34,000 N.Y. transit workers score victory

NEW YORK — Subway and bus workers here are widely seen as having scored a victory over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in the first citywide transit strike in a quarter century.

Defying the state’s Taylor Law, which bans public worker strikes, the city’s transit union prevailed over the MTA amidst labor solidarity, surprisingly strong public support and wide rejection of racist name-calling by the governor and mayor.

The workers went back on the job Dec. 22 after the MTA withdrew a last-minute pension giveback demand that sparked the three-day strike. On Dec. 27, Transport Workers Union Local 100 executive board voted to accept a new contract offer, 37-4 with one abstention. Local 100 members are expected vote on the contract after the MTA votes on Jan. 25.

The MTA tried to force a two-tier pension scheme on the workers. Under the current system, transit workers, who do some of the most stressful jobs in the city, can retire with full pension at age 50 after 25 years of service. Initially the MTA proposed keeping that system for current workers but raising the retirement age for new hires to 62 or 30 years of service. In its “final offer” just before the deadline, the MTA dropped that idea, instead demanding that while current workers continue to pay 2 percent of their salary towards their pension, new hires would pay 6 percent.

“We will not sell out generations of unborn transit workers!” TWU Local 100 President Roger Toussaint told a Dec. 8 rally of thousands where nearly every major NYC union was represented.

Union officials rejected the proposal as a “divide-and-conquer” strategy. Calling two-tier plans a life-or-death issue for the TWU, Toussaint said they would have created “two hostile camps” within the union.

The contract between Local 100 and the MTA expired at midnight, Dec. 15. The union had been locked in negotiations with the authority for days, but the MTA chairman did not show up until hours before the deadline.

Even though the MTA had a $1 billion surplus, it rejected the union’s pay increase demands.

By Dec. 19, no progress had been made. Toussaint announced that his executive board had voted overwhelmingly to strike that night.

“We did not want to strike,” Toussaint told the city. “Evidently the MTA, the governor and the mayor did.”

The strike was a model of labor and community unity. Opinion polls showed 60 percent of New Yorkers supported the strike. An even higher majority agreed with the transit workers’ demands, but blamed both sides equally.

The pickets were energetic. One worker, Sterling, interviewed at the Coney Island train terminal in Brooklyn, carried pictures of an overflowing toilet and an adjacent room with sludge on the floor.

“That’s the toilet we’re supposed to use at the 145th Street station in Manhattan,” and the adjoining room is their lunchroom, he explained.

Edwin Kippins, also at the Coney Island terminal, said, “They are slowly chipping away at the benefits of everyone, especially public employees. The fire department, the police department — if we lose, they’re the next to get hit, and they know that.”

The Central Labor Council began a strike fund, and teachers, firefighters and others joined picket lines while some police voiced support.

Twenty City Council members sent a letter to the MTA, blaming it for the strike and demanding that it find a solution. The councilmembers, including Transportation Sub-committee Chair John Liu (D-Queens), threatened to withhold the city’s yearly payments to the MTA.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg drew wide criticism for calling the workers “thugs.” Many saw it as racism directed at a union that is majority African American and Latino.

The MTA aggressively advertised in the mass media, urging workers to cross the picket lines. Yet only a few hundred out of nearly 34,000 workers scabbed.

Under heavy pressure, the MTA bowed to the TWU’s central demand, withdrawing the two-tier clause.

Although the new proposed contract for the first time has workers paying 1.5 percent for health care, this will reportedly be somewhat offset by other factors. The workers won a paid Martin Luther King holiday, maternity leave, pay increases of 3, 4 and 3.5 percent over the next three years, and additional gains.

Nearly 20,000 transit workers who paid into their pension at a rate of 5.3 percent before the rate was reduced to 2 percent won refunds amounting to thousands of dollars. Gov. George Pataki threatened to veto this provision. However, the MTA reportedly made a deal with the TWU to pay those refunds from operating funds, sidestepping a requirement for legislative approval.

Still to be settled officially is whether the union and its members will have to pay Taylor Law penalties — for each worker, two days’ pay for each day on strike, and for the union, $1 million per day in fines.

Was it worth it?

“It was!” said station agent Jaynelle Williams. The strike “brought a hundred years of gain. We made history and we’re gonna be there all the way down the line.”