TWU Contract Struggle

On Jan. 20, members of the Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York City narrowly rejected a tentative contract settlement with the Metropolitan Transit Authority that ended a three-day strike in December. That strike completely shut down New York City’s subway and bus system, causing over $1 billion in losses for city businesses.

The vote was 11,227 for the settlement and 11,234 against—a seven vote margin. Two-thirds of the union’s 34,000 members voted.

The rejection was a reflection of general dissatisfaction with one concession in the settlement, where workers would pay 1.5 percent of their income toward health coverage. Most city unions have accepted concessions in contract settlements over the past decade. There is a rising frustration among city workers in accepting concessionary contracts at a time when both the city and New York state are sitting on huge budget surpluses.

The rejection poses severe challenges to the union and the labor movement over the next steps as the union leadership returns to the bargaining table.

The union’s negotiating committee, led by Local 100 president Roger Toussaint, campaigned hard for the settlement. The settlement did include a number of gains, including maternity payments, bridge health care coverage that would guarantee lifetime coverage for all members, a paid Martin Luther King day holiday, an independent investigation of the MTA’s “plantation justice” discipline system, and a payout to more than half the membership of between $8,000 and $14,000 to make up for past overpayments to the union pension plan. Most importantly, the union defeated MTA plans to impose a two-tier benefit package and to “broadband” job classifications, permitting workers to perform multiple jobs and setting the stage for future layoffs.

The MTA—representing the city’s biggest banking and real estate interests—is taking the rejection as an opportunity to step up their anti-union campaign. It had provoked the Dec. 20 strike by insisting on a two-tier pension plan, where new workers would pay 6 percent of their pay toward pensions as opposed to the current 2 percent payments.

On Jan. 26, the MTA put a new proposal on the table, calling for an even wider range of concessions and “broadbanding.” It also sought to have the negotiations sent to binding arbitration, allowing mediators to dictate the terms of the settlement. TWU president Toussaint has rejected calls for arbitration.

The union leadership is considering plans for moving forward, including a mass rally. It has also declined to rule out another strike.

Several factions campaigned against the contract settlement, calling it a sell-out. But none provided a fighting program to win a better settlement than the one rejected. They held out vague programs like holding mass meetings to allow members to discuss a way forward.

But absent a clear program to win, based on a real evaluation of class forces, that is sheer demagoguery.

Opposition leaders within the TWU have an obligation to work with Toussaint’s leadership in forming a united program to win a contract on the best terms possible, given the balance of forces.

The TWU leadership is now faced with the task of rebuilding a united campaign to win a contract. They have already shown their tremendous power to bring the city to a halt.

With the divided vote, that will not be easy.

The wider labor movement has much at stake in the TWU contract battle. The December strike gave a glimpse into the potential that the working class has to stand up against the ruling class anti-labor offensive. Union militants across the city need to be able to explain that lesson to build confidence in the membership’s ability to fight.

A pledge by the New York City Central Labor Council to raise $1.5 million from city union members to support the TWU’s strike fund should immediately be revived and enacted.

Reversing the decades-old pattern of concessionary contracts in New York City will require a battle involving the entire labor movement. A victory would be a momentous step forward for the whole U.S. working class, organized and unorganized.

Articles may be reprinted with credit to Socialism and Liberation magazine.

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