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.

Up until a few weeks ago Hall had his offices in the local's building at 80 West End Avenue. He vacated them just as the contract talks heated up. This was right before Hall was defeated in an unprecedented effort to separate drivers of the Queens private bus lines into a separate local.

Last year, at a bitter union convention, Toussaint made a losing bid against Hall for international leadership. The convention was in October, right after 9-11, and someone distributed unsigned leaflets to the delegates calling Toussaint an ally of Osama bin Laden.

Last week, when a Supreme Court judge in Brooklyn was asked by the MTA to enter an injunction against the union to prevent it from striking, the international's lawyers pleaded with the judge to keep them out of it. Any strike activity or planning was unauthorized, they said. "The [international's] counsel cited the lack of communication between the parent and local unions, intimating that the local was, in essence, acting more independently than in past years," wrote Judge Jules Spodek in his decision.

Even in the bitterest internal labor disputes, such public disagreements are unheard of, particularly in the midst of a desperate labor battle that will affect the fortunes of unions here for years to come. "It is not about inter-union struggles, this is bigger than that," said one of the city's top labor organizers.

The fear in Toussaint's camp was that, were the local to have gone on strike, Hall would place it under trusteeship, replacing Toussaint, Watt, and the other officers and imposing his own settlement terms with the MTA. Some union members gave added credence to this scenario after hearing former Senator Alfonse D'Amato, a longtime Hall friend, say on NY1 last week that, in the end, Hall would be there "to save the day."

What did D'Amato know? they wondered.

The former senator knew much. For one thing, MTA chairman Kalikow owes his post to D'Amato. The real estate owner and developer, whose own fiscal problems plunged him into bankruptcy in 1992, was D'Amato's fundraising chairman through several elections, contributing more than $100,000 of his own money. Kalikow is such close pals with the three-term ex-senator that when D'Amato was going through a divorce he stayed at Kalikow's apartment.

D'Amato's influence with the MTA is so widely known and appreciated that owners of the Lower Manhattan building where the MTA recently moved its headquarters were urged to hire the former senator as a consultant to work out a major dispute with the authority. The owners did, paying D'Amato $500,000, as the Times' Charles Bagli revealed in May.

The new headquarters building, at 2 Broadway, across from the old Customs House, is a sore subject at the MTA. Originally slated to cost some $55 million to renovate, it is now at $450 million and still climbing. The contractor hired by the MTA was indicted in April, along with several organized crime figures, for managing to slip more than $14 million in phony bills past the MTA's fiscal watchdogs.

Union analysts point to the fiasco at the new MTA headquarters as only the most public of the agency's management and fiscal missteps. Union officer George McAnanama, a track worker for 27 years, analyzes the agency's penchant for hiring expensive outside contractors and suggests cost-saving steps to the agency. He has documented the MTA's payments of $2000 apiece for oil changes to heavy equipment, changes that could be done for $500 if performed by Transit Authority mechanics. Bigger projects, like the $600 million contract with an outside consultant to plan the new Second Avenue subway, could also be tackled by in-house experts, he said.

When the agency was racing to reconnect the mangled 1 and 9 subway lines at the World Trade Center site, it used its own workers, said McAnanama, and got the job done in 120 days. This was just in time for a well-publicized pre-election reopening ceremony for Pataki this fall.

"This is the cancer that is eating away at our jobs," he said.

Other threats are more immediate. Up on the sixth floor of the union offices, there is a plaque with the names of 178 Local 100 members who have been killed on the job since the 1960s. There are four bronze tags waiting to be added, of those who died in the last 18 months.

Jimmy Willis, a subway conductor for 15 years, now keeps track of these matters as a union official. As the mayor and MTA ratcheted up the city's strike fears last week, Willis, a soft-spoken 48-year-old with a red goatee, sat in a union office explaining how he had tried to get the MTA to accept a peer-counseling program for employees who encounter on-the-job trauma. There have been 73 incidents this year of people falling or jumping under train or bus wheels, he said. The radio code for these tragedies is "12-9," and it is the obligation of train operators to get out and personally investigate.

It happened to Willis five years ago on the R line in Brooklyn. "I could see part of one leg, the rest was all twisted around," he said. The MTA canceled the peer-counseling program in March, Willis said, saying it couldn't afford to give workers time off. He was arguing the matter with agency officials last month when word came that track worker Joy Anthony was killed.

Even with these issues, the MTA, the mayor, and the governor effectively held the upper hand in the public relations battle. Unable to penetrate the Enron-like fiscal numbers that emerged from the MTA—a sudden huge deficit after years of surplus and rising ridership—the media concentrated on the Taylor Law and the effects of an illegal walkout. Local 100 focused its energy on getting Pataki involved in the talks, arguing, convincingly, that a subject of this gravity required the governor's direct intervention.

On Sunday night, standing next to Bloomberg, the governor gave his most complete response to the "Where's George?" question. "I have never and will never get involved in labor negotiations," he said. Not directly at the table, perhaps. But even when the state's looming fiscal crunch was already in view this January, the governor managed to obtain $1.8 billion to fund raises for the hospital and health workers union. He also found $200 million for the teachers union, both of whom endorsed his re-election.

Despite steady whispers to the union leaders that things would be easier at their talks if they endorsed the governor, the union went its own way, endorsing Pataki's opponent, Carl McCall, a Democrat and, like much of Local 100's membership, an African American.

Monday night, more than 4000 transit workers and supporters marched across the Brooklyn Bridge and rallied in City Hall Park. Originally planned as pressure tactic, it had become more of a victory lap. State AFL-CIO leader Denis Hughes looked up at the stage where Toussaint and his leadership stood. "It is really remarkable," he said. "Here is a guy who has never done this before, and look what he's managed to do. It shows that when you need leaders, you go to the rank and file."

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