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NYC Transit Strike: Union Power vs. Class Collaboration

by Workers Vanguard Saturday, Jan. 07, 2006 at 9:57 PM

Strikers Defy Taylor Law

JANUARY 2—The 2005 New York City transit strike stunned the obscenely rich capitalist rulers of this society and gave a shot in the arm to all working people. For three days, 33,700 members of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 defied the state Taylor Law banning public workers strikes and shut down the city—the financial center of U.S. imperialism. Finally, here was a powerful union using its strength, not only for itself but also for future transit workers and workers across the country who see their pensions looted and health benefits ripped up by profit-bloated capitalists. Here was a union standing up to the billionaires’ government—from the Bush White House down to Republican governor Pataki, Democratic state attorney general Eliot Spitzer and Republican mayor Michael Bloomberg—and its anti-labor courts and cops.

The strike against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which was joined by Amalgamated Transit Union MTA bus workers in Queens and Staten Island, drew wide support from the city’s ghettos and barrios and from both unionized and unorganized workers. The strike was intensely followed by working people throughout the U.S. and internationally and featured on news broadcasts from Britain to Argentina to Japan. It came at a time of growing popular anger over attacks on workers’ livelihoods, over the government’s racist abandonment of New Orleans’ poor and black population after Hurricane Katrina, over the murderous imperialist occupation of Iraq. The strike was a battle for the rights of labor at a time when the government has taken aim at all of our rights through the “war on terror” backed by both capitalist parties, the Democrats and Republicans.

The strike was provoked by the MTA bosses and carried out by a reluctant union leadership. First the MTA demanded that new-hires work an additional seven years, to age 62, before becoming eligible for full retirement benefits. Not only was this a direct attack on the unity of the union, but seven more years of grueling work—breathing steel dust underground, exposed to toxic chemicals and diesel exhaust, bouncing around in bus drivers’ seats on choked city streets—would be a death sentence for large numbers of workers. The Local 100 leadership under Roger Toussaint kept talks going for four days after the old contract expired. While the MTA dropped its demand for raising the retirement age, just hours before the new December 20 strike deadline MTA chairman Peter Kalikow ambushed the union by demanding that new-hires pay 6 percent of their wages toward their pensions, up from the 2 percent that workers currently pay. This time the union didn’t blink, and the workers walked out.

Bloomberg railed that the leadership of this overwhelmingly black and Latino union was “thuggish.” The capitalist rulers saw this strike as something akin to a slave rebellion. But their attempt to divide and isolate the union through racist vilification backfired. A black worker on the picket line told us that Bloomberg’s slurs reminded him of the accusations of looting leveled by the media against desperate black people looking for food in New Orleans. Others remarked that this vicious treatment is indicative of the “plantation justice” they endure from the MTA with its onerous disciplinary measures. Local 100 reflects the working class of the city: white, black, Latino; immigrants from the Caribbean, the former Soviet Union, Ireland, the Indian subcontinent, China and elsewhere. The integrated picket lines graphically demonstrated how the poisonous racial and ethnic divisions fostered by the capitalists to weaken labor can be overcome through class struggle.

The strike demonstrated the potential to link the power of labor to the anger of the ghetto and barrio masses. On its second day, residents of Brooklyn’s blighted East New York neighborhood pumped their fists in support when hundreds of TWU picketers from the transit facility there marched through the area. Some teachers brought their classes to the picket lines. While strikers were cheered throughout the city, the bourgeoisie’s anti-union demagogy did help fuel some sentiment against the strike, including among shopkeepers and desperate immigrants fearful of losing their jobs. While the gutter tabloid New York Post (22 December) blared “JAIL ’EM!” in a front-page headline with a graphic of Toussaint behind bars, the front page of the Amsterdam News, NYC’s main black newspaper, the same day ran an open letter by Toussaint and other coverage sympathetic to the strike.

The overwhelming popular support for the strike exemplified revolutionary Marxist leader V.I. Lenin’s comment in his May 1912 article “Economic and Political Strikes”: “Whereas the liberals (and the liquidators) tell the workers: ‘You are strong when you have the sympathy of “society”,’ the Marxist tells the workers something different, namely: ‘You have the sympathy of “society” when you are strong’.”

The transit strike was a golden opportunity to tear up the anti-union Taylor Law by forging a fighting alliance with all of NYC labor at the head of the city’s minorities and poor. This task raised to the forefront the need to fight for the independence of the unions from the state and parties of the capitalist class. But the union went into battle with one hand tied behind its back because of the ties of its leadership to the capitalist Democratic Party. As we wrote in the 20 December 2005 Spartacist strike support leaflet, titled “Victory to the Transit Workers Strike! United Labor Action Can Smash the Taylor Law!”: “Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the other Democratic Party celebrities who were invited to grace the platforms of TWU contract rallies promote the party of the Taylor Law—of Attorney General Spitzer and of Senator Hillary Clinton, who hailed Spitzer’s earlier use of the Taylor Law against the TWU in 1999!”


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