Underground Rumblings

A Modern Militant Vies to Revive the Transit Union

Quill faced foes on just one front. Toussaint and his fellow dissidents came under fire from two directions. Willie James had been appointed the president of Local 100 in 1995. A former bus driver and church deacon, James was the local's first black leader, an acknowledgment of the seismic shift in the ethnic makeup of transit workers since Quill's day. What had been a largely white male and Irish preserve had yielded, thanks to civil service's open doors, to a polyglot workforce of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, including a growing number of women. New Directions drew most of its members from those ranks, but they ridiculed James, calling him a front for the union's old-line leaders. James, in return, chafed under the militants' biting criticisms. As soon as Toussaint was no longer officially employed, James saw an opportunity to remove at least one of the many stones in his shoe, and he promptly removed him from his elected post as chairman of the Track Division.

As in Quill's day, the case became a rallying cry. Workers protested outside Transit's Brooklyn offices. Motormen and conductors wore stickers reading "Reinstate Toussaint: End Plantation Justice." Rank-and-file members jammed meetings of the union executive board, demanding Toussaint's reinstatement. James, a practical, if often lackadaisical, leader, saw the writing on the wall and returned Toussaint to his union post.

The Showdown

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.

By the time the 1999 contract talks opened that fall, Roger Toussaint was one of the best-known figures in the union, and many, both within and without the dissident caucuses, looked to him for leadership.

That contract was supposed to be get-even time for the union. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority had entered the last bargaining sessions in 1996 pleading poverty and warning of layoffs. James took them at their word and agreed to a modest wage package. More significant, he gave a green light to the use of welfare recipients as train cleaners, a move that saved the MTA millions but cost the union as many as 500 jobs. New Directions campaigned against the agreement, which was narrowly approved. But months later, reports surfaced that the MTA had a $125 million surplus. The 1999 contract would make up for the MTA's apparent deceit.

Using their votes on the union's executive board, New Directions members engineered approval for rallies outside the MTA's Madison Avenue offices, a mass meeting at the Manhattan Center on West 34th Street on the eve of the deadline, and a December 17 march across the Brooklyn Bridge as a show of strength when the contract expired.

For the first time since the crippling 11-day walkout of 1980, transit workers spoke openly of a possible strike. And for the first time, the dissidents moved their rhetoric from the narrow confines of workplace politics onto a citywide stage, boasting, the way Quill used to do, of the mighty power of transit workers to shut down, if necessary, America's largest city. On that stage, they met Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Mindful that the transit settlement would set the pace for upcoming municipal workers talks, Giuliani thought he saw his perfect target.

Technically not a party to the contract talks, Giuliani still provided most of the thunder and lightning. He condemned the dissidents as Communists threatening his city and readied his famed emergency management bunker in preparation for a strike. He also won a severe restraining order from a Brooklyn judge, barring members from even discussing a walkout.

Sequestered with the MTA at the Grand Hyatt, James remained largely above the fray, content to let the militants provide the threat while he reached for compromise. Toussaint and Tim Schermerhorn, New Directions' longtime leader, were both individually targeted by the judge's order, and the union's lawyers appeared glad to inform them they had been formally served and faced jail for any violation.

Toussaint denied pressing for a strike. "At the Grand Hyatt, I told Willie that we should call a time-out, extend the contract 24 to 48 hours. Then we could have had our march on the Brooklyn Bridge with other unions and then come back to the table with greater leverage. If we hadn't buckled in the face of the injunction, we would have done better," he said.

Instead, that night James announced acceptance of a deal that provided 12 percent over three years, but also gave the MTA power to eliminate seniority provisions in many job titles. Walking home to his apartment in Ebbets Field Houses in Brooklyn at 2 a.m., Toussaint took a shortcut through a gas station. "This unmarked police car rolls up on me. It has four or five plainclothesmen inside and they roll down the windows and shout, 'Hey, you're Toussaint, right? How the fuck could you let Willie James take that deal?' They were mad, cursing at me over and over, saying, 'How the fuck could you let him sell the rest of us out?' "

The Campaigner

The decision to make Toussaint the New Directions candidate for president this year was a wrenching one for the organization, based on many accounts. The group, filled with militants and socialists of one stripe or another, had run three times already. Motorman Tim Schermerhorn was their standard-bearer in the last election against James, missing by a mere 700 votes. After Toussaint was selected to run, he reached out to Schermerhorn and others who had opposed him and asked them to serve as running mates.

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