NY Public Workers Under Attack

— Steve Downs

Enough Blame to Go Around
The Labor Pains of New York City’s Public Employee Unions
By Richard Steier
SUNY Press, 2014, 301 pages, $24.95 paperback.

IMAGINE A NEWSPAPER that reported from a pro-union, pro-public sector, point of view. New Yorkers don’t have to imagine it; we have it.

The Chief-Leader is a weekly paper that covers the public sector, public employees and their unions. It carries information on filing for Civil Service tests, ads from Workers’ Comp lawyers, and articles about pensions and Social Security. It reports on union elections, contract talks and state and local politics.

It also has a Letters to the Editor page that prints virtually every letter the paper receives. Although some of the letters are cranky, this page provides a valuable outlet for complaints and comments about City and State agencies, as well as a window into the internal workings of the unions in the public sector. At least one local union president has tried to get The Chief to stop printing letters from his critics.

A must-read feature of the paper is the column “Razzle Dazzle” by its editor, Richard Steier, where he comments on the policies of New York City’s mayor and NY State’s governor. He goes behind the scenes at state and city agencies to praise or condemn how they are serving the public. And he shines an intense spotlight on the job the unions are doing representing their members.

Some of the columns focusing on the unions, written between 1998 and 2009, have been collected into Enough Blame to Go Around.

Steier’s starting point is clear: he supports the public sector, the workers who work in it, and the unions who represent them. He also thinks that state and local elected officials, and union leaderships, could be doing their jobs better. He sees plenty of blame to go around when looking at why they are not. But he also continues to hope things will improve.

The book provides a crash course into New York public sector labor relations. Readers will learn a surprising amount about pension legislation – for those of us in the public sector, Steier’s explanation of the Variable Supplement Fund alone is worth the book’s price — and the 30-plus years’ erosion of union power in the city.

The columns are organized into five sections. The first deals with life under Mayor Giuliani, with a close look at the United Federation of Teachers. The second focuses on corruption in the labor movement. The third contains a series of columns about the police unions. The fourth traces the demise of DC 37, the huge AFSCME local that came near collapse because of financial corruption, stolen contract votes and a too cozy relationship with the mayor. The fifth looks at my union, Transport Workers Union Local 100, and the rise and fall of its one-time militant president Roger Toussaint.

The older columns can be surprisingly topical. It was truly depressing to be reminded of the death of Anthony Baez, who died in December 1994 after being assaulted by Police Officer Frank Livoti when Baez’s football bounced off Livoti’s police car. Baez died because Livoti used a “banned” chokehold — 20 years before Eric Garner was killed after being placed in a similar chokehold.

DC 37 is still feeling the effects of the corruption, the trusteeship that followed, and the failure of the trustee to make it possible for members to directly elect DC 37’s leadership. And the TWU is still rebuilding from the loss of dues check-off and the demoralization that came in the wake of the failed strike in December 2005. (See, for example, an interview with Steve Downs following the strike: https://solidarity-us.org/node/641 — ed.)

Why Democracy Matters

A thread that runs through many of the columns is the importance of democracy if state and local governments — and unions — are to do their jobs well.

This is clearest in the columns about DC 37. In Steier’s opinion, the very structure of DC 37, whose Executive Director is chosen by the Executive Board rather than by the members, provided fertile ground for personal and institutional corruption.

Given that votes on the Executive Board are weighted by the size of the Local, just two or three Local presidents make the decision about who the Executive Director will be. That power shielded those presidents from effective control by the Executive Director who depended on their votes. And it was in their Locals that the rot in DC 37 bloomed.

The columns on TWU 100 highlight another facet of democracy — and what can happen when it’s missing.

Roger Toussaint won office at the head of a reform slate in 2000 (I was part of that slate). It was a big win for members who wanted a more democratic and militant union. But by the time of the 2005 strike, the promise and potential of that initial win had been lost because Toussaint had been unwilling (or unable) to listen to people, even among his own team, who disagreed with him.

Steier shines a light on that aspect of the Toussaint presidency and makes it clear that a willingness to consider the opinions of others, especially the criticisms of supporters, is a necessary part of a democratic organization. By 2006, after leading a citywide strike by bus and subway workers, the man who was elected on the promise of democracy and militancy was maneuvering to hang onto a job.

The members narrowly rejected the contract that was presented to them after the strike. True to form, Toussaint said we didn’t understand the contract and had us vote on it again. This time, it passed. (However, the Transit Authority and the governor refused to accept the outcome of the second vote and forced the contract into arbitration.) A year after the strike, Toussaint was re-elected with just 45% of the vote, winning only because four candidates ran against him and split the opposition vote.

In NY State, it is illegal for public employees to strike. The December, 2005 strike resulted in TWU 100 being fined $2.5 million; each member who struck lost two days’ pay for each day of the strike; Toussaint was cited for contempt for violating an injunction against the strike and was jailed for four days. Then in 2007, the Local lost dues check-off as a further penalty (it was restored in November, 2008, after Toussaint signed a statement acknowledging that transit workers do not have the right to strike).

Half the members of the Local did not maintain themselves in good standing. Toussaint used brief lapses in payments as an excuse to purge low-level officers in the union who were critical of him. He left the Local for a job at the International in 2008, and his hand-picked successor lost the election in 2009 to John Samuelsen and his slate (I was part of that slate).

The Problem of Arbitration

There is a gap in Steier’s commitment to democracy in unions, however. Since it is illegal for public sector workers to strike, binding arbitration is provided to settle contracts if the parties cannot reach an agreement. Steier is a proponent of binding arbitration. He argues that Toussaint should have gone to arbitration, rather than striking, in 2005.

But arbitration is not a democratic process. It takes the ability to decide their future away from union members and places it in the hands of arbitrators.

As mentioned above, the contract that had been rejected by the members in early 2006 ended up in arbitration. The arbitrator imposed the terms the members had voted down. The terms of that arbitrator’s award were set to expire in early 2009. The union and management agreed to go to arbitration months before that expiration.

In 2012, TWU 100 President Samuelsen made a pledge that the members would have the chance to vote on the terms they would be working under.

It took working, organizing, fighting and bargaining for more than two years past the contract expiration to do it, but Samuelsen settled an agreement that he brought back to the members — who overwhelmingly approved it.

During those two years, the MTA had threatened to seek arbitration and Steier opined that the union should accept it, that we would make out OK in the process.

But after two contracts that had been settled by an arbitrator, this time the leadership of TWU 100 was determined that the members should have the last word.

It’s said that “journalism is the first draft of history.” Those who write the second and third drafts of the history of public sector unions in NYC will surely use Enough Blame to Go Around as a key resource.
Union members and officers will be using this important book to better understand how we got into the situation we’re in, and the very high price we pay when democracy is stifled in our unions.

September-October 2015, ATC 178