Reformers Lose Close TWU Election
The incumbent officers of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union managed to hang onto their jobs in December. But the New Directions reform slate is challenging the election results in the 33,000-member union.
By November, it was clear that the race would be close. Many transit workers thought that New Directions would win. But when the ballots were counted, incumbent Willie James defeated Tim Schermerhorn, 9,684 to 8,803. Other races were even closer. ND secretary-treasurer candidate Naomi Allen lost by 358 votes while vice presidential candidate Pete Foley was 265 votes shy of winning.
New Directions did win overwhelmingly among subway workers. But the James slate's margin among bus drivers and maintenance workers was enough to offset this. We won 20 of the 23 elected seats on the executive board in the subway divisions, but were unable to capture seats in the bus divisions.
The James slate called on transit workers to "Devour the Meatballs!"--a "meatball" being James' term for anyone who opposes him. The James campaign also included heavy red-baiting.
"The reason they got any votes at all was that they ran a vile, slanderous campaign," said Schermerhorn. "They actually put out leaflets making up socialist organizations that we belonged to, saying that we were out to get the TWU treasury for these organizations."
In addition to red-baiting, the James Slate based its campaign on the promise of an improved pension plan. New Directions charged that the pension promise was nothing but a campaign ploy. Pensions for public employees in New York are set by the state legislature, so, in reality, all the James slate was promising was to submit a bill for an improved pension.
The James slate also argued for cooperation with management. New Directions, however, urged Local 100 members to "Take Back the Power!" This expressed the dual focus of taking power back from the bureaucrats running the union and taking power back from management on the job.
PREPARATION FOR STRIKE
ND argued for specific changes in the union and its orientation that would make it more democratic and more aggressive in its dealings with management. These changes included divisional elections of vice presidents, instead of appointments. Local 100 currently has seven vice presidents, who are elected at-large and then appointed by the president to run one the local's divisions. ND called for electing them by division so that they could be held accountable by the members of the divisions. The reformers also committed to having staff representatives (business agents) elected rather than appointed.
Schermerhorn says that there was a general acceptance of corruption among local officers.
"They sort of looked at the corruption in our union as run of the mill," he said. "For a long time, their whole thing was, 'You may not like us, but we're not the Teamsters.'"
New Directions wanted to cut the salaries of officers and staff (from over $130,000 to $70,000 for the president).
New Directions also pointed to how much had been given up under the leadership of the James slate in the pursuit of cooperation, and insisted on the need to prepare for confrontation.
The slate vowed to spend the two years before the contract expires preparing for the possibility of a strike, which is illegal for New York public employees. New Directions was stating openly that, as officers, we were prepared to lead an illegal strike if that is what it would take to save our jobs from management's plan to shrink the workforce. We argued further that, if a strike might be necessary, then it is the responsibility of the officers to prepare the union for it, rather than lead an ill-prepared strike or accept a union-gutting contract.
The strike issue took its toll in the voting. "[The James slate] said that we would be taking them out on strike all the time," said Schermerhorn.
FRAUD AND INTIMIDATION
In 1994, Schermerhorn won 45 percent of the vote for president. Since that time, New Directions had built strong support among the operating crews and maintenance workers in the subways. But because of the officer's salary and strike issues, several ND members who had taken jobs on the union staff defected to the James slate last year. The move weakened the slate's position in the election.
"I think the defection might have made a difference by a couple of hundred votes," said Schermerhorn. "It was certainly critical."
New Directions is challenging the outcome of the election, charging that both union and employer resources were used to aid the James slate, along with "massive ballot fraud and intimidation in some divisions," said Schermerhorn.
A computerized directory of members' phone numbers was made available to the James slate for phone banking. Staff reps campaigned while on the union payroll. Management released people from work to hear speeches from James slate candidates.
At the same time, New Directions candidates who tried to take time off without pay were denied. Given the closeness of the election, ND believes this affected the outcome of the election.
The local's executive board has already ruled against the appeal. Now the international board will review the election. If necessary, New Directions will ask the Department of Labor to order a new election under outside supervision.
But New Directions is not simply waiting for a new election. We are the elected representatives of a majority of the divisions of TWU Local 100. We will act accordingly, fulfilling our duties as officers while fighting to be recognized by both management and the union as the legitimate representatives of thousands of transit workers. And we will keep organizing among transit workers so that they can win the daily confrontations with management, regardless of who the local president is.
Steve Downs is a New York City train operator who was recently reelected to the Local 100 executive board on the New Directions slate.