LOCAL Commentary :: Civil & Human Rights : Indymedia : Labor & Class : Protest Activity

The NYC transit strike: why can't it happen here, or can it?

George Waksmunski, field organizer for the Virginia Public Service Workers Union, supports the transit union's strike in New York City. "Their struggle for better wages and benefits represents a check on the balance of power that is capitalism. The continued crushing of the working class must stop."
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Transit workers picket in NYC De. 21. Source: www.twulocal100.org
Despite a New York state law forbidding strikes by public workers, despite a court order, and despite heavy penalties that include deducting two days pay for each day workers refuse to return to their jobs, nearly 34,000 New York City transit workers remain on strike on a scale the city has not seen in twenty-five years. Roger Toussaint, the president of the transit union, has even been threatened with jail time. But he and the union insist principles are at stake: the right to strike and the right to protect a standard of living not merely for themselves but for workers more generally.

Could it happen here?

In my opinion, public workers have an unalienable right to strike, which is partly why it happens even when the law forbids it.

I am a public service worker in Virginia, and I agree with the transit workers' union president Roger Toussaint when he defends the strike saying that the union answers not only to state law but to a higher law of basic principle.

And I'm not alone in Viginia. In my years of experience as a state employee and sometime volunteer organizer, I have learned that many workers here think the Virginia laws that bar their unions from collective bargaining and from striking are unjust and deny them basic constitutional rights.

George Waksmunski puts it another way, speaking for himself and not the Virginia Public Service Workers Union: "it is my opinion is that all workers have the right to strike regardless of whether a law permits it or not. The fact that our government has been permitted to exercise a power over its citizens that it should not have is un-American. A right to strike over wages, benefits, and working conditions is an inherent right of all humanity. Without the right to strike we are all just compensated slaves."

The strike in New York is a flashpoint for race and class divisions, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the potential of labor unions. And the strike is the best event for sparking this kind of debate since the ugly events of Hurricane Katrina.

However, in this case the working poor are in the driver's seat--so to speak--and although they have stopped the busses and trains, they have also mobilized supporters.

In the first days, transit workers organized solidarity actions at a variety of locales: Brooklyn Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge, Queensboro Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, George Washinton Bridge, 145th Street Bridge. And supporters of New York's "critical mass," a movement for greater use of bicycles in cities, actively supported the strike. One internet writer called it a "bike rider's dream."

On Wednesday, a writer at New York City indymedia was awed by the ability of the the workers' union to paralyze the city in protest: "I remember sitting in meetings over the past several years talking about how 'we were going to shut down the city' or how we were going to build support for a 'peoples strike'." The workers did it with a vote.

But no General Strike will come from this. What has started is a public debate in which the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, and the president of the transit union argue over who is serving the interests of the workers. The Mayor says the strike hurts workers by slowing the economy and closing businesses. The union says it must fight this battle, despite the short term costs, to preserve longterm gains that will help not only themselves but all of New York's workers. "We are the ones who know the lives of hard-working people, and not the mayor," Toussaint is quoted as saying in the New York Times.

And in fact, the issue that inspired rank-and-file transit union members to vote for a strike was not wages and benefits for themselves but the pension benefits of future workers for the transit system. At a time when the system runs a 1 billion dollar surplus, cuts to future employees pension benefits seemed flagrantly disrespectful and greedy to the members. And the union clearly hopes that by holding the line with the transit system, they can help slow the larger erosion of pensions and wages and benefits in the larger economy. As I have heard union organizers say several times "a rising tide floats all boats."

Such broad principles about how the larger economy runs and should run are pretty common in the labor movement. As Waksmunski puts it, "We all recognize that the rich getting richer is not only factual but accelerating. The result is the working class getting poorer. And those who exploit our labor for their greed export misery to third world countries." At its best, the labor movement has always insisted on a larger vision, and that is what this strike in New York appears to be about.

Waksmunski thinks that the New York Mayor and his supporters make a ridiculous argument when they claim the strike hurts workers. "The master always asserts that he believes that he knows what is right for the slaves," Waksmunski says. Waksmunski compares the debate in New York to the minimum wage debate here in Virginia, where the coming General Assembly session will likely see efforts to raise the state-wide minimum wage, creating a "living wage" standard instead.

Waksmunski argues that "if the Mayor was concerned about the employees or the citizens of New York there would not be a strike, there would be a contract and there would be a lot of happy workers and passengers in New York. He would have shown appreciation and respect for the workers' labor. He would have shown respect for the workers' families and communities by assuring that people maintain or improve their living standards."

And that is precisely what the transit workers' union president says the Mayor did not want to do. In a statement at the start of the strike, the union declared: "The MTA [Metropolitan Transit Authority] knew that reducing health and pension standards at the authority would be unacceptable to our union. They knew there was no good economic reason for their hard line on this issue - not with a billion dollar surplus. They went ahead anyway, supported by the Bloomberg administration which wants to overrun Municipal Labor Unions and all City workers with down pressed wages and gutted health benefits and pension plans."

And so the union members strike, at great cost to themselves and their union and to the city's working class (in the short term). They are defying the so-called "Taylor law," New York's 1967 "Public Employees-Fair Employment Act," which is from the same period as Virginia's "right to work" laws for public employees and has some similarities, such as a ban on strikes.

Virginia's law goes further than New York's statute, however. Virginia and North Carolina are the only two states that refuse even to negotiate contracts with public employees. Though it is not illegal to form or join a union, it is illegal for a union (or even small groups of employees) to do anything that even looks like negotiation or discussion of wages, benefits, or working conditions with state employers.

Virginia law thereby places an unjust burden on the right of free speach and the freedom of contract. The Virginia Public Service Workers Union certainly thinks so, and its partner union in North Carolina has filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization of the United Nations. And there is a growing campaign in the South to overturn such laws.

Here in Virginia, the public service workers union is only three years old and growing. It currently has more than 1000 members.

"We are organizing public employees in Virginia," Waksmunski says, "to demand an end to the discrimination and Human rights violations that our state government inflicts on its citizens by denying us our basic Human right to collectively bargain for wages, benefits and working conditions. This discrimination and second class citizenship is based on racism, sexism and general contempt for working people."

State workers here can look to the actions of the transit union in New York as an example of no fear in the teeth of power. Whether such tactics would ever be applied in Virginia or by the public service workers union here, would always be up to a vote of the members after extremely careful consideration. But to have the option and to put a real check on the power of the state, public employees must organize. And we can expect the support of the larger labor movement.

In a statement the night the transit workers began their strike, Roger Toussaint, president of the union, called for such support: "We call on all good will New Yorkers, the Labor Community, and all working people to recognize that our fight is their fight, and to rally in our support with solidarity activities and events. And to show the MTA that TWU does not stand alone."

Teachers' unions and NYC fire and rescue workers came out in support immediately, as have many in the independent media movement and the American left. Clearly the union does not stand alone, though the New York Times will continue to portray it as isolated and "backed into a corner." The media struggle is part of the larger power struggle.

Follow events at NYC Indymedia. Complete coverage of the strike:
nyc.indymedia.org/en/2005/12/62178.html