New York State Supreme Court Justice Theodore Jones, Jr. sought to end the ongoing confrontation with Transport Workers Union Local 100. But unwittingly he may have taken the showdown with Local President Roger Toussaint to a new level. Last December, in the midst of Christmas shopping season, the 33,700 New York City bus and subway employees of Local 100 walked off the job. The strike was highly inconveniencing – and highly illegal. Since the late 60s, the state’s Taylor Law has barred employees from going on strike and has mandated a worker be docked two days’ pay for each day absent due to a strike. On April 17, Justice Jones fined the union $2.5 million, and ordered its automatic dues collection check-off privilege suspended. He also imposed fines of $125,000 and $187,000, respectively, on Local 726 (Staten Island) and Local 1056 (Queens) of a rival union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, who joined the strike.
“This is a very unfortunate event and an unfortunate day in the history of labor relations in the city,” said Justice Jones. In a gesture of conciliation, he indicated a willingness to reinstate automatic dues collection after 90 days, provided Toussaint “no longer asserts the right to strike.” But the Trinidad-born Toussaint says no deal. On Friday morning, April 28, to the cheers of about 100 supporters, he emerged from jail in Lower Manhattan, having served three-and-a-half days of a 10-day sentence. “The labor movement will not be broken and Transport Workers Union Local 100 will not be bowed,” a defiant Toussaint announced. He added that the Taylor Law remains “a bad law, an unequal and unjust law.” He’s got a pair of high-profile black civil-rights radicals in his corner: Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Herbert Daughtry. The two ministers accompanied Toussaint when he entered jail on the evening of April 24; Sharpton compared Toussaint to Martin Luther King, A. Philip Randolph and Nelson Mandela.
But such moral theater isn’t likely to win points at the bargaining table. Officials from the union and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) had agreed last December, in the immediate wake of the strike, to a 37-month contract package. Rank-and-file TWU members rejected the agreement in January by a mere seven votes, but last month, in a revote, they overwhelmingly approved the pact. Unfortunately, the MTA is of a different mind now. Whereas in December the authority urged the union to take the offer, now its officials, led by Chairman Peter Kalikow, say the deal is off. They’ve petitioned the State of New York to impose binding arbitration. In the meantime, well over four months after the strike, transit employees are still working without a contract.
On the flip side of the coin, the union is far from the working-class martyrs Toussaint and his allies make them out to be. For one thing, its members can’t plead poverty. At the time of the strike, subway employees received annual base salaries (not including bonuses or overtime) ranging from $47,000 to $55,000. Second, Local 100 has an annual budget of $20 million, nearly all of it paid for by dues. And third, thanks to online technology, the union is in a better position to collect dues should its automatic collection procedures not be reinstated. Immediately after its April 1980 strike, when the union also lost its automatic dues collection rights, only 44 percent of the workers paid their dues. Even union dissenters are urging members to pay up, since they would be jeopardizing their eligibility to vote in union elections this fall. “We’ve been telling people, you have to pay up or we can’t vote him out,” said Toussaint foe John Samuelson. As for Roger Toussaint, he’s in it for the long haul. “Working people have tried to obey the law and have gotten nothing but insults for it,” he said. “I will do 30 years before I let transit workers surrender.” Toussaint lately sounds less like a martyr than someone with a martyr complex. (USA Today, 4/18/06; New York Post, 4/20/06; Newsday, 4/25/06, 4/29/06; FrontPageMag.com, 12/28/05).