News & Politics

Socialists, Scabs, and the “Union Soul”


It was around 2:30, with the fire in the wastebasket slowly consuming a long wood plank, that the Workers Vanguard caused problems for the picket line at the 207th Street transit depot on 10th Avenue. A trio of socialists was distributing leaflets demanding “Victory to the Transit Workers Strike” and copies of an edition of the Vanguard with headlines like “Iraq: Murderous Occupation,” when Nelson Rivera kicked them out.

No good, said Rivera, the shop chairman for the overhaul side of the 207th Street operation. “Please take your leaflets and get outside the barricade,” he asked. But we’re with you, the socialists say. Nelson insists they leave. “We are here to support you,” the socialists insist. “Then leave. Now,” Nelson demands. Voices rise. Other union members step in, “But they’re pro-strike. They’re pro-strike.” Let them stay. Things get tense and guys have to be separated. The cops edge closer. As another group of union members—some TWU, some SEIU 1199 people with drums and maracas—approaches, one striker calls out, “OK, we got people coming, let’s stay united.”

While most strikers seemed on the same page at picket sites in the Bronx and Manhattan visited over the past two days, there were signs at 207th Street of fissures appearing. “There’s a lot of internal divisions,” Rivera said, although reluctant to describe them to the media. He did say the problem included, “People coming here to talk about the president, and it divides us.”

But that’s not the only worry. A flyer found at the site read: “A message to any TWU Local 100 Member who is thinking about crossing the picket line from your 34,000 striking brothers and sisters: Think before you act. Is it worth it to lose your Union soul? Is it worth it to make 34,000 life-long enemies? Is it worth it to stab your co-workers in the back? In your heart, you know the answer is NO. DON’T DO IT.” Rivera claims that the MTA told some provisional and probationary transit workers that they’d be fired if they joined the strikers, and snuck them into the yard to work. That will cause problems, Rivera thinks, when everyone goes back to work together.

Then there’s the international. Addressing the troops through a megaphone—and clearly trying to counter some spin that he thinks his strikers are getting—Rivera accused “people with their own agendas” of spreading “poison” about Local 100 leader Roger Toussaint. “The International is gonna order us to work,” Rivera said, quoting a widespread fear among strike leaders. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. The international takes 30 percent of our dues. They have no respect for us.”

It wasn’t all tension and drama on 10th Avenue. A young bunch of hipster types walked by holding the sign “Washington Heights Supports Transit Heroes!” A fire engine driving by honked their support, the men inside waving, to great cheers. Maybe they got the flyer that read “Danger Ahead for All NYC Employees . . . Bloomberg is trying to force lower pensions on everybody. We have to stop it here and now.”

Archive Highlights