The New York Transit
Contract Struggle

— an interview with Steve Downs

A LONGTIME MEMBER of the New Directions (ND) caucus in Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, and currently a supporter of the Rank and File Advocate newspaper produced by concerned members of ND, New York subway train operator Steve Downs was interviewed for Against the Current by Samuel Farber. This interview was completed shortly after the ratification of the new bus and subway union contract.

Against the Current: How well prepared was TWU Local 100 (New York subway and bus local) for the possibility of a strike on December 15, 2002 (the day the contract expired)? Were the members prepared for a strike? Did the local leadership make a serious effort to obtain public support?

Steve Downs: I think it’s important to distinguish between the readiness or willingness of the membership to strike and the preparations made by the union’s leadership. Despite the fact that a strike would be illegal and that individual strikers would be fined (the union would also be fined and would lose dues check-off), over 8,000 members voted on December 7 to authorize the Executive Board to call a strike.

While readiness for a strike was uneven among the membership, certain key groups of workers, such as the subway operating crews, were strongly in support of striking if that became necessary.

The Local, on the other hand, was poorly prepared for a strike. There was no infrastructure in place to run a strike. Probably the most important reason for this is that, for most of 2002, the Local followed a strategy that steered it away from preparing for a strike.

New York had its election for governor in November 2002. Our contract was scheduled to expire on December 15. TWU Local 100 President Roger Toussaint’s strategy, in his words, was to “make our contract an issue in the governor’s election.”

In essence, he hoped to sell our Local’s support to Governor George Pataki in exchange for money from the state to make an early contract settlement possible. When this approach was first raised, Rank and File Advocate said “we’d better have a Plan B” because Toussaint’s approach is not going to work.

The emphasis on winning the governor’s favor led Toussaint to discourage actions by members that might disrupt bus or subway service.

In late October, when it became clear to everyone that Pataki was not interested in buying our support, the Local endorsed his opponent and began scrambling to make a credible strike threat.

The Local leadership made more of an effort to build public support than it did to organize for a strike. Early on, they concluded that public support would be critical in our contract fight. They put a lot of resources into building coalitions to keep token booths open, oppose service cuts, and stop a fare hike in an effort to build alliances with community groups around common concerns.

During the months immediately prior to the contract expiration, tens of thousands of flyers were handed out to the public in an effort to build support for the union and generate pressure on Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg to settle with the union.

ATC: What significant gains were obtained in the proposed contract? What are its principal limitations? Why did you and other members of the executive board argue for rejection?

S.D.: Substantial improvements were made in the contract’s disciplinary and sick leave policies. In the past, there were some 16,000 disciplinary write-ups every year. That’s one write-up for every two workers – an extraordinarily high rate.

If they chose to appeal, members had to attend hearings on their own time. When we were out sick, we had to keep the Transit Authority (TA) informed of our whereabouts and were subject to an investigator checking up on us. This was a degrading requirement.

Under the new contract, most members will not have to notify the TA where they are when they are out sick. And the disciplinary process has been revamped so that more cases will be done on the employer’s time and at the work location, rather than by hearing officers from Labor Relations. The expectation is that the sheer number of cases will fall significantly and that resolving them will be easier.

The Local also preserved members’ health benefits, which were in danger because the previous contract had not provided sufficient funds to maintain them. And full coverage will be extended to part-time workers and domestic partners.

In addition, funding was won for a prescription plan for retirees and for a pilot child care program. Language was also won that should protect our members from having to work in conditions that are unsafe. This became especially important when two workers were killed in late November while working on the tracks.

Given all that good stuff, why did some of us call for the contract to be rejected?

First, there is a wage freeze in the first year of the contract. This is offset by a $1,000 one-time payment. We have long opposed substituting lump-sum payments for raises and, even with the supposed deficits the TA is running, we don’t think it is acceptable.

(Many members don’t buy the TA’s talk of a deficit. They don’t see how several years of surpluses could suddenly turn into a deficit of over $1 billion. They also remember how the TA claimed a $350+ million deficit in 1996 and got the union to reopen the contract by threatening layoffs. Less than two weeks later, it was announced that the TA really had a surplus of $256 million.)

Interestingly, a report by the Independent Budget Office released one month after our contract expired points out that the projected $1.085 billion deficit forecast for 2003 is really only $236 million.

Second, the union gave up its “no layoff clause.” The history of this clause is complicated and how much protection it provided is in dispute, but when layoffs are taking place at big private companies and city agencies, we believe that the union should have held onto whatever protection this clause provided.

Toussaint himself said that this was an important matter for the TA. For many members this begs the obvious question, “Why was it important to the TA to get rid of this clause?”

Third, the union has agreed to allow the consolidation of two distinct bus systems. One is currently run by the TA, the other by another subsidiary of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA – state agency responsible for public transportation in NYC and surrounding suburbs).

This is not something we oppose on principle, but we feel that too much control about how this will be implemented is left in the hands of management. The MTA says they will save $80 million through this consolidation and we want to know where those expected savings are coming from.

Also, this is taking place at a time when the MTA is likely to take over seven (highly subsidized) private bus companies and integrate them into a Regional Bus Co. with the systems that are already in the MTA.

Since the implementation of the bus consolidation is likely to set the pattern for how those other lines and their workers are integrated into the MTA, we think it should be spelled out more clearly and not left to the MTA.

ATC: The campaign to reject the proposed contract has received significant media coverage. What has happened during this campaign?

S.D.: I represent Train Operators, the people who drive the subway trains, on the Executive Board. The day after the Board voted to approve the proposal and send it to the membership for ratification, I went into the field to explain what I knew about the contract and why I voted no.

When I walked into a crew room, I would announce that I voted no, and I would be applauded.

The opposition to the agreement was intense. The people I spoke with had been ready to strike and pay fines in order to win a good contract and they felt they had been played with and manipulated by the Local’s leadership.

After telling the press that he expected the contract to be easily and overwhelmingly approved, Toussaint realized that there was considerable opposition to the agreement and he launched an aggressive campaign to win approval.

A consultant was hired to run the effort. Dozens of staff members campaigned full-time for the agreement and the membership was bombarded with leaflets and mail to their homes praising the agreement. Some teams “selling” the contract were chased out of work locations and Toussaint was booed on more than one occasion.

The approach taken by the contract’s supporters changed as they continued to meet opposition. They moved from arguing that it was a good contract to trying to scare people by claiming that the agreement will go to binding arbitration, which will produce a much worse agreement. (We had called on Toussaint to return to the table while working with all of the officers in the Local to develop and implement a strategy that can win a better agreement.)

They also worked hard to avoid dealing with the issues raised by the contract by smearing the officers who opposed the agreement, instead of accepting that people could have honest disagreements about whether the contract should be supported or not (a position that the membership, by and large, has no trouble accepting).

Toussaint and his staff argued that those of us who oppose the contract are either 1) simply trying to position ourselves for the local elections in the fall, or 2) doing the bidding of the International president, who is at odds with Toussaint. (Officers who oppose the contract include people such as myself who ran with Toussaint on the winning ND slate two years ago, and people who ran with the defeated incumbents.)

By the way, the same newspapers that denounced us when we were fighting for a good agreement now praised the agreement and urged transit workers to follow the recommendation of their “responsible” leaders and vote yes. That, and the talk from both Toussaint and the MTA chairman about a new era of cooperation, rather than confrontation, between the union and management should have made anyone think twice about this proposal.

ATC: The contract was ratified by a three-to-two margin (11,757 yes to 7,825 no). What’s your assessment of this vote?

S.D.: After the vote, much of the press, as well as the local leadership, treated the ratification of the contract as highly significant. I think that’s a misreading.

A rejection would have been highly significant, but most union contracts – even bad ones – tend to be approved. Even the contract negotiated in 1999, the one with broadbanding and inadequate funding for health benefits, was approved with a slightly higher percentage of the vote than this one.

In fact, Local 100 members have rejected a proposed contract only once in the Local’s history.

Obviously, there is a segment of the membership that thought this was a good contract, or at least the best that could be won. But there were also many people who did not particularly like the contract but voted for it because they felt that they would not do any better if they voted it down.

Some workers, who were willing to go on strike in mid-December to win a good contract, concluded that the leverage the Local had during the holiday shopping season was lost since the ratification process put the possibility of a strike off until well past the holidays.

Also, despite his initial assertion that the contract would pass easily, Toussaint ultimately mounted a very aggressive campaign to get the contract approved. Besides the consultant and the dozens of staffers in the field full-time pushing the agreement, several mailings were sent to every member’s house.

The union also tacitly accepted the MTA’s assertion that, if the agreement was rejected, it would end up in binding arbitration – which none of us wanted. So as one of my co-workers said, the ratification was more a vote against arbitration than it was a vote for the contract.

Finally, since the early 1990s, there had been a network of activists and low-level officers throughout the local who opposed previous contracts. That network no longer exists. Most of it has been absorbed into the local administration.

So, those of us who opposed the contract had far less to work with than we’ve had in the past. Given all of that, the fact that forty percent of those voting still voted “no” is what is significant.

ATC: What lessons can be learned from the contract experience? What are the prospects for a revitalization of union militancy and democracy in the wake of the contract?

S.D.: The revitalization of union militancy and democracy has been going on for some time in TWU 100. But, as I’ve learned over the last two years, they do not always proceed in tandem.

When the New Directions slate, with Toussaint at its head, was elected in 2000, it was a result of the years of work put in by many activists who fought to strengthen democracy while pushing for the local to adopt a more militant stance toward the MTA.

The membership expected that this new leadership would wage a more militant fight against management than the officers who were voted out did. By and large, the contract campaign was waged in a more militant manner than we’ve seen before, and some of the gains made are a product of that.

Those who are satisfied with the agreement will, hopefully, conclude that militancy pays. Those who are dissatisfied tend to think that the Local was not militant enough. As a result, the drive for a more militant union has definitely been given a boost by this contract fight.

But the limitations of the campaign – and of the contract – are largely a product of the top-down approach toward rebuilding the union that the new leadership has taken. I’m finding that many more members are now seeing that simply electing a new set of militant officers is not enough.

They are realizing that they, the membership, have to play a more active part in shaping the union and its strategies. This in turn is leading some to insist on a more democratic functioning within the union to make it possible for the membership to have real control over what is done in their names.

It’s too early to tell how widespread this sentiment is, and there are certainly many members who are satisfied with the top-down approach of the leadership. So the prospects for building a more democratic union are more mixed than those for militancy.

ATC 103, March–April 2003