New Transit Union Leaders Encourage Member Participation -- But Falter on Democratic Rights
The good news in Transport Workers Union Local 100 is that the new leadership has cleaned up the local’s finances and encouraged member
Editor’s Note: After reformers take power in a union, it’s not uncommon that differences among them-which were submerged during the campaign to win election-come to the surface. Labor Notes welcomes readers’ comments on situations like the one described here.
participation in everything from cultural presentations to COPE to the stewards program. The bad news is that it has decided that it does not have to respect the democratic rights it fought for as part of a reform caucus.
Most of Local 100’s 35,000 members operate and maintain the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s subways and buses in New York City, while others work for a number of private bus companies.
The New Directions (ND) slate, headed by Roger Toussaint, won 60 percent of the vote in a three-way race in December 2000. ND took over a local that was broke and in which much of the most basic functioning of a union had collapsed.
The new officers immediately set out to control costs. Salaries for officers and staff were cut (although not as much as New Directions’ campaign platform had pledged). The special staff pension plan, with its windfall payment upon retirement, was ended. Steps have been taken to recover funds that current officers believe were improperly paid out in the past.
An ambitious stewards training program was launched last year, and close to 500 members attended the first set of classes. Several mass demonstrations to preserve the Local’s Health Benefit Trust have been called. And the local has conducted brief strikes at two of the private companies where it has contracts, while winning first contracts at two additional companies.
INTOLERANT OF DISAGREEMENT
That’s all good. But.
Toussaint and many of the new officers coming from New Directions have shown themselves to be intolerant of any disagreement or criticism. They have adopted a staff-driven, explicitly military model of organization: authority flows from the top and activists are to be “good soldiers,” following orders.
The significance of this top-down approach was clear during one of the private company strikes last year, when Toussaint called off the strike after only one day. No tentative agreement had been reached. Many of the strikers objected, but were not given a chance to vote on this decision. When a New Directions member argued that the members must make these decisions, he was accused of trying to undermine the president.
New Directions meetings have ceased being a place where active members could discuss how to carry out the reforms they had worked for and instead are now used simply to endorse whatever steps Toussaint wishes to take.
In the past, New Directions had called for making it easier to run for office. But now that they have the majority on the executive board, ND members have used it to try to prevent opponents from running. (A long time ND member, Naomi Allen, was brought up on charges for “forging” members’ names on letters stating their intent to run for convention delegate. These charges were brought, and dragged out for eight months, despite the fact that the members in question all stated that they had authorized Allen to sign for them.)
HOW TO REBUILD THE UNION
Late last year, several founding members of ND (including two top officers-Noel Acevedo, the Recording Secretary, and Tim Schermerhorn, VP for Rapid Transit) decided that they could not remain silent about measures taken by Toussaint that they strongly disagreed with. They also thought it still important that there be a place where members could engage in discussion about how to move the local forward. They launched a newsletter called Rank and File Advocate to continue promoting the democratic unionism and militancy against the boss that ND had stood for.
When the local held a big membership meeting at a Manhattan hotel on December 1, hotel security was called to escort out members who were distributing “unauthorized” literature (including, but not limited to, R&F Advocate). When ND was in opposition, it won a court order barring the local from preventing members from distributing literature at union meetings.
Following that, Toussaint barred two stewards linked to the Advocate from a stewards’ meeting.
The debate in Local 100 is not just about democracy. It’s really about how to rebuild the union, what our goals are, and how to win a good contract under very difficult conditions this year. Democracy matters because it helps the officers and members make informed decisions, act upon them, and then weigh the outcome of their actions.
This year, those decisions will include whether to wage an illegal strike when the big contract with the MTA expires, how to preserve health benefits without making the concessions the MTA is demanding, and how much to expect from the governor during an election year.
“The current leadership has done far more to prepare for this contract fight than the previous leadership would have,” says VP Tim Schermerhorn. “This makes us stronger. However, the lack of democratic discussion around strategic decisions in waging the fight and the isolation of officers and members who have led fights in the past weakens us.”