Toussaint's Transit Express

All It Took Was a Little Respect

Three years ago, Roger Toussaint was a dissident union activist, a track worker disdained by his local's leaders, and the target of private investigators hired by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in an attempt to prove he was faking injuries from a work-related accident.

Monday night, in an ending that seemed wholly implausible just a few days earlier, there was Toussaint, now president of his union local, being publicly embraced by Peter Kalikow, chairman of the MTA. Kalikow had launched the talks speaking only of deficits and cutbacks. He ended them using words taught to him by Toussaint and his membership during the talks.

"Most of all," said Kalikow, announcing the settlement that concluded four crisis-ridden days of negotiations, "we want our workers to be treated with dignity."

Transit workers' rally at City Hall: preaching dignity
photo: Julia Xanthos
Transit workers' rally at City Hall: preaching dignity

If New York's 7 million bus and subway riders were confused, they had every right to be. The money—modest pay hikes and a bonus over three years—had turned out to be the easy part.

Their confusion had begun late Sunday night, when transit workers' secretary-treasurer Ed Watt, a sturdy ex-bus driver from the Flatbush depot, stepped before the cameras at 11:58 p.m. to announce a time-out in the talks. There had been sufficient progress in the bargaining, said Watt, to merit forestalling a strike—for the time being, at least. What progress was that? "The non-economic areas of dignity and respect," he said.

Say what?

It was about the last thing New Yorkers expected to hear. For good reason. For 10 days they had heard a steady anti-union drumbeat from Mayor Bloomberg, who missed the funerals of the two transit workers killed on the job last month. They had witnessed the newly re-elected governor, George Pataki, treat his nominal employees with total disdain, and from a safe distance. They had read the frantic, doomsday language of newspaper editorials like those in the New York Post, which described Toussaint as on a "jihad," or in the Daily News, which called on the powers that be to "strike terror in the heart of the TWU."

For all of that frenzied talk about them, the leaders of the union—when finally heard from—could have been speaking a foreign language.

As the clock ticked down Sunday night, transit worker Whitfield Gibson, 35, stood on a chilly midtown corner passing out small white union flyers to passersby, eager to translate for anyone pausing to listen.

"It is not about raises," he said. "It is about this disciplinary system, the way we are treated. It is about safety and benefits, not the money, it never was."

There are 34,000 transit workers. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority somehow managed to dole out 16,000 disciplines last year, one for almost every other employee. A bus driver swerves to avoid a car that has cut him off; a passenger is injured as the bus lurches. It is cause for discipline to the driver. The union is in arbitration five days a week defending its members against such charges. Some members think this is a deliberate strategy by the MTA: Keep the union tied up, keep it off-guard.

Toussaint raised this subject in the press briefing room at Grand Hyatt Hotel Sunday evening a few minutes after Bloomberg and Pataki had finished expounding one more time at a police command center in Brooklyn.

"We are disciplined at 10 to 20 times the rate of large-scale employers, not only in the region but across the continental United States," he said. "These are real live issues for real live people, dedicated workers who have kept New York moving."

The press room, strewn with trash from the weekend's stakeout, was tense. Toussaint alone was calm and composed. He wore a dark, double-breasted suit that set off the gray in his beard and hair. On Thursday evening, when he had arrived at the hotel to prepare for the talks, the Times snapped his photo and put it on the front page, top of the fold. He was dressed casually, a black man wearing a black leather jacket. He was framed by a pair of aides, both black men, one of whom wore a red union T-shirt. "Thugs," said not a few readers, some aloud and some only to themselves.

That Toussaint is a very different type of labor leader than what the city normally encounters was largely lost in the welter of accusations against his tactics. Elected in 2000 on a platform of reform, he cut his salary as president by $15,000 to $94,000 a year. His slate of dissidents took similar reductions. Before his election, union officers got an extra pension and received health benefits superior to those of members. He eliminated both.

Even so, the Post pictured him stepping into a union-leased SUV, saying he was riding around town in luxury while threatening to shut down the city. "I guess they think I should swing on a vine," he told colleagues.

Lost also, except to those few who follow union politics, was the other, internal tightrope Toussaint had to walk through these talks. Before this, the parent international Transport Workers Union had always been a crucial ally of the local. Local 100, headed by Toussaint, is the largest in the international. A former Local 100 president, Sonny Hall, heads the parent organization. Hall had backed the group that Toussaint defeated, leaders that many unionists viewed as little more than figureheads, with Hall pulling the strings. When Toussaint and his slate won office two years ago, many of Hall's allies lost their posts at the local.

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