“They want you to hold out,” says Laverne the conductor, standing with 20 or so other striking TWU folks outside the Bedford Park B/D station on Grand Concourse, and she wasn’t talking about contract negotiations. She meant bathroom breaks. If you take one when you aren’t supposed to, she says, they write you up. Some workers develop kidney problems. And if you make it to the bathroom, says Jimmy the motorman, it’s pretty grim. “If you don’t get attacked by a rat, you’re good,” he quips. He does not smile.
At this one station, six hours into the 2005 transit strike, this was the theme among workers clocking their first of who-knows-how-many four-hour strike shifts: respect, not money per se. Certainly not salary—if anything, healthcare and pensions. “If they paid me $500,000, I wouldn’t worry about it,” says Jimmy. “But when you don’t have enough money to pay for it, those things all come into play.”
Things like the fact that transit workers get no credit from their ballsy behavior on 9-11 or the 2003 blackout. Or that they don’t get the big holidays off (“13 years, still don’t have Christmas off, says conductor/flagman Johnny.) They gripe that their prescription card doesn’t get honored everywhere, and that some doctors refuse to take them as patients because the reimbursement rates are so low. And when you take a sick day, the bosses send someone to your house. “You’re on house arrest when you’re sick,” says Derrick, a station agent. One striker—a motorman whose job involves holding down a control lever all day—told of waiting a year to get his carpal tunnel diagnosed, then having no pay during the three-month recovery from surgery. And then there are the attacks, verbal and otherwise, by the riding public.
Amid the chaos of the strike, there’s no way to determine right now how many of these claims are true, and to what degree. But the sentiment on the sidewalk at Bedford Park is a fact unto itself. “It’s like a slavery system,” Laverne says. She’s been in the union 21 years, and it’s only gotten worse, she says, jutting her chin over her scarf. It was frigid on the concourse. The strikers circulated in and out of our conversations just to keep moving, and warm.
Two weeks ago, at a transit demonstration in downtown Brooklyn, even union staff thought the threat of a strike was merely the usual triennial charade. No one seemed to honestly think it would happen. Something happened at the negotiating table and in the ranks to change that, and part of it has to be that TWU members feel generally unloved.
“This money that we’re losing, we’re not getting back. We wouldn’t be risking all that money if we weren’t serious about how bad the conditions are,” says Jimmy. Laverne nods, “We’re not valued and we’re just tired of it.”