N.Y. transit workers authorize strike

Some 7,000 New York City transit workers packed a cavernous hall at the Javits Convention Center Dec. 10 to hear a report from the leadership of Transit Workers Union Local 100 on the status of contract negotiations.

By a unanimous vote, the workers authorized a strike at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 16 if the executive board deems it necessary.

Three days earlier the Metropolitan Transit Authority-New York City Transit (MTA-NYCT) had proposed a two-year contract, including demands for health care and pension givebacks for new hires. The proposal included a wage increase of 3 percent in the first year followed by a conditional increase of 2 percent for the second year. The second year increase was conditioned on a sharp reduction in sick leave usage. Local 100 President Roger Toussaint characterized the proposal as an “insult.”

Just prior to the membership meeting, the union’s executive board voted to direct union negotiators to seek a three-year contract with an 8 percent raise each year.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson and prominent labor leaders were on hand to lend support. Brian McLaughlin, president of the New York City Central Labor Council, pledged that NYCCLC unions will fill the street in solidarity with Local 100. He announced that he has called on the 1.5 million workers represented by CLC-affiliated unions to contribute $1 each to a strike solidarity fund. Dennis Hughes, president of the New York State AFL-CIO, Larry Hanley of Amalgamated Transit Union and Norman Brown of the Machinists Union Railroad Division all stressed Local 100’s commitment not to fund a contract by sacrificing the wages and benefits of new hires as an example of worker solidarity.

Jackson recalled Dr. Martin Luther King’s visit to Memphis, Tenn. to support striking African American sanitation workers. He said that he was now coming to stand in solidarity with workers facing a similarly difficult contract struggle.

Jackson noted the national significance of the current struggle, equating workers’ security and job security to national security. Public transportation is the key to economic security, he said. Through its intransigence, he added, the MTA was “striking” against workers’ security.

Jackson pointed out that the U.S. is spending $10 million an hour on a war in Iraq. He said an agency like the MTA, which is running a billion-dollar surplus, should be able to afford a fair settlement for workers.

Toussaint reported on the status of talks. He hammered away at what he characterized as examples of the employer’s “bad faith.” MTA has denied past productivity gains, he said. It has attempted to force the union to accept binding arbitration, refused to abide by prior arbitration decisions and used intimidation tactics to put members on the defensive.

TWU members have already earned the wage and benefit improvements they have, Toussaint said, and would not pay for them again. The union will not pay for the contract by taking from new hires, he vowed.

Toussaint also detailed efforts the union has made to reach out to the broader public, including briefings to legislative, community and business groups, and a media campaign.

In the days before the contract’s expiration, TWU is planning to hit the streets. Toussaint announced plans for a mass rally on the afternoon of Dec. 13 outside the site of the final negotiations, New York’s Grand Hyatt Hotel.

In related developments, TWU-represented transit workers at five New York City bus lines, covered by separate contracts, have declared that in case of a strike they will walk out in solidarity. In addition, unions representing some workers on the Metro-North commuter rail line have hinted at the possibility of a solidarity walkout. The New York Taxi Drivers Alliance has directed its members not to pick up multiple fares during a transit strike.

Gary Bono (gbono@cpusa.org) is a transit worker and member of TWU Local 100.