News & Politics

Transit Showdown


Transit workers staged an angry and boisterous rally Tuesday night outside Grand Central Station, invoking their own proud ghosts of Christmas past. Moments before Transport Workers Union Local 100 president Roger Toussaint dramatically ripped up a city lawsuit aimed at blocking a possible walkout this Friday, he led several hundred members who had stood in the frigid cold for over an hour in a sing-song chant that echoed up and down East 42nd Street:

“We are the union, we’re Mike Quill’s union; We are the union, the kick-ass union.”

Quill was the now-legendary transit union leader who staged his own dramatic defiance of a judge’s back-to-work order in the union’s 1966 subway strike, suggesting in his native Kerry brogue that the judge could “drop dead in his black robes.”

Toussaint, who had his own rebel background in his native Trinidad, has often invoked Quill’s name, using it as a rallying cry to members and shaking it like an Irish shillelagh at Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials.

Although Toussaint and rank and file members said they are hopeful they can reach a deal this year without a walkout, there’s still an intense pride in a union whose “no contract, no work” tradition is more than rhetoric. No other state or municipal unions can say the same, and many, like teachers, police and firefighters, work months and years without a new contract. That’s what makes the transit union talks so suspenseful, and why other labor organizations rally around them so strongly.

A few hours before Tuesday’s rally, the city’s municipal unions pledged financial support for the TWU in the event of a walkout and teachers’ union leader Randi Weingarten, who heads the municipal labor council relayed that support to the rally. “If the MTA can find the money to drop the fare, they can find the money for the workers,” Weingarten shouted at the rally.

Others who took the stage were Brian McLaughlin of the city’s Central Labor Council who said his member unions had pledged a million-dollar fund to help the TWU should it have to shoulder strike penalties.

The transit workers were one of the few unions to endorse Democrat Freddy Ferrer in the mayoral race this fall and the significance of their alienation from Mike Bloomberg’s City Hall was lost on no one. Health and hospitals workers leader Dennis Rivera, Ferrer’s other key labor backer, spoke at the rally as well. “This is a fight for every working person in New York City. We can’t afford to let you down,” he said.

There was also a foreshadowing of the next mayoral election, with two likely Democratic contenders, Representative Anthony Wiener and city controller Bill Thompson vowing solidarity. For a candidate who suffered attacks by several unions for his opposition to Bloomberg’s failed plan for a West Side stadium, Wiener was fiery in his pro-labor stance. “Never have more people been riding trains and busses, and never have the men and women of the TWU been asked to do so much more for so much less,” he yelled. “You are fighting for every New Yorker.”

Thompson, the city’s fiscal watchdog, was more cautious, limiting his statements to a call to the MTA to reach “a fair contract” with the union.

Brooklyn city councilman Bill DeBlasio, who is hoping to become the next council Speaker, also spoke, addressing the MTA: “Now we know you have the money,” he said, referring to the agency’s announced end-of-year $1 billion surplus, “so we know you can make a fair contract with this union.”

Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson gave back-to-back stemwinders (Sharpton, who has feuded with Jackson for years, introduced Jackson as “my big brother.”) “We’re going to ride together, or we’re going to walk together,” Sharpton told the crowd. He tossed a barb at Governor Pataki who is considering a presidential run in 2008. “You are running around the country running for president when the biggest city in the state needs your help right here,” Sharpton said.

Toussaint spoke last, invoking the memories of two transit workers who died on the job in recent weeks. “It seems they want a strike,” Toussaint said of the MTA negotiators. “I tell them it is a bad idea to test our members. Our members don’t want a strike,” he said, “but they don’t want to be insulted either.”

The transit union leader also bashed the agency for seeking to spend its surplus on dubious projects. “First they tried to spend it on a football stadium. Then they called for a big concrete slab; then they said they wanted another headquarters. The last people they want to help are the riders and the workers.”

Speaking of the injunction sought in a Brooklyn court by Mayor Bloomberg against the union, Toussaint said to roars from the crowd, “We have told them this contract will be won by negotiations, not by intimidation.” He then added, sounding like his predecessor, Quill: “If we have to fight, a fight it will be.”

Toussaint said that Wednesday will be a “day of action” with unspecified stepped up protests. Among the slated demonstrations are one Wednesday morning outside the MTA which will vote on expenditures for the $1 billion surplus, and a Thursday 3 P.M. rally outside Governor Pataki’s offices on Third Avenue.

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