TWU workers demand just contract

TWU workers demand just contract

Transit union seeks a decent contract
NYC riders support workers over MTA bosses

By Milt Neidenberg
New York

Dec. 14—With the countdown to a possible transit strike in New York just two days away, thousands of members of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union converged on 42nd Street across from Grand Central Station at rush hour on Dec. 13. Their chant of “Shut the city down!” was an angry rallying cry in response to the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s heavy pressure to force a weak contract on them.

With their sea of placards and banners, these workers sent a powerful message to the MTA, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. George Pataki. They would not be intimidated in their fight for a decent contract. They found a sympathetic ear from workers and shoppers making their way through the congested streets to subways and buses.

The MTA, top Republican and Democratic city officials, and the major media are waging a frenzied anti-union campaign to get the workers to accept a two-tier wage contract that would create divisions within the union. However, a progressive group of City Council members from working-class neighborhoods held a press conference on Dec. 14 to say that any strike will be the responsibility of the MTA.

The MTA wants newly hired workers to pay 2 percent of their wages toward health benefits. This includes higher premiums, deductibles and co-payments. It demands the union extend the retirement age to 62 from 55. It has offered a paltry wage increase that is far below the cost of living in a city where rent, food, energy and other goods and services are rising at an alarming rate.

The arrogance of the MTA bosses extends to working conditions. They demand more productivity from workers who have to labor in an atmosphere fraught with dangers and unhealthy conditions, both in the subways and the streets above. They demand tighter restrictions on sick leave. They want a one-person train operation—conductors would be removed from trains. They have closed station booths and reassigned clerks to cleaning and other station chores.

There are presently 2,700 conductors and 3,300 station agents in the subway system; they make up almost 18 percent of the union.

Another sore point is the tens of thousands of disciplinary actions taken against the workers every year. New York 1 television news reported that a worker cleaning the platforms can be disciplined just for answering a rider’s questions about subway service.

The contract expires at midnight on Dec. 15. The transit workers at a mass rally on Dec. 10, in the most democratic fashion, voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike. The vote sent a powerful message to the MTA to start negotiating in good faith.

Instead, the MTA went to State Supreme Court and got a preliminary injunction that would impose huge fines on the union itself and also punish the 34,000 individual transit workers with the loss of two days’ pay for each day they’re on strike.

The bosses are relying on the Taylor Law, an anti-labor law in New York State passed nearly 40 years ago and signed by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a scion of the billionaire Rockefeller dynasty.

Another billionaire, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has also filed a lawsuit that asks the court to fine the TWU $1 million and each striker $25,000 on the first day of a strike—and double the fines every day the strike goes on.

Showing contempt for the right of the transit workers to exercise their right to withhold their labor and express their free assembly and free speech rights, these capitalist politicians have torn up the U.S. Constitution.

The high-paid MTA executives provoked this crisis. Crying poverty, they covered up a billion-dollar surplus until they were exposed for cooking the books. They had already divided up this surplus in their own interests, applying most of the funds to replacing workers with technology.

The MTA claims the pension fund is under-funded, a typical corporate maneuver, and has promised to put back the money.

The transit workers, who created the wealth of the MTA and should be the trustee of those funds, want a major part of this surplus. They may have to strike or plan other actions to get it. TWU president Roger Toussaint told the crowd at the rally, which stretched over several blocks, “They’re not going to force a lousy contract down our throats.”

To end his speech, Toussaint tore a copy of the Bloomberg lawsuit into little pieces, to thunderous cheers from the members. Other speakers included the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and a number of leaders from other labor unions.

Chris Silvera, president of Teamsters Local 808, representing Metro North and Long Island Rail Road, let the transit workers know that the MTA’s plans to get Bronx and Queens straphangers into Manhattan that way will not happen. “We will take care of scabs the Teamster way,” he said.

The negotiations will go down to the wire. If there is a strike, the responsibility for it lies with the MTA, Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg.

The money is there and the demands of the transit workers are just. The labor movement and the straphangers have a stake in the outcome of this struggle.

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