There it was last Friday as we all returned to the beloved subway platform for the ride to work, the screaming headline on the Daily News: “Three Days of Transit Hell and Guess What? NOBODY WINS. In this strike, everyone has lost: the workers, the union, the MTA, New York business and most of all, you.” The headline capped a week in which the News did its best to rouse outrage at the union with covers like “Mad as Hell.” And the “nobody wins” line echoed a theme that Mort Zuckerman’s team had been sounding since the workers walked.
On the day the strike struck, December 20, a News web editorial declared: “Toussaint rejected every reasonable proposal out of hand. . . . Now he’s about to lose a fight he never should have picked. And, tragically, transit workers are going to suffer the worst consequences.” The next day Michael Goodwin opined that the TWU “blew it.” On Thursday, the final day of the walkout, an editorial titled “With Roger, All Lose Out” hollered, ” ‘Irrational’ is too mild a word to describe Toussaint’s leadership of the TWU. . . . (C)onsider the severe privations he is imposing on his own members.” And then the day service resumed, the editorial was “60 Hours Later, No Winners” and the key lines were: “By failing to temper his militance (sic) with judgment, Transport Workers Union President Roger Toussaint led the city’s 33,700 transit workers into a dead end where he crashed into the reality that breaking the law has terrible consequences – particularly when you victimize millions.”
Today, there was a different tune. The final words of the lead News editorial said it all: “Now, after devastating New York, (the union) has won.” That’s because besides snaring raises, a day off for MLK, improved healthcare in return for a 1.5 percent premium, and protecting pension benefits, the union won a payback for contributions that older members made to the system during a pervious contract. The checks could run to $14,000 a worker, which ought to cover those members’ Taylor Law fines for the strike—and then some.
And as long as we’re tallying union victories, don’t forget the intangible edge the union has gained in future contract fights by striking during this one. The threat of a strike is one of the chips a union has at the table, and as one subway substation worker told me on the picket line last Thursday, sometimes you have to act on a threat to make it real.
Of course, few victories are total. The TWU will have to deal with its fines and other legal consequences before it is strong enough to wage another strike, and the next contract will expire after the holidays, giving the workers less leverage. Some union members—worried about the precedent set by the health care payments—don’t think the TWU won at all. And budget watchdogs’ worries about pension costs are valid—not because of the specifics of the TWU deal, but because pensions in general are the next great looming policy crisis.
All the same, “irrational” and “dead end”—like their cousin “thuggish”—are adjectives that look less and less applicable to the strike as it fades in the rear-view.