The New York City Transit Strike:
It's About Respect...and Solidarity
by Michael Hirsch
THE NOW THREE-DAY-OLD strike by New York's 34,000 bus and subway
workers, crippling mass transit and estimated to have affected some 3.5
million daily commuters, is being played out in the media --
particularly television and radio outlets -- as a natural disaster.
That's a pity, because the case could easily be made that the strike was
forced on the workers, an outcome of venal public policy and inept state
and city political leadership.
Hardy pedestrians crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in sub-freezing weather
from their tony Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill enclaves are greeted by
Mayor Michael Bloomberg as heroes, a reception even survivors of
Hurricane Katrina did not get. Meanwhile the union is vilified as
self-interested and threatened with extinction for breaking the state's
anti-strike Taylor Law. New York's billionaire mayor decried how "the
leadership of the TWU has thuggishly turned their backs on New York
City" and joined the governor in slamming the union's "lawbreaking."
Daily News columnist Michael Godwin chimed in that the brave new
competitive world of the 21st Century requires that workers grow up and
give up benefits.
It's ironic to hear the mayor, for one, bleating about the rule of law
and how "no negotiations should proceed until this illegal, selfish
strike ends." This is the same law-abiding civic leader who bragged in
"Bloomberg on Bloomberg" (p. 59) that breaking the law was just part of
his inspired path to riches.
"Among old McDonald's hamburger wrappings and mouse droppings," the
former media giant bragged, "we dragged wires from our computers to the
keyboards and screens we were putting in place, stuffed the cables
through holes we drilled in other people's furniture -- all without
permission, violating every fire law, building code, and union
regulation on the books. It's amazing we didn't burn down some office or
>From the union's standpoint, the mayor is an irritant, but it's the
state-run Metropolitan Transit Authority that brutishly opposes wage,
benefit and pension improvements. In an 11th hour stroke, its bargainers
even demanded pension givebacks. The union says its effort to storm
heaven is also about winning respect. And it's about the future of
organized labor in one of the nation's last union towns.
In remarks at a 3:00 a.m. news conference Dec. 20 announcing rejection
of the MTA's final contract offer, Trinidadian-born Roger Toussaint,
president of the once powerful and historically militant Transport
Workers Union Local 100, described the strike as "a fight over whether
hard work will be rewarded with a decent retirement....a fight over the
erosion, or the eventual elimination, of health-benefit coverage for
working people in New York." The former track worker and quondam
opposition leader called it "a fight over dignity and respect on the
job, a concept that is very alien to the MTA. Transit workers are tired
of being underappreciated and disrespected."
He amplified these remarks in comments later in the day to NY1, the
city's all-news cable station:
"The MTA and Mayor Bloomberg are pursuing their own agenda in these
contract negotiations, and that agenda is to use the transit
negotiations to establish a new inferior pension tier and then impose it
on hundreds of thousands of municipal workers after forcing it on the
transit workers. They are also attempting to impose inferior health
standards on transit workers and then impose it on future generations of
city employees. This is about a larger issue, a larger fight. Then they
raised the new proposal that new hires pay 6% of their wages toward
their pension. Right now transit workers pay 2% of their wages toward
their pension. It is a 200% increase. Their intention is to run over the
rest of the labor movement with that new pension element."
Labor observers widely agree that tossing in the pension issue at the
11th hour -- the brainchild of billionaire real estate mogul and MTA
chair Peter Kalikow -- was a provocation. Kalikow was notorious for
sitting out the authority's contentious 2003 negotiations with the
union, which almost ended in a strike, and he seems to have effectively
torpedoed this one, too.
Toussaint certainly saw it as incendiary. As he told NY1,"Were it not
for the pension piece we would not be on strike." Of the city dailies,
only The New York Times focused on how the fight over pensions was
caused by an indelicate last minute intervention by the MTA head. And
that notice was only featured in The Times Metro section and below the
The respect angle is no exaggeration or appeal to industrial nostalgia.
Both subway and bus work is dangerous, and track work alone is a prime
cause of life-threatening pulmonary ailments. Yet after working a job
where pay reaches a $53,000 ceiling in one of the most costly cities in
the nation, more than one in three transit workers received some form of
disciplinary reprimand in the past year, many serious: proving,
depending on your point of view, that transit employees are either
woefully bad workers or that management is pervasively punitive. Even
critics of the strike consider that the authority's managerial style is
capricious if not barbarous.
"Everybody treats us like crap all the time. We're tired of being
treated like we're the garbage of the city," one transit worker told
That lack of respect highlights a racial element to the dispute, too.
With a majority of transit workers African American or Afro-Caribbean,
the mayor's "thuggish" charge is being widely accepted as a racial
codeword . It was one Rupert Murdoch's New York Post repeated, while
also calling Toussaint" a "coward" (Dec. 20).
While it would be a mistake for strike supporters to take the race bait
-- this is a class fight and the city unions supporting the TWU know it
-- it is also inconceivable that the epithet "thug" would have been used
against the still sizable white and largely female teachers union, or
the predominantly white Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, both
outspoken strike supporters.
Wages, while no longer a sticking issue at the bargaining table, are
also a sore point. The starting salary for a track worker is $16.51 an
hour, or $578 per week, before overtime, which with New York City prices
and high taxes leaves disposable income uncomfortably close to the
poverty line. These are, in short, not well-paid workers, and even the
union's tacit acceptance of the MTA's final wage offer will not change
that status. Another complication is that TWU International President
Michael O'Brien, a political enemy of Toussaint's, is putting distance
between the parent union and strikers. He has fiduciary as well as
partisan reasons for doing so. Public employee strikes are illegal in
New York State, and exorbitant fines are meant to be punitive if not
preventive. Whether as Judas goat or fiscal Solomon, O'Brien wrote an
open letter to Local 100 members recommending they "cease any and all
strike or strike-related activities and ... report to work at their
regularly assigned work hours and work locations....The only road to
contract victory for the membership [is] not by strike but continued
There is even a possibility at this writing that the TWU Local 100
leaders will be jailed for criminal contempt for breaking an injunction
the city won last week, though MTA sources concede that jailing
Toussaint could be a flashpoint, creating a martyr and prolonging the
The union makes a good point -- using classic "an injury to one is an
injury to all" logic -- that what they confront today will be in the
face of every other municipal union tomorrow. So it is particularly
galling that while New York City is flush in revenues, it is still
governed by an austere fiscal ethic and a far-from-rational fear that
the combination of defined pension plans and longer-lived retirees could
bankrupt the city and the state. Yet the numbers don't compute. The NYC
Independent Budget Office (IBO) projects an increased $2.2 billion in
tax collections over June estimates. The bountiful increase, chiefly in
property transfer, business, and personal income taxes, is complemented
by snail's pace growth in city spending. Bloomberg has made the hallmark
of his administration miserly spending measures, including small
contract raises that often do not match increases in the cost-of-living.
Even these small raises are tied to what is euphemistically called
"productivity gains," meaning a shrunken workforce does more.
The IBO -- though it carefully excludes labor settlements because they
are difficult to anticipate -- estimates spending by city agencies
growing at less than 1 percent a year through 2009, the last year of
Bloomberg's administration. It also concludes that recent settlements
between the city and the teachers, police, sanitation, and other
uniformed services unions fell below or did not exceed administration
What is extraordinary about this labor action is that a victory for the
TWU means that other workers will be in a better position to resist
take-backs, too. The union movement talks a good solidarity game. What
the TWU is doing is walking the walk, too. Instead of greasing the skids
for further concessions on health care and pensions, TWU is in a
position to proactively help other workers win back benefits lost in the
past. Is this a turning point for working people? It's hard to say. The
labor movement has had more turning points than the Minotaur's maze, but
Governor Pataki, Kalikow and Bloomberg may have painted themselves into
a corner by forcing a strike. Even Henry Stern, a lapsed liberal who was
Parks commissioner under both Ed Koch and Rudolph Giuliani, publicly
questioned the wisdom of Kalikow's timing.
The real gun to the head of subway and bus workers, as it is to other
public employees, is the anti-strike Taylor Law. Formally, the 1967
Public Employees-Fair Employment Act, and written after the 10-day TWU
strike of 1966, it reads: "No public employee or employee organization
shall engage in a strike, and no public employee or employee
organization shall cause, instigate, encourage, or condone a strike."
Under the statute the union stands to lose $1 million a day in fines.
While supposed to make both job actions by unions and unfair labor
practices by employers obsolete, the statute actually functions to
hamstring unions without at the same time forcing public sector
employers to bargain in good faith. Because it contains so few sanctions
on employers, the Taylor Law actually makes a strike more likely, not
less, especially by workers sufficiently fed up, as the transit workers
clearly are, to risk everything. Win or lose, the Taylor Law has to go
-- replaced by a state labor law that levels the playing field. Right
now, the state's collective bargaining playing field looks more like a
caged professional-wrestling ring, where the bouts are scripted even as
the pain is real, and the bad guys are set up to win.
Speaking of bad guys, if there is one villain of the piece, it is Gov.
George Pataki, the three term incumbent who on the eve of the strike was
renewing Republican acquaintances in New Hampshire in preparation for a
much bruited about presidential run. Appearing with union meat in his
teeth would be invaluable in courting the Republican nomination.
His hand-picked MTA chair, Peter Kalikow, is not just a real estate
tycoon and former New York Post owner but a Republican big stakes player
and a former campaign treasurer for rightwing and oleaginous ex-Senator
Al D'Amato. He also comes with a history, having gone through a
bankruptcy in the early 1990s when he owed a dozen banks more than $1
billion against assets in the area of $500 million. Creditors got less
than 20 cents on the dollar and former Post reporters still fume about
the severance they never received. Kalikow, meanwhile, got to keep his
Fifth Avenue duplex, his yacht and waterfront estate in Montauk. His
chief aide at the real estate company, Richard Nasti, who was present at
this year's negotiations, was allowed to plead no contest to a bogus,
mob-linked circulation scheme while both were at the New York Post.
Nasti was also forced to resign from the MTA for influence peddling, but
still works for Kalikow.
Writing in 2003 in the Downtown Express, veteran Post beat reporter
Jerry Tallmer remembered how Kalikow "left behind a debt of $4.5 million
to the government in unpaid (or unforwarded) withholding taxes, and a
declaration of bankruptcy -- cooked up, I have always been convinced,
with [Rupert] Murdoch. That bankruptcy ultimately enabled owner redux
Murdoch to wipe out the paper's contract with the New York Newspaper
Guild, force the Post unit into a strike, break the unit, and fire all
287 Guild members -- one of whom, chairperson Harry Leykis, a scrappy,
ultra-loyal Post staffer for 25 years, died of a heart attack not long
after. Harry, like all of us, had had many thousands of dollars in
severance pay wiped out overnight, thanks to the corporate bankruptcy
Before the strike, Kalikow told New York Magazine writer Craig Horowitz
that "Making money is no longer paramount. 'I do this,' he says,
'because I want my legacy to be something other than money.'" Judging by
his action in this strike, he won't be remembered for his money.
Michael Hirsch is a New York-based labor writer.