NYC Reformers Rise Again—In Transit And Teamsterdom

Steve Early

Roger Toussaint, then president of TWU Local 100, calls for the Metropolitan Transit Authority strike to commence in December 2005, in New York City.

Insur­gents win hard-fought union elec­tions, pledge rank-and-file focus

The rise, fall, and rise again of union reform­ers is a famil­iar sto­ry line in Amer­i­can labor. To some observers, in fact, it’s a source of much cyn­i­cism about the whole project of union democ­ra­cy and reform.

The day-to-day demands of full-time elect­ed office, com­bined with heavy pres­sure to con­form to the norms of busi­ness union­ism, has led more than a few rank-and-file heroes down the prim­rose path, soon­er or later.

After reform­ers get elect­ed, their Si se puede” cam­paign rhetoric has been known to give way to a litany of excus­es about why we can’t” – empow­er mem­bers, fight the boss, or build a new union,” as promised dur­ing the cam­paign. There are, for­tu­nate­ly, always some com­mit­ted activists ready to push the boul­der of reform back up the hill again. But, start­ing over is nev­er easy. It requires win­ning sup­port from fel­low work­ers now angry, frus­trat­ed and/​or dis­il­lu­sioned by the actu­al or per­ceived fail­ure of pre­vi­ous insurgencies.

Two icon­ic New York City labor unions — TWU Local 100 and Team­sters Local 804 — pro­vide a recent case in point.

The trou­ble with top-down reform’

Local 100 of the Trans­port Work­ers has 38,000 sub­way work­er and bus dri­ver mem­bers. In 2000, a Caribbean-born track work­er — bear­ing the name of a great 18th cen­tu­ry lib­er­a­tor — took office as the pres­i­den­tial can­di­date of the New Direc­tions” caucus.

Roger Tou­s­saint was a bat­tle-test­ed mil­i­tant, with a left-wing polit­i­cal back­ground, pre­vi­ous­ly fired by the Tran­sit Author­i­ty. His New Direc­tions com­rades-in-arms had con­test­ed many ear­li­er elec­tions, less suc­cess­ful­ly. They had also spent two decades or more try­ing to strength­en the union, from the bot­tom up, through work­place agi­ta­tion and orga­niz­ing, a sto­ry well told in Hell on Wheels,” a Sol­i­dar­i­ty pam­phlet by Steve Downs, the elect­ed chair­per­son of Local 100’s Train Oper­a­tors Divi­sion. (See www​.sol​i​dar​i​ty​-us​.org for order­ing info).

In office, as Downs recounts, it didn’t take Tou­s­saint long to cre­ate a per­son­al patron­age machine, rather than the demo­c­ra­t­ic, mem­ber-run union that New Direc­tions and thou­sands of the local’s mem­bers had fought for.” Reform of the local became a top-down, staff-dri­ven process…Officers and mem­bers who pushed for a more par­tic­i­pa­to­ry approach were frozen out.”

As a result, Local 100 was in weak orga­ni­za­tion­al shape when it skimped on con­tract cam­paign­ing in 2005 and then con­duct­ed a brave but bun­gled strike against the Tran­sit Author­i­ty any­way. The dis­pute end­ed with health­care give-backs, inter­nal dis­cord, cost­ly fines for both mem­bers and their union, and loss of auto­mat­ic dues deduc­tion. This last penal­ty has left Local 100 with a very big open shop.”

Only 18,000 out of 38,000 work­ers are still sup­port­ing TWU finan­cial­ly. The local’s deeply erod­ed and demor­al­ized stew­ards’ net­work – long neglect­ed by Tou­s­saint – has been unable to col­lect more vol­un­tary dues or do much else to enforce the con­tract, except in remain­ing pock­ets of work­place self-orga­ni­za­tion and activity.

By 2006, the increas­ing­ly unpop­u­lar Local 100 pres­i­dent had to rely on a divid­ed field of chal­lengers to win re-elec­tion with only 43% of the vote. As report­ed accu­rate­ly by no less an author­i­ty than Wikipedia, Tou­s­saint soon came under renewed fac­tion­al crit­i­cism as he began remov­ing union offi­cers who were elect­ed on oppo­si­tion slates and began work­ing more close­ly with New York City Tran­sit management.”

The rise — and decline — of a Team­sters local

In Team­sters Local 804, based in Queens, the tra­jec­to­ry from mil­i­tan­cy to com­pla­cen­cy, demo­bi­liza­tion, and de fac­to com­pa­ny union­ism occurred in a bet­ter-known nation­al con­text. 804 is the home local of Ron Carey, who died of lung can­cer a year ago. In the 1970s and 80s, under his lead­er­ship, 804 was a for­mi­da­ble island of rank-and-file resis­tance to the largest Team­ster employ­er in the coun­try, Unit­ed Par­cel Ser­vice. In those days, Carey and his mem­bers were sur­round­ed by a cesspool of Team­ster cor­rup­tion and gang­ster­ism in New York City and New Jer­sey, plus union col­lab­o­ra­tion with UPS man­age­ment just about every­where else.

In 1989 – 91, Carey joined forces with Team­sters for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union to wage a suc­cess­ful grass­roots cam­paign to oust old guard offi­cials at the nation­al union lev­el. Carey’s six tumul­tuous but pro­duc­tive years as IBT pres­i­dent in Wash­ing­ton reached their peak with the Team­sters’ 1997 strike vic­to­ry over UPS; short­ly, there­after, he was forced to step down from office in a re-elec­tion cam­paign fundrais­ing scan­dal, which also led to his indict­ment. Acquit­ted of all charges in 2001, he remained painful­ly banned from hav­ing any con­tact with his for­mer co-work­ers in 804.

Over time, Carey’s suc­ces­sors in the lead­er­ship of this 7,000-member UPS local drift­ed into the camp of cur­rent Team­ster Pres­i­dent James Hof­fa. Two years ago, they glad­ly went along with a Hof­fa-engi­neered UPS con­tract set­tle­ment that was over­turned, in 804 at least, by dis­sat­is­fied mem­bers. The TDU-backed rank-and-file cam­paign against con­ces­sions in the 804 local sup­ple­ment to the UPS nation­al con­tract forced man­age­ment to put a bet­ter offer on the table.

The final deal reversed a 30-per­cent pen­sion cut, stopped a pro­posed wage cut, and saved the 25 & Out” retire­ment option that was the key lega­cy of the Carey years. In a fatal piqué of annoy­ance over this polit­i­cal set­back for them, Local 804 offi­cials didn’t even send flow­ers to the funer­al home or attend the wake when Carey died a year ago. At a memo­r­i­al ser­vice for him last Feb­ru­ary, hun­dreds of UPSers showed up, angry and deter­mined to avenge the slight – and take back their union – at the polls this fall.

Two elec­tion vic­to­ries for insur­gent reformers

In Local 100, that’s exact­ly what the anti-Tou­s­saint forces called them­selves – Take Back Our Union (TBOU). Roger him­self wasn’t on this week’s elec­tion bal­lot because he now has a high-paid staff job with the TWU’s tiny and not very help­ful nation­al orga­ni­za­tion, whose fail­ings he long crit­i­cized (dur­ing his pre­vi­ous incar­na­tion as a rank-and-file mil­i­tant and, for a few years, dis­si­dent local leader).

Instead, a can­di­date backed by Tou­s­saint squared off against John Samuelsen, a Brook­lyn-born Local 100 vice-pres­i­dent with a long his­to­ry of activism around track safe­ty issues and the fight against con­tract­ing out.

On Mon­day, Dec. 7, Samuelsen’s mul­ti-racial TBOU team won all four local-wide offi­cer posi­tions, includ­ing the pres­i­den­cy and four out of sev­en V‑P slots. In his own race for the top job, Samuelsen won by near­ly 900 votes out of more than 10,000 cast.

Just a few days ear­li­er, on Dec. 3, there was a record turn-out (1,000 more vot­ers than before) in the bal­lot­ing for 804’s offi­cers and exec­u­tive board mem­bers. The TDU-assist­ed 804 Mem­bers Unit­ed Slate” won all 11 seats, turf­ing out the hap­less Hof­fa fans in their union hall by an even larg­er mar­gin of two to one.

Rank-and-file focus at forefront

In both races, the chal­lengers pro­duced detailed cam­paign plat­forms that were strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar. TBOU’s stressed the need for an open, demo­c­ra­t­ic union,” mem­ber-dri­ven, clean of cor­rup­tion,” and sin­gle-mind­ed in its resolve to break the cycle of con­ces­sion­ary bar­gain­ing.” As UPS work­er and 804 pres­i­dent-elect Tim Sylvester explained last week,

We laid out ten changes we’ll make to build a stronger Local 804. We’re not going to be able to fix all the prob­lems overnight. But we’re com­mit­ted to imple­ment­ing a reform pro­gram and tap­ping the pow­er of an informed and orga­nized membership.

When they take office like Sylvester in Jan­u­ary, Samuelsen and his run­ning-mates — Izzy Rivera, Beni­ta John­son, and Angel Giboyeaux — will face an Augean sta­ble full of accu­mu­lat­ed orga­ni­za­tion­al and finan­cial prob­lems. High on their to-do” list will be a sys­tem­at­ic mem­ber­ship dri­ve (to get delin­quent dues pay­ers back into the TWU fold) and a push to get dis­put­ed 2005 con­tract issues resolved.

Unusu­al among U.S. trade union­ists at the moment, Samuelsen has a sin­gu­lar focus on build­ing rank-and-file pow­er and re-estab­lish­ing union strength in the work­place.” At a day-long tran­si­tion plan­ning dis­cus­sion, held in Man­hat­tan last month with nine­ty TBOU sup­port­ers, John kept return­ing to the theme that Local 100 wouldn’t become a pow­er­house” in NY labor again until it first re-built lay­ers of den­si­ty” on the shop-floor, fought to con­trol the pace of work,” and tack­led, rather than ignored, day-to-day prob­lems like the dis­gust­ing con­di­tion” of sub­way employ­ee bathrooms.

At a time when unions like SEIU are down­play­ing the role of work­place rep­re­sen­ta­tion and any fight over work­ing con­di­tions — and, in some cas­es, even replac­ing stew­ards with call cen­ters” — Samuelsen talks non-stop about the cen­tral­i­ty of elect­ed shop stew­ards, who can’t sim­ply be replaced with loy­al bums” at the whim of a local president.

He believes stew­ards should be trained and encour­aged to deal direct­ly with man­age­ment as on-site dis­pute han­dlers” and key con­tract enforcers. In the legislative/​political are­na, he thinks Local 100 should rely less on high-priced lob­by­ists and con­sul­tants or union check-writ­ing to politi­cians. He wants more rank-and-file mem­bers to run for office them­selves and pres­sure pub­lic offi­cials direct­ly, in their own neigh­bor­hoods and communities.

The 42-year-old Samuel­son is par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned about the chal­lenge of reach­ing younger, new­ly hired tran­sit work­ers. In a pre-elec­tion mes­sage to them, he warned of a Tran­sit Author­i­ty man­age­ment that has stepped up its abuse of our mem­bers and rou­tine­ly vio­lates our con­tract.” The Tou­s­saint régime’s aban­don­ment of any real attempt to mobi­lize the mem­ber­ship to defend our jobs” has pro­duced a union in full retreat on safe­ty, dis­ci­pline, job picks, and senior­i­ty rights.”

Now faced with the chal­lenge of actu­al­ly stop­ping that retreat and find­ing ways for Local 100 to go on the offen­sive again, Samuelsen and his slate will need all the help they can get from mem­bers, new and old, next year, as will those pick­ing up Ron Carey’s ban­ner in Team­sters Local 804.

Steve Ear­ly worked for 27 years as an orga­niz­er and inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City (Bea­con Press). 

Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH