Toussaint's Transit Trauma

Union big walked a tightrope between enemies abroad and at home

Over the past two months, Transport Workers Union leader Roger Toussaint acquired more armchair critics of his style and tactics than the coaches of the Jets and the Giants endured during their entire seasons. That's not too surprising given that, no matter how many leads their teams blew, the Jets' Herm Edwards and the Giants' Tom Coughlin never forced hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers to hoof it across miles of concrete to get to work and back. But in one of those rare moments of collective New York focus, everyone's an expert these days on how Toussaint and his 34,000 members failed to use the clock wisely or missed a clear shot at the end zone in the last few minutes of the game.

In Toussaint's current plight, he is taking shots from both sides of the city's political divide—from those who think December's three-day transit strike was an outrageous assault on a helpless citizenry, as well as from those who think he stood up to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority bullies, giving organized labor its strongest shot in the arm in a generation.

That's because after Toussaint called off the 60-hour strike and went back to the bargaining table, members of his Local 100 voted down his recommended contract settlement by a mere seven ballots. As in the thousands of daily near-collisions on city streets, "almost" doesn't count here. Toussaint instantly went from hero to goat, a thin-skinned leader who made too many enemies.

The New York Post, which mid-strike charmingly depicted Toussaint on its front page behind steel bars under the headline "Jail 'Em!," conveniently flipped to "What a Jerk" once the vote tally was in. That opinion wasn't much different from the voices heard at a socialist forum in Greenwich Village last week where Toussaint was denounced as a sellout, the nastiest word in the labor lexicon.

But for all the in-depth scrutiny of how the negotiations, strike, and subsequent contract vote were managed or mismanaged by the union president, there's been little notice taken of the tightrope he walked. On one side was a membership clearly clamoring for a walkout: A pre-strike poll found that 73 percent of workers in one division wanted at least a week-long strike. On the other were a grandstanding mayor and a lame-duck governor, both eager to score political points off the MTA's last-minute demand that pension payments be tripled for new workers, with retirement ages bumped up from 55 to 62 (demands Mayor Bloomberg had failed to insist upon in any of his pre-election contract settlements with city unions).

Less noticed by those watching events unfold on TV was an even bigger peril for the union leader, the machinations of the parent union of Local 100, whose old-guard allies Toussaint had ousted when he was elected in December 2000. Rather than supporting the organization's largest local, international-union leaders went out of their way to distance themselves from the walkout.

"It was the most remarkable double cross I ever saw," said veteran labor organizer Eddie Kay, who worked with Toussaint.s

At a hearing before a Brooklyn judge the first morning of the strike, an international- union attorney stood up to say the strike was wrong and unauthorized. The statement represented a double whammy for the striking local. Most immediately, it was a public relations disaster, allowing commentators to cite the badly mixed message coming from within the union itself. (Toussaint's spokesmen sought to spin it that his labor parent was merely trying to avoid heavy fines for violating the Taylor Law, which bars public-employee strikes.) It also suggested that there could be a takeover of the local by the international, booting Toussaint and his team and ending the strike.

Further fanning those fears, international TWU president Michael O'Brien went a giant step further, issuing an unprecedented statement directing members to "cease any and all strike or strike-related activities and to report to work at their regularly assigned work hours and work locations." The MTA quickly plastered the statement on large signs alongside the depots and stations where picketers were marching and put TV ads on the air urging workers to cross the lines. And that was just Day One.

On Day Two, the Voice has learned, Toussaint received a handwritten petition, signed by 22 officials of the local's bus division, MABSTOA, the unit that represents some 6,000 members and that has always been closest to the old-guard international leaders. Among the signatories were three international vice presidents as well as several who were later outspoken against the terms reached by Toussaint—even though they had voted to accept the deal.

The petition stated that the officers had met and concluded that "there is a clear message being sent by the membership walking the picket line that they want the opportunity to decide their fate by voting on the package presented to the executive board." It added that strikers "are looking for a fast and speedy resolution, as their resolve is starting to wear thin."

The petition's claims were dramatically at odds with other picket line reports that f ound members in wide support, with emotions ranging from determination to jubilation. "Everything else we were getting was just the opposite," said Ed Watt, Toussaint's second in command and the local's secretary-treasurer.

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