Big Wheels

Re Tom Robbins's article "Underground Rumblings: A Modern Militant Vies to Revive the Transit Union" [November 28]: I am a former subway conductor, one of the founders of the "Hell on Wheels" newsletter, which was a predecessor of New Directions, and author of a book about these experiences, Underground Women (Temple University Press, 1998).

Robbins portrays the current New Directions election campaign as the culmination of the rise of a single extraordinary individual, Roger Toussaint. As impressive as Toussaint's achievements are, he is only one of many exceptional transit workers who have helped to build New Directions over the past 15 years.

Toussaint did not align himself with New Directions until 1994, although his track division had long supported New Directions. In 1994, New Directions endorsed Toussaint's slate for leadership of his division. However, it was not until 1997 that Toussaint became a formal member of New Directions. Until then, he had concentrated his efforts solely in his own division.

New Directions, in contrast, had built a strong organization throughout the local. The effectiveness of this approach was shown in 1992, when New Directions played a decisive role in the first rejection of a contract by members of Transport Workers Union Local 100. In 1994, New Directions presidential candidate Tim Schermerhorn won 45 percent of the local vote, and the caucus won office in five divisions. In 1995, the recall campaign initiated by New Directions forced the local president out of office. By 1997, New Directions was clearly on the road to taking power in the local. Toussaint was virtually jumping on the bandwagon.

Robbins quotes Toussaint as saying that he did not join New Directions or seek elected position earlier because "I didn't need those positions. I was the leader, de facto." However, Toussaint was an unknown outside his relatively small division before New Directions selected him to run for a top local position in 1997.

It was after the 1997 election that Toussaint was fired from his transit job. His reinstatement to his union post was not a result of some kind of personal charisma, as depicted by Robbins. It was an organized effort on the part of the many men and women in New Directions to popularize his case among the membership and to pressure the union leadership.

My purpose is not to disparage Toussaint or his contribution to New Directions. It is to clarify the relationship of the individual to the movement. The main problem with Robbins's article lies in its perpetuation of the myth that working people must await the appearance of a "great man" who will redeem them. In reality, it takes the efforts of large numbers of leaders and activists to win change. The media often fasten on such a "hero" and invest him with all the powers and achievements actually possible only through collective effort. This discourages activism and hinders change. Furthermore, when people believe this myth, it fosters the growth of a cult of personality. Democracy and accountability are undermined, loyalty and obedience extolled. The movement to reform then runs the risk of becoming a mirror image of the evil it sought to eradicate.

Marian Swerdlow

Timorous Critique

Why has it taken Nat Hentoff so long to lose respect for Daniel Patrick Moynihan ["Ignoble End to a Bright Career," December 5]?

More important, why does Hentoff laud Moynihan's commitment to "human rights around the world"? In 1976, when Moynihan was UN ambassador, he helped to facilitate mass murder in East Timor. Indeed, he even bragged about this shameful and criminal act. In his memoirs, Moynihan speaks of international efforts to stem the Indonesian assault on the Timorese; but the U.S., which backed the Indonesian invasion, wanted no such meddling. As Moynihan put it: "The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success."

Moynihan goes on to say that at that point in the invasion, "10 percent of the [Timorese] population" had been wiped out, so by his own admission, Moynihan knew exactly what he was doing. Now that Moynihan is pimping for the Chinese dictatorship, Hentoff scratches his head and wonders where it all went wrong.

Dennis Perrin
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Nat Hentoff replies: Perrin is exactly right about Moynihan and East Timor. I am grateful that he has brought it to light, and I should have.

Prosecution Complex

Bronx D.A. Robert Johnson's decision not to "influence" the grand jury in the Dante Johnson case was indeed born of political survival, as Peter Noel so lucidly argued in his article "Black Blood Is Cheap" [December 5].

We like to believe that highly visible, ostensibly powerful African American public officials like Johnson will champion our causes—especially in cases as egregious as the Johnson shooting. However, we neglect to factor in their careers and political aspirations. Realpolitik mandates caution for an official in as tenuous a position as Johnson enjoys. There is no way he is going to jeopardize his career for a kid he believes possibly would end up on the wrong side of the criminal justice system anyway.

Dennis Shipman

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