Author Jon Harvey

NYC Transit Workers’ Fare Strike 2012: Can Occupy Open Horizons for a Frustrated Labor Movement?

In Cleveland, in 1944, streetcar workers threatened to refuse to collect fares in order to win a pay increase–the City Council gave in before they actually used the tactic…This type of action would in most cases have to be taken outside the union, since few union bureaucrats would use such a clearly class-directed tactic, and thus of necessity the workers would have to organize this themselves.
Root & Branch[1]

Wall Street and Beyond

For some, Occupy is a long awaited popular resistance to global capital triggered by its most recent crisis and aftermath. Considering the fall in the living conditions of the working class since the largely diverted crisis of the early ’70s, a mass movement against capital (though only a particular form) such as Occupy has been anticipated by many on the Left—since at least the end of the anti-globalization protests. For those of the pro-revolutionary milieu, the exact positive content, trajectory and significance of Occupy is a key question. Despite its varying forms, self-descriptions, promulgations and demands (or lack thereof), one thing is fairly certain: Occupy, with its rhetoric and peculiar actions, has not spread deep enough—into the ghettoes, the ruined towns and cities, among the marginalized, and directly into the sphere of circulation or the point of production.

The bureaucrats at the helm of the labor unions have paid a great deal of lip service towards Occupy. Despite the suspicious motives of these managers of a different stripe, the U.S. labor union movement as a whole has been notably self-critical over the past decade and has been awaiting a burst of energy the likes of Occupy for some time. It can be assumed that the slow decay of the unions and their influence leaves all strata of labor hoping for a resurgence from below, setting aside worries about its direction, cynical or otherwise, for a later time. Still, the working class, unionized or not, employed, underemployed, laid off, or informal have yet to find a galvanizing way of taking Occupy to their workplace or their communities, which is to say, they have yet to risk militant activity against austerity and the general assault against workers.[2]

Occupy has, if at a minimum, made the statement that the proletarian masses (i.e. the global 99 percent or some odd amount) have a profound connection against the power of the few. This statement has a great significance following four decades of fragmentation, culture wars, identity politics, and flight from workers’ identity. Again, at a minimum, Occupy has tried to transcend stale ideological, bureaucratic, institutional or structural forms with its general assemblies, “people’s mic,” abstention from electoral politics and lack of demands. The allusion of this latter ingenuity is those needs that the masses require cannot be demanded but must be commanded or simply implemented. So then, in line with this, the kitchen, library, medics and councils of Zucotti Park are executed by the grassroots of the movement. This core logic (as blemished as it may be in practice) and its attraction have substantial implications for those who look to the self-organization and direct action of the proletariat as the harbinger of revolution. Unfortunately, neither the working class nor the Occupy activists and participants have yet to make full use of this logic, let alone the rank and file, to their own detriment.

The Subway Connection

Transit workers belonging to New York City’s Transport Workers Union Local 100 exhibit a familiar sight in the 21st century U.S. labor movement: broke, angry, slandered, disillusioned, directionless and top heavy. Following the often perceived failure of the 2005 strike, which momentarily realized the transit workers’ power of threatening the symbolic citadel of global financial capital, transit workers’ participation and dues contribution in their union is at an all time low.[3]

What’s more, though once a hard hitting rank and file with untamable militancy, New York’s transit workers lack the organization they once had, the hope they once exhibited and the public support they deserve. In the midst of the current NYC budget crisis, an opportunity presents itself to the rank and file. Talk and agitation of a “fare strike” arises from the interface between the transit workers and Occupy Wall Street. That is, transit worker members of the labor committee of Occupy Wall Street have taken up pamphleteering with this new threat, as contract negotiations loom large.

This inspiration points to the burgeoning possibility of rank and file workers, in a particularly disruptive sector, following the latent logic (or perhaps an interpretation) of Occupy. The extent to which the TWU follows through with it may yield insight into the potential readily available in harnessing the same sentiment and logic that yielded such widespread support in the Occupy movement.

The history of the TWU is something of a tragic story, one of patience, rank and file militance and hope betrayed. The possibility of a fare strike tactic is historically adequate to the needs and capacities of rank and file transit workers today, especially in the present moment, as a result of their past experiences and betrayals after elevating the most radical rhetoric to power inside their union. The current frustrated state of the TWU members derives most immediately from the 2005 strike and its aftermath. However, for a more robust understanding of the weight of this frustration and disillusionment, and how tactics like the fare strike help contemplate moving beyond it, we must detail the sequence of experiences and the impressions they have left.

Brief History of TWU

[4]

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Transit Authority (TA) put forth changes to train operator and conductor scheduling that threatened seniority privileges. A slowdown spread—an easily implemented and effective tool as it reduces revenue while at the same time disrupting the leviathan internal economy of New York City. The slowdown was supported by the burgeoning reform group New Directions (ND). The illegal action lasted over a week and was finally successful, the scheduling threat was rescinded.

In early 1992, a long delayed contract agreement was announced which surrendered a great deal of previous gains. A foreshadowing of automation ruled the tone for the contract, offering cuts to wages and benefits for new hires in exchange for “productivity” bonuses for those senior workers. This pandering to seniority fell on deaf ears as the workers, to their credit, refused to help entrench a two tier contract. A “Vote No” campaign ensued; massive demonstrations, large marches across the Brooklyn Bridge, slowdowns and extensive communication resulted in the first ever contract rejection in Local 100. Through an arbitration threat and paternalistic second call vote, enacted by reigning president Sonny Hall, the contract was finally ratified. Nonetheless, autonomous rank and file activity, dissention and communication networks were set up for the future.

In 1996, the Transit Authority threatened to lay off 2,000 cleaners due to a proclaimed budget deficit. In exchange for a guarantee of their positions, “unorganizable” workfare workers were to be employed in a Clinton-era deal. 1999 seemed to promise good tidings as the contract was set to expire during the December 15th holiday season, giving bargaining power to the workers that allow shoppers to explore the island of Manhattan. With the MTA claiming a surplus in their budgets, the outlook for negotiations looked promising. The insults of the ’90s were building up to strong expectations and a loss of patience. Slowdowns and service disruptions led up to the termination date of the old contract, hinting at the workers’ power to shut the city down.

A mass membership meeting was called on the last day before the end of the contract. Thousands were in attendance lauding calls for a strike. At this meeting, the union local’s own Vice President read an injunction that the then-mayor Rudy Giuliani arrogantly contrived, claiming that Local 100 members were forbidden to strike or even discuss striking![5] Despite the warning, workers were livid and continued to support a strike call. After the meeting members marched to the union hall to hear contract negotiation updates. This powerful display signaled that the rank and file were teeming with anger and confidence. Despite all this, the president of the local negotiated a contract that sacrificed seniority rights and did nothing to deal with the Health Benefit Trust which was very obviously running out of resources. Due to a large wage increase and the passing of the prime strike season, members approved the contract.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Roger Toussaint, a member of the dissenting New Directions caucus, was elected in 2001. This election signaled that workers were fed up with contract concessions and givebacks. Workers voted in the caucus that had the most radical program. At this moment, the Health Benefit Trust was almost completely out of resources and the union was lacking organization. Toussaint initiated a set of paternalistic top-down initiatives with superficial rank and file gestures. For example, he set up mass steward trainings, but in the end their training was simply to make them better union literature distributers. Also, Toussaint ruled motions calling for rank and file organizing committees out of order. According to Steve Downs, the “strategic choice behind these decisions had lasting effects on the local and limited how much would actually be accomplished.”[6] These actions would prove to be gravely prophetic.

Equally foretelling was Toussaint’s intervention in the strike of Local 100 members against a private bus company regarding their lack of a contract. Liberty Lines workers struck for a contract, but the strike was supported, then called off by Toussaint after only a day. Later, in the summer of 2002, Local 100 bus drivers struck in Queens. These workers were without a contract for over a year at this point. Some of their demands included greater employer contributions to benefits and job security in the face of privatization. Workers struck for five weeks but were betrayed by Toussaint who negotiated a contract behind closed doors that caved in on the job security question. The Vice President of this division led a walkout from an executive board meeting after he denounced Toussaint for hijacking the strike and caving in.

In the face of a budget deficit, the wake of 9/11, and a persistent health benefits funding crisis, New Directions captured some of the rage within the rank and file with the 2002 contract negotiation slogan of “Second Class No More!”[7] This slogan alluded to the fact that TA employees made less wages, had smaller benefits and were disciplined more than the other two transit workers of the MTA: the Long Island Railroad and the Metro North Railroad. The latter two rails were operated by predominantly white workers while TA workers were predominantly black and latino. Toussaint however, merely feigned a strike in 2002 while pushing forward a paltry contract. The sloganeering was sufficient to tap into the complexity of rank and file anger; the talk of a strike gave workers the impression of a militant leadership and the slogans quelled their distrust.

If the tension had reached a boiling point with the misfirings of the 2000s, the pot began to overflow surrounding the 2005 contract. Despite the obvious pressures, no mass mobilizations were organized, no strike preparations were developed, and no connection with “social struggles” were declared. On the MTA’s part, however, there was rabid warmongering. It stated that, despite its $1 billion surplus for the year, none would be set aside for improved wages. In addition, pension contributions would arbitrarily increase for first year workers. This outright disrespect was too much to manage; the executive board was forced to swiftly declare a strike. No clear goals were put forward by the leadership, nothing was rallied around; the union bureaucrats stood on the sidelines, half-hearted and disassociated.[8]

Solidarity existed across divisions as, although no picket trainings occurred, pickets went up around the city. The workers stood out on the cold picket lines with perfectly unified effectiveness; New York City ground to an immediate halt. The workers from different divisions joined together and discussed their grievances. Their goals were clear and obvious: they stood against disrespect, harassment, and “second class” treatment. They stood for healthcare, better working conditions, and a better life. Yet their goals and desires must have been evolving as they met and sensed their incredible power.

Blistering public relations attacks were made by the mayor, the governor, and the MTA; the public was left with a poor perception of the strike and an unclear set of demands; the leadership of other NYC unions and their own International turned their backs. Other unions found the strike too polarizing to give support, while the International directly betrayed Local 100 and stood opposed to the strike.

The executive board, with Toussaint’s helping hand, finally voted, after a mere three days, to end the strike without an agreement or any concessions-even though the power and effectiveness (i.e., in terms of participation) of the strike was brutally successful. Quickly following this, Toussaint agreed to worker contributions for healthcare and allowed wages to be eroded by inflation in a cowardly set of contract givebacks. Defiantly, the contract was rejected by the membership and only ratified later under “binding arbitration.” To add injury to insult, the local was fined, each worker was docked a days’ pay (on top of their lost strike wages), and the local lost the right to automatically deduct dues. Finally, Toussaint was jailed for ten days for presiding over the strike. The politicians and lawmakers would end the local’s militancy the hard way.

Toussaint’s involvement in the two private lines strikes showed that, besides him riding a populist radicalism to presidency, he was more interested in managing struggles in cooperation with employers than leading a powerful and aggressive rank and file-and an influential fraction of NYC (and therefore U.S.) labor. Toussaint led a current of the reform movement leadership that focused on taking power above all else, a strategy that time and again has lead to an upward drifting separation from the grassroots. For Toussaint, this drift led to his ascent to a bureacratic position as Vice President of Strategic Planning with the International, the same body that condemned Local 100’s strike.

Aftermath of Strike

Union participation and rank and file militant activity is currently at an all time low in terms of attendance at membership meetings and talk of striking. A majority of workers don’t pay union dues. This disillusioned majority of a once vibrant and militant union has had enough of the leadership’s chicanery following the called off strike of 2005. Slowdowns however, still occur with a low profile, striking at management without official consent.

Attacks continue, now harder than ever with the overwhelming spread of automation in New York City’s subway system. According to one rank and file bulletin: “In 2010, the MTA hypocrites laid-off 460 Station Agents (SAs), ‘saving’ the MTA about $50 million. Over 900 transit workers were laid-off system-wide last year, about 250 SAs on Mother’s Day weekend alone. Today, 147 remain out of work. Returning them to work is now a contract demand.”[9]

As the footsoldiers of nation/continent-wide austerity programs, municipal governments and economies all over the world are in a fragile state—no less with New York City’s economy—making the stakes now higher than ever for NYC transit workers. Further, anger at the MTA among the citizenry of New York City has reached an apex. Riders find themselves with drastically less service and a transit system that can’t handle a relatively small amount of disruption (as winter 2010 revealed). As for workers, the siege is on all sides as the MTA openly states that “any wage increases during the first three years of a new agreement will be offset by savings from union concessions and that wages will increase at only inflation rate.”[10]

Debt in Service

The heavy reliance on financing has, to many, put the MTA at the behest of Wall Street instead of being funded by tax dollars. Put best by the MTA itself:

The MTA has also proposed borrowing $14.8 billion—the largest amount in its history. Such a heavy reliance on debt would further stress the operating budget. Debt service would reach $3.3 billion annually by 2018, or 64 percent more than in 2011, and would remain at that level through 2031. These estimates do not even consider the cost of the next capital program, which begins in 2015.[11]

The accelerated financialization of the MTA drives transit worker frustration and system-wide instability. In December 2010, the MTA tripled its number of top Wall Street “senior” investment advisors, salesmen, and bond insurers. Bloomberg News estimated that Wall Street firms will collectively earn about $31 million in extra fees for their role in the MTA.[12]

Cuts in funding for the MTA have been a steady pattern amongst politicians, pushing the MTA to turn out bonds to private buyers to fund capital projects. Instead of publically funded services, the MTA can claim that its revenues are not adequate and turn to Wall Street for help. Further, this perpetual indebtedness allows the MTA to cut into labor costs and raise fares in the name of the mere interest collecting on its debts. Today the largest and fastest growing expense of the MTA is its $2 billion annual debt service. In addition, their current policy is to service this debt before all costs, including wages and the very operating expenses of the transit system of one of the world’s largest cities. The downward spiral of indebtedness (and full privatization) is accelerating: “the MTA has a funding gap of $9.9 billion in construction and renovation funding (capital funding) over the next 10 years. To plug the hole over the next 3 years, the MTA will sell a whopping $8 billion in MTA bonds.”[13]

The crux of the budget balancing and bond dividends falls on workers and riders alike. The MTA plans on increasing fares in 2013 and 2015 to help make up for their budget gaps. Pink slips, service cuts, and overtime restriction amount to savings towards another portion. They are counting on TWU givebacks and effective wage freezes (in relation to inflation) to make up the rest.

Fare Strike

Here, the novelty and timeliness of the Occupy inspired fare strike shines through. A fare strike is when a rider or worker physically jars open emergency exits or opens up turnstiles to make commuting free—all the while denying revenues to the MTA like a traditional strike. The connection between transit worker and rider here is a profound one. While, the station agent was previously forced into the role of cashier and security personnel, now the station agent acts in direct solidarity with the rider. In addition to the obvious cosmetic advantages of this maneuver—especially in contrast to the 2005 strike in which transit workers had poor public support and were seen as selfish—these workers are making a class connection in the statement: “We are both being screwed here!”

A fare strike would also be a slap in the face of NYC’s bloated police force. Ever since Giuliani’s heavy handed “Broken Windows” tactic in the late ’90s-early ’00s, “jumping the turnstile,” or getting a free ride on the train, has been comprehensively attacked. It’s not uncommon for police to haul people off to the “tombs” (i.e., central processing jail) for a night for this offense. Cameras and guards are always on the lookout. Often the station agent is seen as an extension of this policing.[14] In this activity, transit workers will be making connections with some of the most devastated and desperate working class communities.

Conclusion

With a history of misplaced trust and betrayals by self-proclaimed radical leaders, New York’s transit workers have had enough of the TWU bureaucracy and their empty promises. The slowdown has been and is an example of rank and file activity that rejects management and unions’ mediation alike. Most recently, transit workers have refused to haul Occupy prisoners, they have been seen stopping their vehicles while holding out union cards when they interact with Occupy rallies and they are participants in working groups of OWS. On November 17th, the anniversary of Occupy, scattered subway stations across NYC were chained open by anonymous activists. The current organizing and agitating for a fare strike by OWS involved transit workers stems from the fusion of rank and file militancy with the autonomist struggle and confidence born of Occupy Wall Street. The possibility of workers taking direct action with the “99 percent” has class-wide implications, however confused the sloganeering may be. Already these connections have been forged and are being built upon by the grassroots interface of the OWS labor committee and transit workers in the pamphleteering, whisper campaigns, and strategizing done around the fare strike idea.[15]

This exciting usage of a strike, in its form and content, drives together class interests—riders and transit workers alike—against the capitalist owners of the MTA and their political minions. Further, it channels anger at ubiquitous and amorphous financial capital towards a specific target, instead of an irrational hysteria towards reclaiming a “Main Street”–driven capitalism. Perhaps most significantly, it decommodifies transportation in the process. Whether or not a fare strike leads up to the coming mid-January contract negotiations, the tactic, along with slowdowns, will be a part of rank and file transit workers’—and riders’—arsenal against the MTA if it is accepted.

  1. [1] Root & Branch, eds., preface to “The Seattle General Strike,” Root & Branch: The Rise of the Workers Movements, as quoted in Fare Strike! San Fransisco 2005, by Insane Dialectal Posse.
  2. [2] Outside the posturing of November 17th, etc.
  3. [3] Notably, dues are not automatically deducted from TWU members as a result of a punitive injunction following the 2006 strike.
  4. [4] The following section draws from Steve Downs’s Hell on Wheels: The Success and Failure of Reform in Transport Workers Union Local 100, amongst other narratives. Downs’s work is an account of the failed reform movement within Local 100 which raised the strike-quelling Roger Toussaint to his presidency. As Downs was himself a founder and leading organizer of this reform movement, his short history does a great job of summarizing key contract negotiations, rank and file sentiment, and internal political machination despite its often obvious bias and political bent (i.e., he is a member of the left Trotskyist group, Solidarity).
  5. [5] This was just to emphasize the already illegal act of transit strikes as outlined in New York’s Taylor Law, incidentally enacted following a powerful transit strike in 1967.
  6. [6] Steve Downs, page 26.
  7. [7]NYC transit workers reject givebacks” by Harry Harrington for the Industrial Worker.
  8. [8] Ibid.
  9. [9] Supplement to “Contract Bulletin #22” by Marty Goodman.
  10. [10] “Financial Outlook for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority,” New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
  11. [11] Ibid.
  12. [12] Marty Goodman.
  13. [13] ibid.
  14. [14] Unlike in France or Germany, for example, where station agents, conductors and bus drivers often look the other way when someone does not pay, leaving this job to the municipal security or police.
  15. [15] This article is intentionally discreet regarding specific references to people, parties, actions, and dates involved in the aforementioned organizing.