthole while the train is pulling out and looking to make sure no one is caught in the doors. This practice provided an ideal target for riders who were angry about missing the train, and was the occasion for many minor humiliations. Swerdlow tells of being hit, spit on, having her glasses broken and some frightening near misses.

Bureaucracy and Oppression

In the mid-1980s, Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) representing New York City bus and subway workers had become one more layer in an oppressive bureaucracy that prevented crews from exercising control over their working conditions.

For years the union oversaw job cuts and contract concessions from the imperial New York Transit Authority (TA), whose slashed budgets provided an excuse to discontinue routine maintenance on tracks and equipment.

Union officers were bureaucratic buck-passers who helped frustrate grievances over declining wages and dangerous surroundings by belittling and attacking those who took the time to go to union meetings and by abandoning workers who stood up for themselves to the TA’s arbitrary discipline. TWU officers even used the union’s bulletin boards for management memos!

Swerdlow became a subway conductor because she recognized that it was a critical industry – striking transit workers had paralyzed the city in 1966 and 1980 – one that could forcefully demonstrate working-class power. She immediately took on the task of being a steward for her division, only to find the union couldn’t offer her any training, advice or support, or even a copy of the contract.

She actively collected grievances and organized her coworkers around issues like the long and unpredictable hours, chaotic schedule changes, the lack of lunch and lavatory breaks and the fact that there were no restrooms for women employees.

While they were usually not able to win improvements in these conditions, rank-and-file workers were able to transform union meetings from being officers’ schmooze sessions to forums where members could be heard.

New Directions

With a handful of like-minded co-workers, Swerdlow participated in starting the newsletter Hell on Wheels to share information where there previously was no system of communication, and helped to piece together a slate of opposition candidates that would eventually become New Directions.

Promoting a vision for an active membership and militant union, New Directions is the name of the reform caucus in NYC’s 20,000-member union of bus and subway workers that came heartbreakingly close this past May to taking control of one of the most important unions in the largest city in the country. New Directions’ top candidates lost by only a few hundred votes, and the group actually won a majority of lower-level seats directly elected by the membership.

The transit workers’ contract expires this year, and the old guard is almost surely incapable of negotiating an agreement without more concessions – while the Transit Authority has surpluses running into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Swerdlow ultimately resigned from transit, but her efforts played their part in laying the groundwork for democratic reforms. As a record of her time there, Underground Woman is more than a window into another person’s life and work experience; younger activists will benefit from seeing that efforts to reform passive unions into democratic and militant structures, despite the initially partial and frustrating results, will eventually pay off.

The struggle has to start somewhere, and Swerdlow’s book offers encouragement when it seems like your work is not making a difference.

There are other sources for getting a clear picture of the ups and downs of rank-and-file reform movements in New York City’s transit unions, such as the recent articles in this magazine by Steve Downs (Stuck Between Old and New Tracks, ATC 76) and Marian Swerdlow (Transit Workers Try a New Direction, ATC 74), or other articles Swerdlow has written.

What is so interesting and useful about Underground Woman is the way it resembles a long and frank conversation with Marian Swerdlow, as if she were to sit down with you one-on-one and answer the question, “But Marian, what’s it really like working a rank-and-file job?”

The result is a highly personal account of the situation, one that is firsthand and forthright about what it’s like, intellectually and emotionally, to be an activist in a blue-collar, industrial job.

I very much enjoyed reading this memoir, which reminded me of my experience as a salesclerk in a department store where I was stationed on the first floor right below the escalators, under a scattered shower of items thrown over the rail. Like the subway workers, I wished for a powerful and responsive union that could improve my and my coworkers’ job situation.

There seem to be plenty of memoirs these days about the exploits of famous people, but a serious shortage of work documenting the everyday life of the vast majority of us who toil for a paycheck. Recording, comparing and reflecting on the pressures of the daily grind affirms the worth of the lives of people who enable our cities to function.

Swerdlow lists other books in her introduction that attempt a similar project, such as Night Shift in a Pickle Factory and Longshoring on the San Francisco Waterfront, which were written at the beginning of the century but have only been published during the last twenty years. I would very much like to see a revival of this kind of documentation.

ATC 79, March–April 1999