Defiant New York Transit Workers Strike

Revolution #029, January 8, 2006, posted at

Over 33,000 New York City transit workers walked out in a defiant strike in December. A strike like this would be important and daring at any time. But in this moment and in that place, it had the feel of a manifesto against the whole direction of these times.

To demand pensions and health care, when everyone else is told to live without... To defy the law that forbids strikes by government workers... To disrupt business as usual in this time of mania for security. How out of step! How fresh!

New York Governor Pataki declared the strike illegal. Mayor Bloomberg called the strikers "thuggish" in a blatant appeal to racism that was immediately protested. And imagine this shameless billionaire mayor daring to denounce the workers for being "greedy"! And (natural for these times) the strikers were labeled "terrorist" in some mainstream press articles. A court imposed a $1 million a day fine against the union local. And fines against each striker reached over $1,000. Court action was started to jail union leaders.

And, in the face of all that, the workers struck. These heavily African American and foreign-born workers said "No!" in a way you couldnt miss. They stopped the city busses and subways that move millions in and out of work.

Automation has wiped out thousands of job on the busses and subways. The MTA is on a rampage of outrageous harassment, dishing out a phenomenal 15,000 disciplinary actions just in the last year. Daily News columnist Juan Gonzales described cases where workers taking chemotherapy to fight cancer were accused of "sick leave abuse."

A track worker told our correspondent: "We keep giving back and giving back, and they keep taking back, but we said to our ourselves, not this time."

Out in the streets, in the ghettos and barrios, the workers of Transport Workers Union Local 100 were seen as heroes by many. Polls showed that Black people overwhelmingly supported the strikers, while a majority of all nationalities "disapproved" of the governors handling of the contract negotiations. The letters to the editor of the New York Times, with its mainly middle-class and upper-middle-class readership, mostly supported the strike, despite the hostile editorials of the Times. Given the mainstream press attacks on the strikers, and the inconvenience from the bus and subway stoppage, there was more than a little narrowness in how some people responded--but that makes the mass support all the more remarkable.

The issues at the center of this strike were undeniably just and important: The workers wanted guaranteed pensions and medical benefits, not just for themselves but for the workers who followed them. The MTA was promoting a sinister "two tier" system--the kind that has swept through U.S. industry--where todays workers get cut, but future hirees get slashed much deeper. Such schemes guarantee a bitterly divided and weakened workforce.

The political power structure and mainstream media considered attacks on pensions and benefits to be normal and even visionary. After all, it is said, if workers here dont accept less, "how will the U.S. successfully compete in this globalized world economy?" This is a sign of the downsized future that capitalists are planning as they respond to the dynamics and changes of their own capitalist system.

The transit workers decided to make the two-tier plans for cutting pensions into a battle line. As one striker told Revolution: "I will not sell out the next generation."

Their stand resonated widely. One young nursing student spoke for many people:"How did pensions become a luxury? Why shouldnt people be able to take this for granted? Whats so wrong with that?"

At a post office waiting line, one woman complained out loud that the strike was disrupting her life, saying, "It didnt make any sense. They arent even fighting about their own pensions, for themselves, but for future generations." Someone shot back, "Whats wrong with that?!"

One striker told Revolution: "They talk about 'illegal,' about our strike. But when Rosa Parks did something, it was illegal. When King did it and Malcolm X did it, it was illegal. And look where they are now; theyre heroes. Slavery was legal, but people fought for something in those days."

After three days, the strike ended. MTA negotiators said the "two tier" demand would be "taken off the table." The union officials called off the strike--even though the MTA has not abandoned its demands for major concessions and the state has not withdrawn its outrageous fines.

Conservative columnists and think-tanks still complained that all this had ended in a way "extremely favorable" for the strikers, and that this would encourage more resistance. And the fact that these forces are furious over anything that isnt a cold crushing of the workers is a sign of where they are determined to take things in this society.

This is a good moment for millions of working people in New York City--in the much-demonized "Babylon by the Hudson"--to be stirred against the power structure, inspired by organized law-breaking, and openly debating where the future is going.

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