'No Contract, No Work' - The 2005 New York City transit strike

Harry Harrington, a New York city MTA Train Operator writes his account and analysis of the strike that shut down New York.

Submitted by libcom on February 4, 2006

In December 2005, 34,000 New York City transport workers walked out against cuts in benefits and the creation of a two-tier workforce. Their union was fined millions of dollars, and the strike was called off, having won important concessions. So what were the lessons of the action?

In Industrial Worker, February 2006 he wrote:

The drama of the New York City transit strike began three years ago during the last contract struggle. The president of the subway and bus workers union local 100 of the Transport Workers Union went down to the deadline with threats of a strike but no preparation until, the day after the contract deadline, he accepted what members considered a terrible deal. It called for no raises in the first year of the contract, with givebacks in health benefits, discipline and job security – the future of hundreds of bus drivers and support personnel – by accepting little input in the MTA’s bus consolidation plans.

The union president admitted that he was afraid of a strike, which means he was willing to give up all leverage to secure much-needed changes in work conditions. He was unable to change the grievous amount of discipline transit workers suffer – 15,000 cases a year out of a total of 34,000 employees, a condition that persisted yearly into 2005.

No givebacks, Strike!
On December 10, thousands of New York City’s subway and bus workers crowed into Jacob Javits convention center for a Transport Workers Union’s Local 100 mass meeting. As members entered they were relieved of any dissident literature or forbidden to enter with it. The meeting was scripted, with no motions or questions from the floor. A strike vote was passed on the motion from the podium. The Transport Workers Union made their slogan “No Contract No Work,” “A deadline is a deadline” and “No givebacks.” Under pressure from organized union dissidents, local President Roger Toussaint made a demand for an 8 percent salary increase.

The negotiating climate had been made difficult by a number of factors. In the past the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority had lied about its finances, claiming poverty while in actuality having hundreds of millions of dollars in surpluses. This year they had almost a billion dollars in admitted cash surpluses. This embittered transit workers, many demanding justice from an employer they had hated for decades.

TWU members are the lowest-paid transit workers in the NYC metropolitan area. Transit workers at the Metro-North, Long Island and other area railroads all received several dollars more per hour for the same jobs at a much less intense speedup. This many TWU members attributed to the infamous Taylor law that made strikes by municipal workers illegal and subject to fines of two days’ pay for every day of strike for the workers and millions in fines for their union. The Taylor Law was passed by the state of New York after the effective 1966 transit strike.

At the Grand Hyatt Hotel, at a Dec. 15 press conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, TWU Local 100 president Roger Toussaint was accompanied by several local labor leaders expressing their support for transit workers: heads of the hospital workers, teachers and police benevolent society pledged support; the heads of the Metro-North commuter lines, also an MTA subsidiary, pledged that they would not cross Local 100 picket lines.

Later that night Roger Toussaint let the “Deadline is a Deadline” pass without taking action. The MTA had dropped their “final offer” that would require future hires to pay 2 percent of their wages for their health benefits and give them a 30-year age-62 pension. They offered a 3-year contract at 3%-3%-3%.

TWU leader Toussaint correctly rejected this offer, since it would gain (modest) benefits for current employees at the expense of the next generation of transit workers, and would doom the rest of the municipal labor force to copycat givebacks in pensions and health benefits. Still, he had “blinked,” as he did not call the strike as promised. This caused great dissatisfaction on the part of his fellow transit workers, all fearing a sellout.

He then announced another plan, calling another deadline for the following Monday morning, when, if no progress was made in negotiations over the weekend, he would call out two private bus lines in Queens that were being consolidated within the MTA but were not yet legally subject to the New York State Taylor Law’s severe anti-strike penalties. To get them to agree to strike for the benefit of their municipal co-workers, Toussaint promised to pay their wages out of the union treasury while they were on strike.

Roger Toussaint lost a decisive advantage by not walking out at the contract deadline as TWU leaders in the past had done. The TWU fought for years for this advantageous time to strike, Every day of a pre-Christmas strike would cost the city of New York $400 million and Toussaint threw away the last weekend of Christmas shopping by failing to keep his threat. He began to look more and more like he was blinking, as he had done in previous years. The TWU president had fooled his members before with strike talk before. It seemed to many that they had the power but no one could be found to use that power.

Provoking a strike
That Monday night, December 19, the Local 100 Executive Board met to consider the latest “final offer” by the MTA. That board has been known to rubber stamp Roger Toussaint’s wishes.

The MTA dropped its demand for a 30-year age-62 pension, but insisted that new hires would have to pay 6 percent of their wages into their 25/55 pension (current employees pay 2%); and lowered their request for new hires’ health benefits premium to 1 percent. This was a surprise, and set the negotiations back even further. Many labor watchers felt it was meant to provoke a strike or destroy Roger Toussaint’s union career. The MTA felt his protests against their policies had interfered with their total control over the city’s transit system. The MTA then upped the offer of 3%-4%-3 1/2% raises.

The Executive Board met late Monday night and rejected the deal. The Board then voted to strike by a vote of 28 for, 10 against, and 6 abstentions. All the International officers on the Local 100 Executive Board voted against striking or abstained. International President Mike O’Brien, who was present at the Local Board meeting, advised the Board that the International would not sanction a strike, as he thought a satisfactory deal could be reached with the MTA.

International officers had been at odds with the Local 100 president for some time. As a result, the international failed to show solidarity or partake in the class struggle.

The MTA became more intransigent; with all the politicians facing the prospect of a citywide transportation stoppage, all began to warn of severe penalties. The class loyalties of the “Friends of Labor” became more apparent as the deadline approached. Hoping these threats would work, the city made no new offers and Roger Toussaint, backed into a corner, was forced to call a walk-out.

The Queens bus strike took place Monday, inconveniencing 50,000 New Yorkers but bringing no concessions from the MTA.

That Tuesday night there was a rally near the hotel where the contract was being negotiated. Many who attended from other unions were eager for labor to strike back and the power of the transit workers made them likely candidates in their eyes. Roger Toussaint’s speech was popular. He compared the Taylor Law to the laws enforcing segregation laws, such as Rosa Parks’ struggle, that were used against poor and working and minority people. It was the high point of his efforts to date. He had won the support of his members, most of whom are black or members of other minority groups, who resonated with this comparison. The workers were eager to revenge themselves on the MTA, which is amongst the most abusive employers in the nation, and eager to walk out.

The strike begins
That night, really Tuesday morning at about 2 a.m., I received a call from a friend on the TWU’s executive board saying the strike was going forward. He told me to go to my work location where I was one of the shop stewards and tell my fellow transit workers the walkout was on. He asked me to take a taxi. I grabbed the picket signs and instructions for the walk-out and was at work within ten minutes. I had them all by my door. There I began to get my fellow workers to stop work and we formed a picket line in front of our work location. We were amongst the first pickets set up in the Bronx and we had only one scab – a probationary employee, fear-struck with the threat of losing his job. I was overjoyed to be striking against this miserable management and hoped that the strike would get them all fired.

That Tuesday morning the city of New York found itself by and large unable to get to work. The hoped-for scabs to run the system never materialized and the threats of supervisors running trains were nothing but an empty bluff. The subways and buses were shut down completely. Turn-out for the picket lines was high, and spirits were high too, in spite of the bitter cold. The public gave the transit workers widespread support against the much-hated MTA. At our picket the local pizza parlor operator gave us free food and drinks throughout the strike. Passersby on foot and vehicles honked their horns and some joined our picket lines. Some gave us donations and containers of coffee.

The union had done a decent public relations job, especially in campaigns linking transit jobs to public safety (the fight to keep conductors in the trains and station agents in the booths); and the MTA’s $1 billion plus budget surplus was common knowledge, so New Yorkers tended to blame the MTA rather than the strikers for their misery.

The city began to take action against these rebellious and so-effective workers’ strike before the example spread. New York City Mayor Bloomberg – who called us thugs, which many workers took as a racist remark – went to court to seek contempt charges against Local 100 and transit workers, and by the end of the day the judge had imposed a fine of $1 million a day on the union, demonstrating the solidarity of the courts with the interests of state and local corporations.

Then the president of our International showed his true colors. TWU International President Mike O’Brien announced publicly that the parent union did not agree with the strike. He said it was illegal and his treason soon found its place on posters decorating the MTA gates quoting his order to return to work as the strike was illegal. The transit workers had nothing but contempt for him, having voted with their feet – all the authorization they needed. Many of the minority as well as white transit workers felt that orders to work reminded them of slavery. The strike was rapidly changing the consciousness of many of my fellow transit workers as they saw the unity of the state, courts, corporations and press against the union and workers.

With this public stab in the back by the International, our prospects seem to have dulled considerably. Any likelihood that the MTA would be cowed into offering rapid concessions now seemed remote. Nevertheless the strike was holding strong and the workers were prepared to stay on the picket line until we neared parity with our fellow transit workers on nearby railroads. WE felt our power and their impotence. Nothing moved in the city, business was at a virtual standstill

The International began urging the members to “stop their illegal strike and return to the bargaining table.” The mayor was saying the MTA should not negotiate with the union until we called off the strike. And Governor Pataki, who appoints the MTA Board and who is a prospect for the 2008 Republican nomination, was keeping a low profile, hoping to appear remote from the conflict in pro-labor New York and tough on labor to the country at large.

The strike rolled into its second day. My fellow pickets were even more enthusiastic than the day before. The word got out and more and more began to show up to picket. Many spent 12 hours a day on the picket line. I gave out IWW buttons, “The longer the picket line the shorter the strike.” It was a great occasion for exchanging ideas about labor and future of organized labor. I gave out issues of Industrial Worker. It was clear to us that many of our leaders were out-and-out scabs, such as our International president.

That Wednesday night Roger Toussaint had a conference call with many picket captains to find out about scabbing, as the MTA had reported falsely that there were thousands crossing our lines. The captains told him that was a complete lie reported by corporate press pursuing their own interests. He then began to say that he had “mis-spoke” and would not return to work if the pension issue was taken off the bargaining table but only if we got a contract. He then said, “The Governor of New York State, with national political aspirations in the Republican Party, had taken the same stand as the New York City mayor against negotiating while we were on strike, and that such a stand would be hard to beat.”

I chimed in that we should not give up our strike or go back without at least the Taylor Law fines being nullified. I sensed that our president, who had expressed his fear of striking in the past, was beginning to waffle and would go back without anything for us, putting us in a bad bargaining position. Our power was in the strike. Roger Toussaint said, “Oh, the governor will never go for that.” I replied, “You at least have to bounce it off him to show him we demand it.” He then wrapped up the conference call and I knew that bad leadership was going to lose us this strike.

The next day Toussaint ordered us back to work without a contract and facing fines, with no punishment for our employer whose decades of abuse had brought on this strike.

My co-workers on the picket line who had gone through the past few days on strike began to see the union leadership more as an obstacle and hindrance to victory than a help. In the space of three days the International and local leadership had made our strike ineffective, even more so than the mayor or the governor. Local and International leaders had begun to close ranks when the TWU Local 100 Secretary-Treasurer Ed Watt was quoted on radio explaining away the International union’s refusal to sanction Local 100’s strike, and putting the best possible construction on their appeal to the judge not to impose fines on the International. He claimed that was no big deal – they were just doing that to avoid heavy fines, and it didn’t mean a thing

Democracy slowly died
Over the years of Roger Toussaint’s administration of local 100, democracy slowly died despite his election as a “radical” candidate of the New Directions faction. He soon replaced any elected officers who opposed him, sending them back to their tools, leaving them little time for union work. He gave a majority of the Executive Board members jobs within the union dependent on their continued loyalty. This turned the Local 100 executive board into a rubber stamp for his policies. Contrary to the Local’s constitution he negotiated in secret, made side deals and kept division officers from negotiations.

This all had an effect on my fellow transit workers. Many of us felt that the lack of democracy let our union turn against, as in the case of the international. The international president was not elected by the members but by representatives at closed conventions where there was no opposition candidate.

Our local president, isolated by the blind careerist support of his executive board, was free to make any decision without having to answer to the members. We went back as he had surrounded himself with defeatist union bureaucrats and Democratic Party politicians who advised surrender in effect.

The New York Times reported that local union leaders who publicly shouted their support for the TWU’s demand but did not declare their support for the strike said something different in private to TWU leaders.

Privately, in the conference call on Wednesday afternoon, the other union leaders warned Toussaint that the fines, public anger and contempt citations from the strike could be disastrous and destroy the union. What they did not tell him is that the TWU defeated such fines from a similar law in 1966 and made great gains even winning a twenty-year at fifty years of age retirement plan. Surrounded by such leaders, afraid or unaware of labor’s power, they counseled returning to work without a contract.

There was little preparation for the strike. Despite that poor preparation, the members stepped up and made sure picket lines were up and staffed and were making efforts to coordinate their actions in different boroughs.

But, why was the local so poorly prepared? Why were picket captains not trained over the summer or early fall? Why were there no satellite union offices in the boroughs to serve as strike HQs? Why were there no meetings of picket captains and activists? Why weren’t pickets sent to Metro-North and LIRR yards? Why wasn’t there a strike newspaper to offset the deluge of lies in the corporate newspapers? No one reported in the corporate press the survey that stated 72% of New Yorkers supported our strike, as did Democracy Now.

Why didn’t other unions organize their members to demonstrate in mid-town or join us on the picket lines (many members from other unions expressed their support and picketed with us, but their unions did little but give us lip service – except for the PBA coffee wagon!)? Why were there no contingency plans for what to do if the International took the Local over? And why did the union seem so unprepared for the ferocity of Bloomberg’s and the MTA’s response? Surely they must have known that they would be facing massive fines and the possibility of jail.

Despite any criticisms I might have about how the strike was prepared and run, I’m proud to have been a part of the strike and honored to have stood on the lines with all my fellow transit workers and our supporters.

What did we get?
What did we get? Raises that will not even cover the most conservative estimate of inflation: 3% year one, 4% second year, 3.5% third year. Martin Luther King day finally and Veteran’s Day. A refund of pension money owed to about 50 percent of the membership. And we have to pay 1.5% for our medical and will get lifetime medical of some sort off past retirees. This will go up if costs go up, so this is a cause for great trepidation. Assault pay upgrade, the MTA will pay two years of your run pay not your base pay. Company-paid disability insurance up to $170 a week for 26 weeks, 37-month contract, no more Christmas contracts, a great bargaining loss.

And the MTA agreed to obey arbitrator decisions in the future. This last shows the degree to which this company has sunk, where it won’t even obey arbitrator decisions.

The strike was a lesson for all of in the TWU and the labor movement. It is clear that following the same old leaders alienated from their membership will not be effective. We must find a new path. A look to the example of the IWW in its monumental struggles could help us all. Solidarity Forever
A Wobbly, FW Harrington successfully fought the MTA bosses’ bigotry for the right to wear his Sikh turban on the job.


* New York transit strikers reject offer
* The strike that shut down New York
* NYC transport workers fighting cuts fined