Underground Rumblings

A Modern Militant Vies to Revive the Transit Union

Arthur Schwartz, a lawyer for the group, said the organization had chosen well. "In left-wing groups it was always the rock throwers versus the cautious ones," said Schwartz. "I was a rock thrower; Roger is cautious."

Ray Rogers, the labor consultant who pioneered unions' use of corporate pressure campaigns against employers, and who was hired by James to help with the 1999 contract talks, saw similar qualities in Toussaint. "He seemed the best in his group," said Rogers. "He was always saying we have to think strategically, we have to think in the members' best interests."

"He's not a bomb thrower, despite what they say," said Richie Steier, the editor of the much read civil service paper, The Chief. "He's a hard-line type of guy but his arguments often don't fit the conventional orthodoxy."

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.

The insurgents' campaign has gotten several lucky breaks. First, New Directions helped uncover credit-card abuses by several top union officers, including James and Gil Rodriguez, a popular vice president who was expected to run for president this year. Rodriguez turned out to be the biggest spender and was forced out of the race. James dropped out too, citing his health, then changed his mind and reentered the race, saying God had cured him. James's supporters briefly moved to split the union between subway and bus workers, a call that was roundly denounced by TWU international president Sonny Hall. In addition to James, former bus driver Eddie Melendez is running, aiming most of his fire at Toussaint. "How can a fired TA employee run our union?" says one Melendez flyer. "How can you trust your job to a man who can't protect his own?"

These days, Toussaint starts at 5 a.m., campaigning at bus depots in Westchester or the Bronx, or rail yards in Queens and Brooklyn. He is accompanied by other New Directions candidates such as Eddie Creighton, a motorman, and Noel Acevedo, a former train operator. Toussaint's wire-rim glasses and carefully groomed goatee are immediately recognizable to most workers. During a visit to the lunch-break room at the 39th Street yards in Brooklyn last week, a young female transit worker eyed him warily as he spoke. "Are you still angry?" she asked when he paused. "I want a leader who isn't going to stop being angry as soon as he gets elected."

"You think I'm not an angry man?" said Toussaint. "They came for me and took away my job. You think I'm not angry?"

Another questioner brought up the rumor that if Toussaint won, he might immediately be removed since he wasn't employed by the MTA. "That's false," answered Toussaint. "I have the right to hold office regardless."

Eddie Creighton, whose father worked before him in transit, quickly chimed in: "Mike Quill ran this union when he was fired," said Creighton, as heads nodded in recognition at the name. "We gotta know our history."

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