Important victory: Róger Calero, Militant staff writer, released from INS jail!
New York transit workers
vote to authorize strike
Participants in October 30 transit workers’ rally state their demands in contract fight
BY STU SINGER
AND OLGA RODRÍGUEZ
NEW YORK--More than 10,000 workers on the New York City bus and subway system, members of the Transport Workers Union (TWU), met here in two separate shift meetings and voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike after their contract expires December 15.
The December 7 meeting was marked by the determination of the transit workers to defend their working conditions, benefits, and wages in face of the offensive by the wealthy rulers against the working people f this city.
The question of job safety in this fight for a contract took on added importance after the deaths of two track workers--one on November 21 and the other two days later--in incidents resulting from the fact that the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) had not put flaggers in place to protect work crews. On December 5 the MTA made its first contract offer, months after the union’s proposals were put forward. The bosses offered a zero pay increase over three years. In addition they demand a 2.3 percent wage deduction to cover pension benefits and up to $800 a year more that each worker would have to pay for their health coverage. In addition, the unionists are fighting for improved sick leave and for an end to an abusive disciplinary system.
One worker after another denounced the "zero, zero, zero" proposal, and echoed the statement of TWU Local 100 president Roger Toussaint that it was an insult.
Ronald Martinez, a 32-year-old trainman, said, "They act as if they don’t see us, and treat us like second class citizens.... For me the number one issue is health benefits. And the next big one is, we don’t want any zero, zero, zero."
Ruling-class politicians and the news media have issued aggressive statements threatening to severely punish the union and the 34,000 transit workers if they go on strike.
Rulers threaten jail and fines
New York governor George Pataki and Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman mayor of New York City, threatened "very grave consequences" and "the use of every legal means to stop a strike."
A December 5 New York Daily News editorial called on Bloomberg to "adopt the same tactics" that his predecessor Rudolph Guliani did during transit contract negotiations in 1999. "Each striking member faced a $25,000 fine. Those fines were to double each successive day." The big business daily called on the government to call out the National Guard to break the strike and use "the Coast Guard to move millions of people in and out of Manhattan."
In a December 6 editorial, the New York Post advocated the jailing of Local 100 president Roger Toussaint in the event of a work stoppage. "How effective can Toussaint be from inside a jail cell-- while his union is forced to pay millions in fines? And workers are docked two days for every day they’re out," the editorial stated. "True, even these sanctions may not deter Toussaint’s jihad. In which case, if someone’s got a tougher penalty, we’d be all ears."
Workers interviewed by the Militant, streaming in and out of the Javits Convention Center for the meetings and votes, said they were determined to fight and to strike if necessary.
Armatullah Zaahir, a train operator, said, "I’m glad we’re going into this showing we’re ready to strike."
JD, a young man who is an operator, added, "I think we’re walking because nobody’s bending. The TA [Transit Authority] got the mayor they wanted with Bloomberg."
A worker originally from India who asked not to be quoted by name said he knew both the workers who were killed, both of whom were also originally from India. "The TA and the mayor did not even give condolences for their deaths. The managers are responsible for the safety cuts," he said.
Pedro Lorenzo, who has worked in transit for 13 years, said, "The deaths will help bring public attention to the safety questions."
Vernon Leaks, a track worker, responded, "After the two deaths last week, we got flagging. This should be permanent."
After the deaths the union ordered workers to refuse track work unless there were flaggers, and for train crews to operate as if work crews were present. This led to slowdowns and forced the bosses to open negotiations with the union on safety issues and to agree to assign flaggers to all track crews, but only on a temporary basis.
Matthew, a trainman, said, "I think the government is out to get rid of the unions. Not just us, but unions overall."
Some workers responded to arguments by big-business commentators that, because of the impending U.S.-led war on Iraq, the union should "sacrifice" and not strike. A mechanic from the Gun Hill Road depot said, "We should go out. I was in Vietnam, and if they want to raise the war against us, they can go to hell."
Calvin, a signal worker, said, "The war in Iraq is all about oil. They are just hypocrites."
The transit workers’ contract fight comes at a time when Bloomberg’s administration is calling for "fiscal discipline"--slashing public employees’ jobs and wages as well as city services in order to pay off the city’s debt to wealthy bondholders.
The MTA has warned that it may seek to hike subway and bus fares by 50 cents to $2.00. TWU Local 100 has joined other organizations in a "Save the Fare" campaign to oppose the fare hike, rejecting attempts to pit transit workers against transit riders.
Bob Oldham, a motorman who was there with a group of co-workers from Coney Island, stated, "The transit authority should open their books. We are telling the public that the fares should not go up. And they say the fares have to go up and cut service also. They give big bonuses to barn chiefs and other bosses."
‘Health benefits cuts are main thing’
Rigoberto Matias, an assistant shop steward, was with a large group of train operators who came to the meeting together from Pitkin Yard in Brooklyn. "They’re pushing us by offering the zero. Last time we took a bad contract, because they said the budget was bad. But right after that they found all kinds of money. For workers with kids, the health benefit cuts are the main thing."
Matias and many other workers remarked at how many workers showed up at the meeting who had not been involved in union activity before.
Jay Dean, who works in the 207 Street station, said, "Workers invest our lives in this. What are they offering us? Nothing."
The state’s Taylor Law prohibits strikes by public workers, and calls for massive fines against the union, plus taking two days’ pay from each worker for each day they are on strike. "That’s forced slavery," Charles Whisnant said. "We should strike just to get rid of the Taylor Law."
While the contract expires December 15--a Sunday--union members said they had discussed not beginning a strike until Tuesday, December 17. The union is widely publicizing a mass march and rally for December 16 that will gather at 4:00 p.m. outside the Transit Authority building at 130 Livingston Street in Brooklyn, then march over the Brooklyn Bridge for a rally outside City Hall. The rally is endorsed by the Central Labor Council and a number of other unions.
Romina Green and Arrin Hawkins contributed to this article.
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