Underground Rumblings

A Modern Militant Vies to Revive the Transit Union

It is 35 years since New Yorkers last heard the thick County Kerry brogue of transit union leader Mike Quill striking terror into City Hall. Handed a judicial order blocking his union's strike, Quill answered with simple logic all working men and women understood. "An injoonction can't run a subway," he said.

As a youth, Michael J. Quill fought the feared British Black and Tans in his native Ireland until he was forced to flee to America. There, he found work on the Independent subway line among thousands of his countrymen. They worked gruelingly long hours at low pay maintaining this most vital of all municipal services. You don't know your own power, he told them. You need a union. And with a squadron of fellow Irish Republicans he founded one of the most radical and powerful of them all, the Transport Workers Union. They scoffed at managers and mayors: We fought the Black and Tans, they said. Do you think you scare us?

Candidate Toussaint: From out of Trinidad, a rank-and-file leader for an ailing union.
photo: Brian Finke
Candidate Toussaint: From out of Trinidad, a rank-and-file leader for an ailing union.

"I was the leader, de facto. Management knew it. Union knew it."

Ah, Mike Quill: The name still evokes raptures among those who hold the unionist creed close to heart. Heave a sigh for Mike Quill; his like won't pass this way again.

Attention passengers: Please meet Mr. Roger Toussaint, leading candidate for president of Transport Workers Union Local 100 and its 35,000 members in elections under way this month. Meet Roger Toussaint, whose life and politics carry so many echoes of the forces that molded Mike Quill, and who is vowing to awaken the sleeping giant that Quill created.

He is 44 years old and speaks with the gentle, rounded tones of his native Trinidad, another island that fought to shed British rule. He was raised in a one-room house in a family of nine. He spent his youth battling a neocolonialist regime, marching with army rebels, hiding trade union organizers. At the age of 17 he was arrested and expelled from high school for writing slogans on the walls. His incendiary message? "Free Education," he wrote in one spot. In another, it was "Free Books."

Forced to flee Trinidad in 1974 because of his activism, he followed his mother to Brooklyn's West Indian community and worked as a messenger while attending Brooklyn College. On campus, he again majored in radicalism, taking part in protests against fiscal cutbacks, and for minority student programs.

He left college to become a welder, a blue-collar skill that appealed to his political bent and which he thought would surely support him. He found work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard repairing oceangoing vessels. When the ship repair business folded, he lowered his sights economically, if not politically, and passed the test to become a transit cleaner. Hired in 1984 by the New York City Transit Authority, he switched to a better-paying, higher-skilled job as a track worker a year later.

From the start, he was a thorn in management's side. With fellow track workers, he put out his own newsletter, On Track, calling attention to rank-and-file grievances and inaction by union officials.

He was a puzzle to the union as well. For 10 years he didn't run for any post, not even shop steward. He didn't even join the growing dissident rank-and-file caucus called New Directions that was gathering power within the union. "I didn't need those positions," he said in his deliberative way last week as he traveled to a campaign stop. "I was the leader, de facto. Management knew it. Union knew it."

He proved that in 1994 when he finally ran for office. Aligned now with the New Directions group, he won election as leader of the 1800-member Track Division. His job was to pursue grievances, and he brought such zeal to the job that he quickly ran afoul of transit officials who responded with the same kind of overkill that had gotten them in trouble in the past.

According to New York labor historian Joshua Freeman, Quill's 1930s organizing efforts were boosted by a clash between pickets and transit cops in the IRT subway below Grand Central Station. Police arrested Quill and several of his comrades simply for carrying placards underground; transit bosses fired several in response. In the resulting furor, the labor men were hailed as martyrs and the fight to win their jobs back helped turn the tide in favor of the then still struggling TWU.

It was a tactical lesson that, 60 years later, the transit functionaries apparently forgot. In July 1998, Toussaint was riding in a car with another union official on his way to attend to a member's complaint when another vehicle plowed into them. Firefighters had to pry Toussaint loose from the wreck, and he was taken to the hospital with injuries to his back and neck. He was out of work for three months. Upon his return, transit managers immediately sought his dismissal for being in an unauthorized car during working hours and failing to report his location while on sick leave. Things got worse when a friend who had agreed to deliver Toussaint's written appeal to transit headquarters missed the filing deadline. An arbitration panel approved his dismissal.

Transit officials had focused laserlike scrutiny on Toussaint, records uncovered by his lawsuit later showed. They hired private investigators to shadow him. They followed him to union meetings, to his son's nursery school, and even to Transit Authority offices, where Toussaint, carrying a cane and wearing a neck brace, continued to aid track workers with their grievances despite his own injuries. Confronted later about their spying, Transit Authority officials shrugged. Using private investigators is common practice in cases where malingering is suspected, they said. But records showed the surveillance lasted seven weeks, the longest one ever, and the first one mounted against a worker who had not even filed a workers' compensation complaint. And there was more.

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