Unchain the 
Power of Labor

charleston five
Charleston Five longshoremen arrested for defending picket lines against cop attack (January 2000).
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South Carolina clay miners appeal for solidarity in fight for their union (October 2001). 
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December 2002 

Screw Mayor Mike – For a Solid Transit Strike!

The Fight for a Class-Struggle Leadership
in NYC Transit

Break with the Democrats – For a Revolutionary Workers Party!

DECEMBER 16 – The December 15 contract deadline for New York City bus and subway workers came and went, but the transit showdown continues. With the entire NYC population on pins and needles after a week of non-stop anti-strike hysteria in the media, shortly before midnight Transport Workers Union Local 100 secretary-treasurer Ed Watt went before the TV cameras to announce that the negotiators had “stopped the clock” to continue bargaining. Watt said that “progress has been made primarily in the non-economic areas of dignity and respect for our members.” In other words, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority still hasn’t moved from its provocative “double-zero” proposal for a two-year wage freeze, plus $1,500 per worker in pension and health care givebacks from the union!

In the last several days there has been a lot of talk about “respect” to cover up the fact that the MTA is hardlining it on the money, and everything else. Two days in a row, the haughty anti-union voice of the city’s rulers, the New York Times, ran articles saying that “Respect, Just a Little Bit, Has Become the Underlying Issue” for transit workers. But with all the talk of R-E-S-P-E-C-T, the fact is that the Transit Authority, Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki are all giving transit workers the big Dis. The press is demonizing TWU Local 100 president Roger Toussaint as if he was a card-carrying member of Bush’s “Axis of Evil.” The ruling class is preparing as if for civil war, putting 12,000 cops on strike duty, holding televised police training sessions at Shea Stadium in carrying out mass arrests, and leaking plans to bring in the National Guard to put the city under lockdown.

The clear intention is intimidation. The MTA went to court and got an injunction against the union under the anti-strike Taylor Law, which would dock transit workers two days’ pay for every day on strike. Meanwhile, the city has its own suit to hit the union with a $1 million fine on the first day of the strike, and $25,000 for each individual member, doubling the fines every day, plus $5 million in “damages” to cover the city’s strike preparations. And meanwhile the multi-billionaire “Mayor Mike” tries to get himself a “man of the people” image by going out and buying a $663 mountain bike! The union leadership, meanwhile, keeps repeating that it has been doing everything it can to avoid a strike, which is unfortunately true. 

Outside Shea Stadium, cops practice strikebreaking, December 
12. Cops out of the unions!
(Photo: Bill Turnbull/Daily News)

What should have been happening is to prepare the 34,000 New York transit workers and all of city labor for an all-out strike battle. Expose the MTA’s pleas of poverty by demanding to open the books! An elected strike committee should be formed to organize mass picketing in every borough, to shut down every transit barn and TA headquarters at Jay Street, Brooklyn. There should be a mass labor mobilization to tie up Manhattan’s financial district and bring the machinery of U.S. capitalism to a screeching halt. The TWU and other transit unions should declare that they will shut down Metro North, LIRR and PATH commuter railroads as well as private bus lines in a transit strike. As thousands of union supporters stream over Brooklyn Bridge this afternoon, they should be chanting: “Screw Mayor Mike! For a Solid Transit Strike!” And then turn that chant into reality.

New Directions and Rank and File Caucus: 
Out-Bureaucrats Are Now In

What’s needed, in short, is hard class struggle against an implacable foe. The main obstacle to such a struggle is precisely the labor bureaucracy which, day in and day out, seeks to conciliate the working class with its capitalist exploiters, the class enemy. Even if they are occasionally forced to call a strike by management’s intransigence, the union tops do so at best in a half-hearted way, fearing that an all-out struggle that unleashed the tremendous power of labor would soon sweep them out of their privileged positions. When the going gets tough, they will drop their empty rhetoric and shove sellout deals down the throats of the membership. It’s necessary to forge a fighting leadership of the unions on a program of intransigent class struggle, against the class collaboration of the present pro-capitalist misleaders who hogtie the unions.

The present “reform” leadership of Local 100 was elected in 2000 in reaction against the contract sellout of December 1999 by the previous leadership under Willie James, a placeholder for TWU International president Sonny James. Roger Toussaint was elected Local 100 president at the head of a slate of candidates of the New Directions caucus, which had organized a strong base of support over a decade of opposition activity. ND was supported by a host of left groups, and incorporated the Hell on Wheels opposition caucus politically associated with Solidarity, a loose social-democratic tendency,  and the Labor Notes magazine in Detroit. But while ND would periodically strike a militant posture, it was in reality a lash-up of out-bureaucrats trying to get in on the action. 

Over the years New Directions never actually called for and fought for a transit strike. As a caucus of bureaucrats and aspiring bureaucrats, their only aim was to get themselves elected to replace the Hall/James gang. Moreover, ND’s entire strategy was to appeal to the capitalist courts and the government against the union. In 1994, New Directions sued Local 100 for $12 million and got a court order to force the TWU to mail out its leaflet with the election ballots. When NDer Tim Schermerhorn narrowly lost to James in 1997, they forced a new election by threatening another suit. In 1998, ND sued again, to demand that e-board members be consulted in contract negotiations. In December 1999, when New York City and state authorities obtained anti-strike injunctions, ND spokesman Toussaint, then head of the Local 100 track division, kept saying, “We are confident that we will defeat this in court.” 

Telling workers that they can be “confident” of beating the capitalist rulers in the capitalist courts is spreading dangerous illusions. Even worse, by appealing to the courts against the union, New Directions has repeatedly called on the class enemy to use its repressive apparatus against the workers movement. Any class-conscious worker would be duty-bound to denounce this blatant violation of the basic principle of labor independence from the capitalist state. 

Unsurprisingly, once in office, ND began acting just like its predecessors. Toussaint, who himself had been unjustly fired by the TA with the connivance of the James leadership of the TWU, brought trumped-up charges in the union against prominent Hell on Wheels supporter Naomi Allen, the vice chairman of Local 100’s Car Equipment Division. (Her conviction was eventually overturned by an appeals committee of the TWU International.) While Toussaint has more frequently held union rallies, he has consistently shied away from a strike. When 1,500 local members at the private Queens Surface, Triboro Coach and Jamaica Bus companies went on strike last summer, Toussaint made it clear to the press that he never wanted a strike in the first place. (He also opposed an earlier walkout in January.) This led the Queens private bus drivers’ leaders, allies of Sonny James, to push for a breakaway from Local 100, a reactionary move that was roundly defeated in a referendum. 

Now on the outs with Toussaint, the disappointed social democrats formerly around Hell on Wheels have put out a new publication, the Rank and File Advocate, which claims to uphold the program of the “old” New Directions before it took power. One it its leaders, Steven Downs, who was a founder of ND and elected on its slate to the Local 100 executive board, complained that in the December 2000 elections, “most of the literature for the local-wide campaign had a bland, generic ‘good unionism’ feel to it” while claiming vaguely that “many of the New Directions officers, as well as its rank and file activists, continue to hold a vision of unionism that goes beyond simply providing a better service to the members” (Labor Notes, February 2001). What that “vision” is these “rank-and-file” bureaucrats coyly leave unsaid. 

The 34,000 members of Transport Workers Local 100 have the power to shut down New York City. The last time around, the Wall Street Journal (16 December 1999) commented that “Wall Street tycoons and media bigwigs cringe in anticipation of a strike by New York City transit workers.” No matter how massive the city rulers’ strike preparations, they would only be able to move a small fraction of the 3.5 million daily transit riders on scab buses. But a hard strike battle is necessarily political, and it must be waged on a class-struggle program. The Democrat friends of the courts and cops are the enemies of labor and the oppressed. 

The New Directions leadership has pursued the political agenda of its predecessors. In the fall of last year, Toussaint endorsed Democrat Mark Green for mayor, and campaigned with Senator Clinton. This year Local 100 backed Democrat Carl McCall for governor, while much of NYC labor officialdom crossed over to support Republican Pataki. The TWU International endorsed Bush’s “war on terrorism” over Afghanistan and the Local 100 leadership has not made a peep of protest against the looming invasion of Iraq. Yet U.S. imperialism’s wars on these semi-colonial countries are intimately connected to the capitalists’ escalating war “at home” against unions, minorities and immigrants. A class-struggle leadership of the powerful transit workers union would fight to defeat the bosses’ war and break with the bosses’ parties, to forge a revolutionary workers party that fights for a workers government.

Every Class Struggle Is a Political Struggle

In any serious battle you need to know who your friends and who your enemies are, and a New York transit strike would be a real class battle. A revolutionary leadership would sharply draw the class line. No more capitalist politicians on labor platforms. No more representatives of the police and detectives “unions,” either! We say: cops out of the unions – they are the armed fist of the class enemy. New Directions moaned about the “oppressed” Transit Property Protection Agents; we say throw them out of the TWU! On the other hand, the WEP employees are fellow workers. Class-struggle unionists must demand an end to this “Worker Exploitation Program” and enroll those already working in transit into the TWU. A crucial strike demand must be full union-scale wages, benefits and protections for WEP workers. And since most WEP workers are women, as are many present TWUers, the demand for free 24-hour daycare near transit locations is key. In an industry with many foreign-born workers, the union must demand full citizenship rights for all immigrants

TWUers should demand full pay for Helpers, and all provisionals should be made permanent.  Safety is a key issue in transit. Every time there is a subway crash or bus accident, managers rush to the scene to blame the drivers. Next they test the workers for drugs and alcohol. These, as well as “random” tests, are simply a way of victimizing workers, when accidents are most often the result of badly deteriorated safety conditions due to lack of maintenance. Transit workers should demand an end to all drug/alcohol testing and the establishment of union safety committees with the power to shut down unsafe operations. With the greatly increased ridership and as part of a fight for union jobs for all in the face of continued heavy unemployment in the ghettos and barrios, the TWU should demand increased service and thousands of new jobs through a shorter workweek with no loss in pay, with all hiring to be done through a union hiring hall. Rather than the low-wage “apprenticeship” program, there should be union-run training programs at full pay.

A class-struggle opposition would fight for the independence of labor from the capitalist state in every way. An important issue in the TWU is the dues check-off. Business unionists see this as an important gain, but by handing control over the union’s finances to the employer (who deducts union dues from workers’ pay), it gives the class enemy a powerful hold over labor. The MTA bosses used this stranghold after the defeat of the 1980 strike, cutting off the TWU’s funds as part of the penalty for losing. A union that depends on the employer for its finances is always subject to blackmail. A union that collects its own dues is better prepared to fight. The transit workers’ struggle must be that of all working and poor people. Instead of simply opposing a fare increase, as the TWU leadership is now doing, the union can win broad support for a strike by demanding free mass transit – rip out the turnstiles! Instead of each sector of city workers bargaining separately, and getting picked off one by one, a transit strike should lead to a citywide strike of municipal workers that would bring out the power of labor to shut New York down

Forge a Revolutionary Leadership of the Working Class!

The bankruptcy of New Directions and its social-democratic hangers-on has been demonstrated repeatedly in the TWU. In Local 100, there is a small grouping around the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) which in 1999 did call for a strike and criticize New Directions. However, its criticisms are essentially tactical, and its own program is just as economist as that of the current and past leadership of the union. An August 1999 leaflet by Eric Josephson, who is supported by the LRP, headlined “Willie Said 10% Yearly Raise: Let’s Win It!” This year, the LRP-supported Revolutionary Track Worker (6 December) declared: “President Toussaint raised the contract slogan ‘Second Class No More!’ We have to show that we mean it and will accept nothing less than a First Class Contract.” So here we have ostensible socialists calling to carry out the alleged programs of James and Toussaint! 

The LRP’s transit program comes down to wage militancy, and at bottom it aims to pressure the bureaucracy, not oust it. Its recent RTW says nothing about free health care, only that there should be “no new or increased payments.” It says nothing about abolishing the fare, only “no transit fare hike or service reductions.” It calls for an end to “plantation justice,” as does the Toussaint leadership, but raises no specific demands. And even though Josephson is now a vice-chairman of the Track Division of Local 100, following the recent MTA killings of two transit workers, the RTW wrote that “with blood on their hands,” the TA “rushed to implement most of our demands,” and they only lamented that “two Local 100 members had to die to win a few of our safety demands.” Not a word about union safety committees to shut down unsafe operations. 

It’s not surprising, then, that the latest RTW paper says nothing about the Local 100’s alliance with the Democratic Party, or about the imperialist war on Iraq. There’s nothing revolutionary about the Revolutionary Transit Worker. A more honest title would be “Reformist Transit Bureaucrat.” Despite their occasional criticisms of New Directions, Josephson was elected to his position as a union official in a campaign in which the LRP gave “critical support” to the ND slate. The “criticism” is simply a left cover for LRP’s own capitulations. Although the LRP occasionally criticizes New Directions and a similar reformist outfit, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, for suing the unions, it does not reject this class treachery on principle. In an article about a South African group it was courting, the LRP wrote:

“Revolutionaries cannot absolutely rule out that there may arise exceptional and extreme situations under which using the courts in a union struggle may be necessary, in order to survive an attack and to live to fight another day.”
Proletarian Revolution No. 57, Summer-Fall 1998
Shades of those pseudo-socialists who find “tactical” reasons to cross picket lines! In contrast, Trotskyists defend unions led by pro-capitalist bureaucrats against attacks by the capitalist state, insisting that labor must clean its own house. The union belongs to the workers, and even under sellout leadership it must be defended tooth-and-nail against the class enemy, who with their sugary talk of “democracy” want to gut the mass organizations of the working class.

In 1999, the LRP didn’t confine itself to pressuring the labor bureaucracy. Interviewed on NY1 local television, Josephson protested the lousy contract and the “police state measures, reminiscent of Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany, and to my mind flagrantly unconstitutional.” This sums up the LRP’s outlook as a social-democratic current whose lineage goes back to the Stalinophobic tendency of Max Shachtman (as did the leadership of Solidarity). Shachtman deserted from Trotskyism on the eve of World War II refusing to defend the Soviet Union against imperialism. (The Trotskyists defended the Soviet degenerated workers state while fighting for a political revolution to oust the parasitic Stalinist bureaucracy.) So here in the middle of the transit showdown, the Stalinophobic Shachtmanite LRP grotesquely equated the Soviet Union with Nazi fascism, which obliterated the workers movement and carried out the Holocaust, setting as its measuring rod the bourgeois U.S. constitution! The LRP tries to strike various “leftist” postures, but this is its real anti-communist heritage. 

Another group which has published articles about New York transit is the Spartacist League. For some three decades, from the mid-1960s to the mid-’90s, the SL stood for authentic Trotskyism. During the 1980 NYC transit strike, it actively fought for a class-struggle program and leadership of the TWU, with articles, leaflets and a special supplement to Workers Vanguard. Recently, however, in the wake of the destruction of the Soviet degenerated workers state, it has pulled back from the struggle for revolutionary leadership in the mass organizations of the working class. The SL of today with its abstentionist politics represents a variety of what Trotsky called “left centrism,” mouthing revolutionary phrases that are not translated into action while capitulating to sections of the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie.

In 1999, during the weeks before the contract deadline, the SL struck a militant tone, declaring “NYC Transit Workers: You Have the Power, Shut Down the City!” and calling “For Class-Struggle Leadership! For a Solid Strike!” (WV No. 724, 26 November 1999). But when a Brooklyn judge rubber-stamped the draconian city/state injunctions against a TWU strike, the SL suddenly shifted its tune. “Defend Labor’s Right to Strike!” headlined a December 14 Spartacist leaflet which pointedly never called for a strike. This omission was no fluke. Instead the leaflet advocated: “The key is unleashing the power of the multiracial labor movement in New York City in mass, militant action in a thought-out way, one which minimizes the damage in terms of jail sentences and other consequences.” In its December 14 leaflet even the Shachtmanite LRP called for a strike, but the ostensibly Trotskyist SL dropped this hot potato. 

The SL leaflet said that the ruling class “is outlawing the right to strike. If you don’t have the right to strike, you don’t have unions!” adding: “Without the right to act as a union, the plain consequence of Giuliani’s action would be to make the only recourse ineffective guerrilla struggle.” This panicked cry was a subterfuge. The right to strike for civil service workers and their unions has been outlawed in New York state at least since the Condon-Wadlin Act was passed in 1947! The SL bowed to Giuliani’s diktat. NYC corporation counsel Michael Hess told the press that it was illegal for anyone to “threaten, encourage or advocate a strike.” NY1 reporter David Lewis spelled it out: “According to city lawyers, if you were marching in that rally today [15 December 1999], whether you were a union member or just a supporter, here’s how you could talk about the possibility of a transit strike: you could say, ‘The transit workers really ought to have a right to strike, we ought to get that law changed.’ But if you said, ‘The transit workers should go out on strike,’ it could cost you a lot of money.” The SL followed the rules.

Recently, a lengthy article titled “New York Transit Workers vs. Union-Busting Austerity” in Workers Vanguard (29 November) raised a series of demands on safety, health care, the Democratic Party, the Taylor Law and other issues relevant to the transit struggle, but pointedly did not call for a strike. Yet the next issue of WV (13 December) headlined: “For a Solid NYC Transit Strike!” What changed in the meantime to cause this shift? What changed is that the weekend before, Local 100 held a mass meeting of thousands of TWU members who overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike. In these circumstances, for the SL not to call for a strike would ostentatiously place it to the right of the Local 100 leadership, which would be too hard for these centrist ex-Trotskyists to sell while still maintaining a pretense of revolutionary politics. So for now they are for a strike … unless Bloomberg can get a judge to outlaw advocating it, as Giuliani did. 

The Spartacist League no longer fights for revolutionary leadership within the unions, the principal mass organizations of the working class. To take one glaring example, the latest WV calls for cops out of the union. But have supporters of the policies of the SL fought inside the union for the ouster of the Transit Property Protection Agents in the TWU? WV does not say so, and we venture to say they have not done so. 

Or take another important case: that of Mumia Abu-Jamal. The Spartacist League calls for working-class action to free this courageous radical black journalist on Pennsylvania’s death row, as do the Internationalist Group and the other sections of the League for the Fourth International. The TWU is a key union with the muscle that could really make a difference in the fight for Mumia’s freedom. Mumia himself, who is a member of the National Writers Union, wrote a column defending the TWU’s right to strike. TWU Local 100 is on record calling for a “new trial” for Jamal, a liberal demand which implies confidence in the bourgeois state’s legal system. But while our comrades in the Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil have successfully fought for unions and labor federations there to undertake strike action and work stoppages demanding Mumia be freed – defeating reformist attempts to call for a “new trial” instead of for Jamal’s freedom – have SL supporters fought in the TWU for the union to raise the call to free Mumia, and to undertake strikes or work stoppages for that demand? Again, thundering silence from WV.

In the 1938 founding program of the Fourth International (the Transitional Program), Leon Trotsky wrote:

“The Bolshevik-Leninist stands in the frontline trenches of all kinds of struggles, even when they involve only the most modest material interests or democratic rights of the working class. He takes active part in mass trade unions for the purpose of strengthening them and raising their spirit of militancy. He fights uncompromisingly against any attempt to subordinate the unions to the bourgeois state and bind the proletariat to ‘compulsory arbitration’ and every other form of police guardianship – not only fascist but also ‘democratic.’ Only on the basis of such work within the trade unions is successful struggle possible against the reformists, including those of the Stalinist bureaucracy.”
The Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International of which the IG is a section continue the Trotskyist program of fighting to oust the bureaucratic labor lieutenants of capital and build a class-struggle leadership in the unions through the struggle for the class independence of labor from the capitalists’ state and their parties. We address key class conflicts such as the showdown over New York transit in our effort to forge a revolutionary workers party that can join the factory with the ghetto and barrio, mobilizing the power of the working class as the vanguard of all the oppressed fighting for liberation through international socialist revolution. n

To contact the League for the Fourth International or its sections, send an e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com