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?


"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.

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

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.

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."

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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