from the [NEW YORK] CHIEF-LEADER:
Editor's Column "Razzle Dazzle" July 27, 2007
Toussaint in the Rough
By RICHARD STEIER
Late last month, when I asked a fellow reporter who covers Transport Workers
Union Local 100 his sense of the state of the union, he responded, "They're
kind of irrelevant, aren't they?"
For a union as renowned for militancy as Local 100, being considered
irrelevant is worse than being reviled, as it was by the tabloids just
before and during the three-day transit strike in December 2005. But to the
extent that my colleague's characterization was accurate, it was directly
traceable to the consequences of that strike.
Local 100 is struggling to collect dues in the wake of the suspension of
automatic payroll deductions of member contributions since June 1 as one of
the Taylor Law penalties for the illegal walkout.
Members Develop Long Pockets
A week before dues check-off rights were revoked, the union reported that
about 16,000 of its 34,000 members had signed up to make payments by
alternate methods. Since then, Local 100 spokesmen have balked at providing
updated figures. They told this paper's transit reporter, Ari Paul, that
there is no reason to supply such data to a newspaper whose coverage of the
union they likened to the Post's treatment of Paris Hilton, who like Local
100 President Roger Toussaint attracted an inordinate amount of attention
for a brief jail sentence.
HAMSTRUNG BY THE PAST: Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Roger
Toussaint has been forced to moderate his militancy as he seeks to regain
the union's dues-collection privileges, even as he is attacked by in-house
critics for not pushing harder on safety issues.
What seems to have particularly angered Mr. Toussaint and his acolytes is a
series of letters by in-house critics regarding his leadership, and the
prominence sometimes given to some of those critics in our stories dealing
with union issues. Their comments have taken on greater importance in those
stories, ironically, primarily because Mr. Toussaint has opted not to talk
to us aside from occasionally issuing a written statement.
He seems to be overly concerned with how he is being covered at a time when
he should be focused more on keeping the union solvent and maintaining
services to his rank and file. But then again, the attempts of his spokesmen
to bulldoze questions about whether the percentage of dues-payers has
increased over the past eight weeks may mean that they have no positive news
to convey. Considering that even dissidents within Local 100 have publicly
advised their followers that the quarrels they have with Mr. Toussaint
should not be an excuse for letting dues collections founder - further
weakening the union - having only half the members meeting their obligations
does not reflect well on the Local 100 leader.
He has also been forced to suffer the slings and arrows of his political
opposition for allegedly failing to be militant enough, a rather shocking
characterization alongside the past tabloid caricatures of him as an
ideological wild man willing to threaten Christmas shopping for all New
Yorkers in the name of his undeserving members.
It's not the first time, and the irony has gotten a bit rusty. But that was
the charge being leveled by Local 100 critics in both letters and news
articles after Mr. Toussaint relented to having track safety problems dealt
with legislatively through the creation of a task force rather than more
concrete measures, with the bill enacted by Governor Spitzer earlier this
Charged He Settled Cheap
His critics called the new law toothless and contended that by settling for
it, Mr. Toussaint had compromised their chances of getting meaningful
changes in the future. But he had no real choice in the matter, for several
The overriding one was that no State Senator in the Republican majority
could be found to sponsor a bill in the upper house of the Legislature.
There was also at least a possibility that he didn't turn that reluctance
into a major political battleground because he had gotten signals from the
Governor's Office that the task force was as far as Mr. Spitzer was willing
to go. That would have been consistent with the position of the Metropolitan
Transportation Authority, which did not yield on the issue despite a more
labor-friendly administration and the deaths of two Track Workers in
separate incidents in April to underscore the dangers that they face.
And Mr. Toussaint's muscle, as well as his political leverage, has decidedly
atrophied since the transit strike. He couldn't feasibly go to war over
track safety because of the sanctions still hanging over the union, and even
if he could, the failure to persuade half his rank and file to voluntarily
pay dues suggests he'd have a hard time getting the troops to follow. Next
week will mark the beginning of the third month of suspended dues check-off
for Local 100. The earliest that penalty could be lifted would be the
beginning of September, provided the union could convince whichever judge is
assigned the case (the Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice who imposed the
penalty, Theodore Jones, has since been elevated to the Court of Appeals)
that its existence would be threatened unless its dues rights were restored.
That case will be far easier to make if management is not feverishly
opposing it on the grounds that Mr. Toussaint and his members have not
learned their lesson and need further punishment. And so this was no time to
be going to the wall with the MTA, or with Mr. Spitzer; if anything, Mr.
Toussaint has reason to be grateful that they aren't looking to capitalize
on the bind that he's in.
Strike Still Tolling
The Local 100 leader and his union are paying the price for their bold
action in shutting down the transit system without forcing the old MTA
management to capitulate.
There are supporters of Mr. Toussaint who maintain that management took such
a provocative stance even at the 11th hour of the contract talks 19 months
ago that he had no choice but to lead a walkout. One of them recently
contended, "Anything short of a strike would have been submission."
It still isn't clear, however, why Mr. Toussaint was so determined to avoid
arbitration as a means of deciding the matter without surrendering. Some of
his supporters maintained then and now that agreeing to let a third party
decide the contract would have taken the sword out of his hand permanently,
as if backing away from a strike once would have marked the Local 100 leader
as a paper tiger forever after.
Less than three weeks before the walkout, Mr. Toussaint remarked, "The best
way to avoid war is to let the other guys know you're prepared for it."
The problem with taking a confrontation to the precipice is that there's no
way to be certain that you'll prevail if both sides go over the edge. That
was what brought Mr. Toussaint back to the table - along with MTA
negotiators, who returned even as Governor Pataki vowed there would be no
talks while the union was on strike - not long after he led the walkout. A
few more days on strike would have been an unmitigated disaster for the
city's retailers, but it also would have increased the baying of the
editorial hounds for the scalps of Mr. Toussaint and his members.
Not Like Quill Walkout
The success Mike Quill had in leading the 1966 transit strike set in motion
the Taylor Law penalties that helped assure that the 1980 walkout ended
badly for then-Local 100 President John Lawe and his rank and file, even as
it laid the groundwork for binding arbitration as a viable alternative to
strikes by public workers.
Mr. Quill, who was imprisoned for his walkout and died not long after he was
released, might have had no greater reason for taking his members out than
that he didn't like the attitude of the new Mayor, John Lindsay. But there
was a strategic imperative for taking drastic action that did not exist when
Mr. Toussaint led his strike nearly 40 years later.
Mr. Lindsay had come into office with the perception that his political
future was limitless, and he was being egged on by editorial writers to show
his mettle by taking on Mr. Quill and his members. By the end of the strike,
the new Mayor had buckled on key contract items, and had been placed at a
disadvantage for future dealings during the following eight years with all
the city's unions. Mr. Quill would not live to reap the benefits of his
victory, but he established beyond a shadow of a doubt that the union was
not to be messed with.
In contrast, at the time of the 2005 strike, Mr. Pataki was fading from
prominence even though a year still remained in his third term as Governor.
He was floating the possibility of a run for President, but about the only
people gullible enough to take it seriously were the editors of the Wall
Street Journal, who demanded that he "stand up" to Mr. Toussaint and Local
100 if he wanted to be considered a contender.
Pataki Had Less to Lose
And so it would have seemed that Mr. Pataki was more in need of a good war
than Mr. Toussaint, who could have exercised discretion and gone to
arbitration - where he figured to neither win handsomely nor shed much blood
- and then had reasonable hopes of an improved bargaining climate under the
next Governor, who even then seemed sure to be a Democrat with strong labor
support. Rather than playing it safe, however, Mr. Toussaint charged into
battle, only to quickly realize he couldn't afford an extended war.
His troubles were only beginning. When he negotiated contract terms that
included the requirement - for the first time for a city union - that
members pay a portion of their basic health costs, the Local 100 rank and
file rebelled. Two weeks after he predicted in a January 2006 interview that
the contract would be "strongly ratified," members rejected it by a
It was the first indication that he did not have a firm grasp of their mood;
the second one came not long after, when he remarked, "If you think there's
a 50-50 support for me because of the contract, you're wrong."
He turned out to be right, but not in a way he would have wanted. He got
only 45 percent of his members' votes in last December's election, but was
fortunate that four people ran against him, splitting the majority
The loss of membership confidence is the primary respect in which Mr.
Toussaint differs from Dennis Rivera, until recently the leader of
Health-Care Workers Local 1199, whom he most resembles in both style and
ideology. Mr. Rivera came to prominence 18 years ago with a series of strong
contracts with private hospitals that he got with a mix of gentle
persuasion, a robust pension fund that covered part of the cost to
management, and a few timely one-day strikes that, because they affected
private-sector institutions, were not subject to Taylor Law sanctions.
Never Lost Members
Two years later, his attempt to use the clout he had developed to create a
more-progressive City Council as his first serious foray into elective
politics failed badly, with the underdog candidates that Local 1199 backed
all going down to defeat. But while the political establishment derided him
for the attempt, Mr. Rivera suffered no loss of standing among his members,
and when he picked his next major political fight - with Mr. Pataki soon
after the new Governor took office in 1995 - he succeeded in rallying public
opposition to the most-draconian of his proposed cuts in hospital services.
Mr. Rivera would subsequently court Mr. Pataki and his other principal
Republican target at that time - Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno - to win
contracts and legislation that benefited his members, a change in tactics
that few would have imagined from such a passionate labor leader. It's even
harder to picture Mr. Toussaint making such a transformation; he in
particular would seem to live by the philosophy that if you can't beat them,
keep on trying.
His miscalculations regarding his members have not outwardly chastened Mr.
Toussaint. He has remained truculent toward his critics, and has continued
to push away one-time allies who publicly quarreled with him. There are
those who believe that the contract vote would not have gone against him
(eventually forcing the contract into an arbitration he was so determined to
avoid) and that he would not be having such problems getting members to pay
their dues if he had not cast off so many capable staff members during his
6-1/2 years in office, leaving him with a less-experienced if more-pliant
group of aides.
While he has several times in the past scoffed at the notion that he regrets
alienating some of his former supporters, his surrogates' reactions to some
recent letters and quotes in this paper from critics in the union's
Maintenance of Way Division indicate he feels a certain betrayal. Mr.
Toussaint came out of that division and knows the danger inherent in being a
Track Worker, and so complaints that he suffered a failure of nerve on the
track safety bill have to gnaw at him.
A Time for Humility
But the time for acting big and bad passed with the transit strike, and
there's no certainty that it will reappear for Mr. Toussaint. Instead, at a
time when the best he figures to be able to do is devote his energy to
ensuring and expanding upon the protections members have under the Local 100
contract, he has to focus some of his attention on regaining dues check-off
rights. It's tough to make management comply with the rules when you don't
have enough quality field representatives to respond to member complaints.
Any judge assigned the Local 100 case may want some assurance that Mr.
Toussaint will not use a strike threat as a cudgel in his next contract
talks less than 18 months away before reinstating dues-collection
privileges. And so the Local 100 leader, seeking the labor equivalent of
time off for good behavior, cannot bristle at implications that he needed to
be rehabilitated and that there was any sin in striking.
The one glimmer of light on the horizon is the understanding that, while he
has lost the support of a majority of his members, it's there to be regained
if he can deliver a worthwhile contract in January 2009, and MTA CEO Lee
Sander and New York City Transit President Howard Roberts seem inclined to
work cooperatively with him. But that also means shelving the militancy that
is at the core of Mr. Toussaint's being in favor of the compromises so many
labor leaders opt to make, convinced that quiet diplomacy will benefit their
members more than shouting from the mountaintops.
Can He Alter Style?
The forced change in style figures to test him, as well as his willingness
to continue leading Local 100.
One longtime ally, who spoke conditioned on anonymity out of concern about
Mr. Toussaint's tendency to react harshly to what he perceives as criticism,
said he hoped he could make the transition, arguing that for all his flaws
he is a cut above most union leaders.
"I think Roger is a diamond," this man said. "Maybe in the rough, but a
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