News & Politics

Back to Work? On the Brink Again


Not much changed at the picket line outside the 240th Street yards after the news broke late Thursday morning that Roger Toussaint wants to send his members back to work. The guys still circulated in a small driveway under the last stretch of elevated 1 train in the Bronx. There were bagels and coffee. The radio—their only source of information regarding what their union and employer were doing—buzzed from a parked car. “We’re wondering why we’ve been out here three days,” one striker, a train inspector, quips. “I think just for the progress that was made, it was worth it,” says Cunningham McKillop, a station agent, wearing the TWU cap that bears the slogan United . . . Invincible. “It just shows we’re not trying to hurt the city. We just want something fair.”

“Everybody’s gonna come out with half-face,” says Gil, a substation worker for 10 years. “Too many proud people. But if [Toussaint] had waited until after Christmas he would have lost all his leverage.” Although, he thinks, maybe a one-day, symbolic strike would have worked better for everyone. Frank, a six-year vet who also works in a substation, says the strike had to happen because too many strike threats have gone nowhere in the past; the TWU needed to slap the city to remind folks that they’ve got some juice.

Frank and Gil are among the guys who give the subway system its own juice: Their job involves taking electricity from con Ed at 13,000 volts or higher and transforming it down to 660 or 700 volts. “We feed the third rail,” Gil explains. But it means working with mercury and equipment that contains asbestos and lead, and 100-degree conditions in the summer, and steel dust all the time. Frank says he doesn’t know many guys who retire from the substation and live more than four or five years. David, a colleague of Frank and Gil, has been there 19 years. He has suffered heat stress and dehydration. “Maybe we should have stayed out longer,” David says, motioning to the radio, referring to the strike.

If/when the strike ends, the MTA will begin the job of getting the massive system back in gear. And the strikers will begin trying to patch up their finances. One guy says he hasn’t put money away, unlike some colleagues. He had been hoping to pay off a big credit card bill, but that can’t happen now. Another wonders if he should use his vacation time to cover the strike days and fines. “That means it don’t hurt as much,” he says, but adds that it means that planned vacations are off. And the latest bill for home heat was a killer, he says. Some strikers are getting hit twice: They’re on strike and facing fines, and their wives are missing work—and paychecks—because there’s no way to get into work.

But some are ready to fork over their salary, on principle. “Sometimes you have to pay a fine to show a law is wrong. We have to challenge it by breaking the law and paying the price,” says McKillop. He had Tuesday and Wednesday off, so he doesn’t know if he’ll owe Taylor Law fines on all three days or just Thursday. “Either case, I’m willing to pay.”