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Local 100 Washes Its Laundry

Bennett Baumer Nov 6, 2006

Transit Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 washes their “laundry outside in public even before it’s dirty” – so says Local 100 president Roger Toussaint, alluding to his adversaries’ sniping in the upcoming union election. Toussaint is facing a barrage of attacks from the right and left flank of his union, as the union’s election turns into a referendum on last December’s strike and Toussaint’s leadership style.

Toussaint is running for re-election as the president of Local 100 on his decision to lead 36,000 willing transportation workers off the job in December 2005. Few in the mayor and governors’ office, Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and even the union itself thought there would be a strike. Not in this age of factory closings, disappearing pensions and soaring health care costs. But TWU Local 100 did strike.

At a recent forum on the strike, the union’s internal squabbles were on full display. Marty Goodman, a Vice President in the union, took the mic to berate union leadership for supporting Eliot Spitzer’s gubernatorial campaign and not getting a contract out of the strike. Goodman, a socialist, organized against the contract that the union first voted down by 7 votes and then ratified overwhelmingly months later. He contends the union demanded too little from the MTA and should have settled for no less than a 30 percent pay raise over three years – an exorbitant demand in today’s bargaining climate. Goodman rightfully criticizes Toussaint’s tight grip on the local’s operation. He is supported by many former New Directions allies who bristle at Toussaint’s take-charge attitude.

Born in Trinidad, Toussaint came of age in radical student movements and was expelled from school in his home country for spraypainting “Free Education Means Free Books.” After immigrating in 1974, he joined the TWU as a track cleaner a decade later. In 2004, Toussaint was elected on the New Directions slate that came forth from the socialist Solidarity union movement. The 2005 contract Toussaint negotiated contained 10.5-percent raises over three years, maternity stipends, paid MLK Day holiday, higher assault pay for conductors and operators and a pension refund for nearly two-thirds of the union’s membership. The stickler was the 1.5 percent membership contribution to the health care fund that Toussaint’s enemies seized upon to reject the first contract vote and try and oust him from leadership.

“I voted enthusiastically to strike, but I was against going back in,” said Goodman. His position is that the union should have held out longer until the members obtained a contract and received amnesty from the Taylor laws that penalize public employees for striking. “We are headed to binding arbitration with no fight back, it’s a disgrace to the labor movement.”

To the left of Goodman is the Trotskyite newspaper Revolutionary Transit Worker, produced by Eric Josephson, a track-maintenance worker and union steward. While fetishizing worker militancy, the newsletter assails Toussaint and even the opposition candidates, including Goodman, for not being radical enough, and argues for broad revolutionary action.

“We came so close to striking so many times but we’ve been held back from fighting,” said Josephson of union leadership.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

At first glance Goodman and Josephson appear to be what the labor movement needs: principled rabble-rousers not afraid to take on union leadership and the MTA, but a closer look reveals contradictions. For all his radical rhetoric, Goodman allied himself against the contract with a far more conservative Ainsley Stewart, who voted against the strike, and John Mooney, an Independence party leader and supporter of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Running for the local’s executive board as an independent, Goodman referred to Stewart and Mooney as “beautiful guys, but I do have my disagreements.”

The Revolutionary Transit Worker is oppositional for opposition’s sake. The newsletter muddles its revolutionary line criticizing Toussaint for his leadership during the strike but is then “prepared to cooperate against the bosses” with TWU leaders like Barry Roberts who were against striking, leaving TWU members with no viable leadership choices.

Toussaint’s other challengers include union vice presidents Ainsley Stewart and Barry Roberts who vacillate on their positions on the strike and contract. Both Stewart and Roberts voted against going on strike and are inconsistent on their support and opposition for the contract. A little-known independent candidate is also running.

“I wasn’t against the strike, but I voted against the strike,” said Stewart. He then said that, if elected, he would “mobilize the members for a strike” in order to obtain a fair contract. Though he stopped short of saying he supported Republicans, he criticized Toussaint for his support of recent Democratic candidates for mayor (Freddy Ferrer) and governor (Carl McCall).

On the second day of the strike, Barry Roberts and 22 other officials of the Local 100’s 6,000-member bus division signed a petition favoring a quick resolution with the MTA. The bus division in Manhattan and Bronx entered the MTA and TWU in the 1960s and at times has seen itself as different from the rest of transit workers. The petition concluded that the strikers’ “resolve is starting to wear thin,” contradicting wide reports of boisterous picket lines in the cold week before Christmas. But only Roberts and his cohorts had cold feet.

In the Sept. 28 Amsterdam News, Roberts flip-flopped and said ending the strike was a “grave error” that “destroyed the workers’ morale.” Roberts is the favored candidate of former TWU International presidents Sonny Hall and Michael O’Brien, both long opposed to Local 100 militancy. Though leaders from other unions were reluctant to enter the trenches with Local 100, International president O’Brien was the only national labor official to openly advocate for Local 100 members to break the strike and scab their own union.

“The MTA wants one lesson to be taught – striking is bad,” said John Paul, a bus operator at Jackie Gleason Depot in Brooklyn. who is running to chair the Brooklyn bus division.