Transport workers strike in New York: "We Move NY. Respect Us!"

Under pressure from the rank and file, New York's Transit Workers Union (Local 100) has called a strike involving the 33,000 workers and bringing the nation's largest transit system to a halt. Pay, health, and retirement benefits are the main points of contention.

Under pressure from the rank and file, New York's Transit Workers Union (Local 100) has called a strike involving the 33,000 workers and bringing the nation's largest transit system to a halt.  This is the first strike of the NY TWU, which moves 7 million people daily around the NY metro area, since 1980, when they struck for 11 days. Pay, health, and retirement benefits are the main points of contention.  

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is ending the year with a $1,000,000,000 surplus, claims it has no money to meet the workers' entirely reasonable demands. Once again we are told that while profits skyrocket, the workers that created that wealth must tighten their belts. This strike reveals clearly the chasm that exists between working people on the one hand, and the bosses and their state on the other. The bosses, with the full support of the billionaires-club government, have launched an all out assault on the trade unions (at Northwest Airlines, General Motors, Delphi, Ford, etc.), and hope to use this attack against the TWU as a battering ram against the entire labor movement.  Declaring it an "illegal" strike, the authorities are threatening stiff fines, court actions, and layoffs. They want to invalidate the unions' fundamental right to bargain collectively.  We join TWU Local 100 in saying, "no contract, no work!"

As usual, the media has brought out the heavy ammunition to portray these workers as "greedy" and "un-American". They would have us believe that we are powerless, that we should just accept what's on offer, and never aspire to improve our conditions of life. After all, since everyone else's wages and benefits packages are declining, why shouldn't the TWU's?  The bosses want to turn us against each other in order to break the natural ties of class solidarity that bind us together. They want working people to race each other to the bottom of the wages, benefits, and working conditions scale.  The last thing they want is for working people to realize that we should be all fighting together to improve the wages, benefits, and conditions of all workers.

So while the media and the government rev up their vitriolic attacks against these workers, we in the labor movement must give them our full support - the result of this strike will have long lasting repercussions for the long-beleagured American labor movement.  It could well be the much-needed rallying point to reverse the steep decline of the past 25 years. The struggle of the TWU is our struggle: an injury to one is an injury to all! 

We republish here a 2002 article written by John Peterson on the eve of a previous TWU dispute that never went to strike action.  

NY Transit Workers and the State

By John Peterson

"All that serves labor serves the nation." - Abraham Lincoln

As Bush continues his "war on terror" and prepares for the invasion of Iraq, the war on the American working class continues here at home. The struggle of the NY transit workers to improve their conditions of life is only the latest in a series of important battles which have been fought on the trade union front in recent months. The conflict between the ILWU dockworkers and the PMA bosses' association brought trade union militancy back to the front page for over a week. The vote of United Airline's mechanics to reject the proposed cuts in their wages and benefits was a heroic stand against the onslaught which has been launched against working people in a time of economic crisis and corporate malfeasance. Now it is the turn of the public transit workers in New York City to show the American working class the way forward.

On the surface, the issue appears straightforward enough - after years of hard work keeping the world's most powerful and influential city moving under often unsafe conditions, 34,000 transit workers want their share of the tremendous wealth they helped create during the "boom years". In negotiating a new contract to replace the one which expires December 15th at midnight, they are asking for an entirely reasonable 6% raise each year for three years, already a step down from their initial demand of 8% per year. But the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the state of New York have already strapped on their army boots and begun to kick the members of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union.

The MTA has not moved an inch in negotiations, and is holding to its original proposal:

A wage freeze in the first year and no definite raises in the second and third years.

Any raises would be contingent on the union's agreeing to productivity increases.

They also want the workers, whose salaries average $44,000 a year, to increase their pension payments by $1,000 a year and their out-of-pocket health payments by $500 a year.

This is entirely unacceptable, and union members are understandably incensed. As one union member said, "we don't want to strike. All we want is to work hard and to support our families."  Another said that, "we think they [management] have gone from not bargaining in good faith to actually showing bad faith in these negotiations."

One of the main reasons for forming a union is the ability to bargain for a new contract collectively. Instead of one worker walking into the bosses' office and asking for a raise or improved conditions (fat chance of that happening!), all the members of the union in effect walk into the bosses' office and make their demands. This is clearly a much more powerful combination - there is strength in unity. The option to walkout on strike is one of the most important and powerful tools which the working class can use to exert pressure on the bosses. It is one of the fundamental rights which has been gained through hard struggle by the labor movement over a period of decades.

However, it is not a simple question of the bosses' vs. the workers - the bosses have some very powerful help - the government. Even before the old contract has expired, a State Supreme Court justice in Brooklyn has invoked New York's Taylor Act and issued an injunction barring the workers from striking.  According to Judge Jules L. Spodek:

"Given the enormous, debilitating and destructive influence a strike would have, such action would wreak havoc upon this city… The recent vote by local union membership to give union leadership the power to call a strike leaves this court no choice but to grant [the MTA's request of an injunction]."

What about the choice of the 34,000 workers whose conditions of life are at stake? With the stroke of his pen, Judge Spodek has completely undermined the working class' hard-won right to strike.

The city has also filed a separate lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn seeking larger penalties, including a $1 million-per-day fine for the union, doubling every day thereafter, and a $25,000 fine for each worker, doubling each day. It is also seeking $5 million in damages to compensate the city for the money it has already spent preparing for the strike. The ruling could also add contempt charges and even jail time. This is a mortal threat to the union and to unions everywhere. In effect, the government is using the law to blackmail the workers, to scare them into inaction. In a sector where the average wage is just $44,000 per year (the majority of wages are much lower), in one the world's most expensive cities, the threat of $25,000 a day fines is very real. This is a classic union-busting tactic which seeks to bankrupt unions under cover of "the law". In much the same way, United Airlines used the threat of bankruptcy to attack the wages and conditions of its workers.

The city government estimates that a strike could cost $100 million to $350 million a day, a figure that includes police overtime, lost productivity, lost retail sales and taxes. It could adversely affect the economy of NYC and the entire country. Stock markets around the world could be hit. So if it is so important that the workers not go on strike, why doesn't the transit authority government listen to the TWU wholly justifiable demands and avoid a strike altogether? Why does the media place the blame on the transit workers instead of the MTA? Is it really possible that 10,500 dockworkers on the west coast, or 34,000 transit workers in a single city can wreck the economy of the world's most powerful country?

Of course not - but the government and media must put the fear of even worse economic times in the hearts of workers around the country lest they get any ideas about trying to improve their own situation.  The bosses would rather sink deeper into economic turmoil than risk arousing milions of oppressed workers and lose control over the situation.. They also need to find scapegoats to blame for the cyclical economic woes - anything to draw attention away from the inefficiency and corruption of their entire system. What this does show, however, is the enormous power of collective action and class unity. That 0.3% of the population of New York City organized in a union can "cause" such disruption gives us a hint of the inherent and unstoppable power the American working class as a whole posseses. It should be an inspiration for all workers to get organized.

Naturally, public officials and the media have come out against the strike and against the demands of the transit workers. In a blatant publicity stunt, Mayor Bloomberg purchased a bicycle and vowed to ride the 90-plus blocks to City Hall every day if a strike occurs. Governor Pataki, the nation's golden boy after September 11, said "it would also be a horrendous act of disloyalty to the people of New York at a critical time. We've seen New Yorkers pull together in the last year and a half in a way that is extraordinary. And to do this, to threaten to hold the people of New York City hostage, is simply wrong as well as illegal."

Here's a bit of news, Mr. Pataki - the 34,000 public transit workers are also citizens of New York, and do infinitely more real work in keeping NYC running than you do! The role of the media is to attempt to demonize the TWU and turn public opinion against it. The use of the word "hostage" at a time when terrorist paranoia runs high is reminiscent of Bush's infamous words "you're either with us or against us." The call for national or citywide unity must be exposed for what it is - the demand that the vast majority of us must submit our interests to those of the capitalist minority and its government. The only unity which deserves to be encouraged and developed is class unity across all racial, gender, ethnic, and international lines. (See: What Sort of Unity?)

So why is it that the government always seems to step into these disputes on the side of big business and the capitalist class? Why does the mainstream media always paint the workers as "greedy" or "disruptive"? In order to properly comprehend this phenomenon, we must examine the Marxist theory of the state. A correct understanding of what the state is, why it exists, whose interests it represents, and the relation of socialists to it is of great importance. Only through a correct position on this fundamental question can we work out a fighting program for the socialist transformation of society.  In the classic works on this subject, Marx's The Civil War in France, Engels' Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, and Lenin's State and Revolution, we find clear explanations which can be summed up as follows:

The state has not always existed - it is a product of class society at a certain stage of development and has evolved over time.

The very existence of the state is a recognition of the irreconcilable differences existing between the various classes in society, all struggling for control over the wealth created by the producing classes. It does not exist merely to administer to the needs of a growing society, but to defend the interests of this or that particular class in society.

In the modern epoch, there are two main classes: the working / proletarian class which comprises the majority, and produces all the wealth of society; and the capitalist / bourgeois class, which although it comprises a minority of the population controls the vast bulk of the wealth and uses it to pursue its own interests.

The state is a tool for the domination of one class by another. The way in which the capitalist minority is able to subjugate the proletarian majority and expropriate the wealth it creates is through its control of the state. The state is a committee for the managing of the common affairs of the ruling class.

Bourgeois "democracy" is in reality democracy for the rich and powerful. The right to vote is reduced to the "right" to check a box on a piece of paper every few years to decide which group of capitalists will misrepresent our interests and line their pockets with profits at the expense of working people. Little wonder the great majority of Americans see no point in voting at all.

In the final analysis, Marxists describe the state as "armed bodies of men". By controlling the state, the capitalist class controls the military, police, and judicial system. It writes and enforces the laws. It controls the media and educational system and can therefore mold public opinion in it's own interests. In other words, the prevailing ideas of any age are the ideas of the ruling class.

The task of the working class during the socialist revolution is not to take control of this bourgeois state, but to smash it, and put in its place a workers' state.

The tasks of the workers' state include the economic expropriation of the capitalist class. This means that the commanding heights of the economy (the largest factories, banks, and corporations) will be placed under the direct, democratic control of society. Production, distribution, and exchange will be geared towards human need, not private profit

This workers' state would no longer be a tool in the hands of a minority, subjecting the majority, it would be a tool of the majority to defend its interests against the capitalist class which has been thrown out of power.

Insofar as the state now represents the interests of the majority of society, it begins to lose its character as a tool of repression and coercion. The state begins to whither away.

In order to ensure the democratic control of the majority over the running of society, the following conditions will need to be put in place:

All public officials to be elected with the right to recall (that is that they can be changed immediately if they longer represent the interests of those who elected them).

No public official to receive a wage higher than that of a skilled worker. This will help eliminate careerism and corruption, and ensure that the workers' representatives are doing the job not to acquire perks but in order to genuinely improve the conditions of their fellow workers. If they want better conditions themselves, they must work to improve the conditions of all workers.

No standing army and police, standing above society with special powers and privileges, but the general arming and self-policing of the people.

Over a period of time everyone must participate in the tasks of running the economy and the state. In the words of Lenin "every cook should be able to be Prime Minister".

These conditions were not sucked out of thin air. Time and time again, in revolutionary situations from Russia to Ecuador, France to Argentina, and even in the United States, democratic committees of workers' representatives have emerged in revolutionary situations.

An important task of revolutionary Marxists is to explain whose interests the current state defends, and how the working class can take control of its destiny by replacing this state with one of its own.

This brief explanation of the Marxist theory of the state should make it crystal clear why the government almost always acts on behalf of big business.  It is big business that calls the shots in government. It was corporations like Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco who "elected" GW Bush, and these companies expect a return on their investment. The same applies to nearly all senators, representatives, governors, mayors, etc. The laws which these capitalist politicians pass are of course going to favor their interests, and the executive branch and the courts will of course enforce and defend these interests as well.

The government and its lackey press are always quick to denounce the "illegality" of actions taken by workers in their efforts to Take the Taylor Act for example. Who wrote this law which bans public workers from striking? Certainly not the working class!  By issuing this injunction against a strike, an important negotiating lever has been stripped from the union. And what about the Taft-Hartley Act which Bush used against the locked-out ILWU? Why even bother having a contract if ultimately the government can force the workers to accept conditions acceptable to the bosses?

The laws which we live under did not fall ready-made to earth. American law as we know it has seen many transformations over the past 300 years. In the early days, law was most concerned with interpretation of the Bible - a crime was punished insofar as it was a "sin against the eternal laws of God". But the truth is that no laws are eternal - they have evolved over decades and centuries, and reflect above all the changing material conditions of society, and the interests of the dominant class. As capitalist property relations (private ownership of the means of production and the concentration of society's wealth into fewer and fewer hands) developed, the law changed with it. Over time, law became an outright defense of the rights of property owners.

For example, the Constitution was adopted by a tiny minority of the residents of the United States.  Only white, male owners of a certain amount of property had the right to vote - the poor, women, slaves, and Native Americans - that is to say, the vast majority - were excluded. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, collective action by workers in the form of unionization was considered an un-Constitutional conspiracy to blackmail the employers! The fact that law and the Constitution can be "interpreted" "in spirit" or "in word", by "liberal" and "conservative" judges and lawyers clearly shows that laws are not eternal, but rather, subject to the needs and whims of the ruling class.

It was only through many waves of struggle, including the deaths of many working class martyrs, that the 8-hour workweek, retirement benefits, healthcare, safer working conditions, better wages, the right to strike, and other improvements were won. Over the past two decades, these rights have been trampled on and pushed back. But enough is enough! The present anti-union laws have not always existed, and they must be repealed. Only the united action of trade unionists and workers generally can ensure this.  The government of the bourgeoisie will never willing make concessions, and cannot be trusted with defending workers' interests.

A strike in the country's largest transit would be disruptive to the 7 million people who use it every day - but the onus is on the MTA and government to avert it. Whether this situation evolves into a strike or not, the true colors of the government at all levels have been shown. The willingness of the TWU to fight against the bosses and the government is a reflection of the rise of labor militancy and defensive actions in a time of economic crisis. Just when the workers want their piece of the pie, the capitalists and government are taking away even the crumbs we've gained in the past. The NY transit workers need to rally the rest of the workers of New York City and state, and of the entire country if they are to resist the pressure and defeat the challenge thrown down by the MTA and the state and local governments. Their struggle is our struggle!  An injury to one is an injury to all!

We demand:

The right to strike, the right to union representation, and the right to collective bargaining. Repeal all anti-union laws including Taft-Hartley. End compulsory arbitration and the victimization of trade unionists and those forming new unions. Unionize now!

For trade union democracy. All union officials to be regularly elected with the right of immediate recall by the members. All officials to receive the average wage of a skilled worker, plus vetted expenses.

For a mass party of labor based on the unions to power with class-independent and socialist policies. The labor movement must break with the Democrats! Gain genuine support by adopting socialist policies that can really answer the needs and aspirations of workers and youth.