Ask John Samuelsen about how he rose from lowly track worker to labor kingpin, and he’ll tell you about the time he was called an “Irish cunt.”
As Samuelsen recalls, it was the Fourth of July, 1994, and he was laboring in the baking tunnel of an R train in Brooklyn. He told his supervisor he needed to place a heavy, rubberized mat on the third rail to keep workers from getting electrocuted. The supervisor, angry that time would be wasted going upstairs to a truck to retrieve the mat, said no.
Samuelsen insisted. The supervisor reluctantly relented. But “he wanted me to throw the mat down the stairs as people were walking by,” Samuelsen, now the president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100, told the Voice.
The future labor leader stood firm: He was carrying the mat down the stairs. The supervisor was fed up.
“He said, ‘You’re an Irish cunt, you’re a lazy Irish cunt,'” Samuelsen recounts. “I told him, ‘I’m gonna take you out on the street and beat the shite out of you.'”
Samuelsen says the fight on the platform motivates much of what he does today. His protest led to the demotion of the supervisor and to his own awakening as an organizer. At TWU, Samuelsen was elected shop steward and climbed steadily through the ranks, winning the union presidency in 2009.
Like his militant predecessor, Roger Toussaint — the man who led the transit strike of 2005, shutting down the subways and buses for two days — Samuelsen is something of a lone wolf. Nevertheless, the garrulous, hulking, bearded president of the organization representing the city’s 39,000 bus and subway workers looks and sounds like the mid-century Platonic ideal of a take-no-prisoners union boss. When he opens his mouth, you hear the punchy vowels of Gerritsen Beach, the insular waterfront neighborhood on the southern tip of Brooklyn.
Although his union doesn’t match political powerhouses like 1199 SEIU or the Hotel and Motel Trades Council, it’s become one of City Hall’s premier antagonists. Samuelsen has led a furious crusade against Mayor Bill de Blasio, proudly hanging Daily News covers knocking the mayor in TWU’s hallways.
“Do I think he deserves to be re-elected? I’m not voting for him,” Samuelsen said. “He’s lucky there’s no viable candidate that’s stepped up against him.”
In a conference room at TWU’s headquarters off Cadman Plaza, two banners reveal Samuelsen’s preferences: There’s one for Bernie Sanders and one with an Irish shamrock that advises, “Keep Calm You Fecking Eejit.” Samuelsen homeschools his two teenage sons and makes sure to teach them, when he’s around during the day, how to be “good Irish republicans.”
And in 2016, when almost every significant labor union in the state endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, Samuelsen’s TWU threw its weight behind Sanders, who came to TWU’s headquarters to accept the endorsement.
“The Democratic Party is not the party of trade unions. It’s simply not,” Samuelsen explained. “The left-wing populism that Bernie Sanders brought into this primary was resonating with transit workers and workers everywhere.”
Joe Lhota, the former MTA chairman and a one-time Republican candidate for mayor, affectionately described Samuelsen as “probably the first and only true living socialist” he’s met.
“He’s very religious, very Catholic, very into liberation theology,” Lhota said.
In this context, Samuelsen’s fight with de Blasio (who declined to comment for this article) would seem perplexing. Why antagonize the most pro-union mayor the city has had in at least twenty years, a Democrat who also aligns himself with the Sanders wing of the party?
There are obvious reasons and cynical ones. De Blasio enraged Samuelsen when, as part of his “Vision Zero” initiative to crack down on pedestrian fatalities, he began asking NYPD officers to arrest bus drivers at the scenes of fatal crashes. Understandably, the idea of bus drivers being led off in handcuffs didn’t sit well with Samuelsen.
In retaliation, Samuelsen bragged that his union “took out probably half the rush hour service in Brooklyn…we engaged in repeated actions where we instructed bus operators to not even enter the pedestrian right-of-way until every pedestrian cleared the right-of-way — and that led to a massive backup of traffic in Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn.”
Samuelsen has other bones to pick with a mayor he believes to be a phony progressive. De Blasio’s failed efforts to ban horse-drawn carriages from Central Park threatened to put unionized workers on the street. His ambitious affordable-housing plan, in order to move at the speed and cost he desires, must enlist non-unionized construction workers. During our interview, Samuelsen also denounced de Blasio for allowing Wegmans, which employs non-union labor, to open at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Samuelsen’s approach to Governor Andrew Cuomo, the man he must cut deals with, has been far more accommodationist. That yields the cynic’s explanation for his de Blasio beef. “He’s just an opportunist. He has no real trade union principles,” Toussaint, Samuelsen’s TWU predecessor, said. “That has led him into being not just too close to Cuomo, but being his lapdog.”
It’s a charge that infuriates Samuelsen but one repeated sotto voce among other labor leaders, who feel his browbeating of de Blasio — during one of the mayor’s spats with Cuomo over how much the city should fund the MTA, the TWU paid for subway ads that warned de Blasio wanted to take New York “back to the 1970s” — was primarily an effort to ingratiate himself with the governor in advance of contract talks.
Samuelsen insists that’s not true, and his spokesman, Pete Donohue, called Toussaint a “bitter, ostracized, and frankly irrelevant former union president.” But Samuelsen, not long after the TWU agreed to a contract, was noticeably quiet when Cuomo’s executive budget included a cut of $65 million to the MTA.
Cuomo has governed more as a liberal in his second term, but at heart he’s a triangulator representative of the kind of Democrat Samuelsen, in theory, should be rebelling against. The governor has played a divide-and-conquer game with organized labor, befriending private-sector unions while warring with many in the public sector.
To the horror of true believers like Toussaint, Cuomo in 2012 slashed pension benefits for newly hired state and local public workers. Samuelsen argued, however, that Cuomo has become “increasingly supportive of trade unions and working people in general.”
Samuelsen also has no interest in joining the growing backlash against the Independent Democratic Caucus, a breakaway conference of Democrats aligned with Republicans in the state senate. Formed in 2011, the IDC made the controversial decision to ally itself with senate Republicans in 2012. The group has since handed the majority back to the GOP, a move decried by many labor leaders as a betrayal — but not by Samuelsen. “I view the IDC as an incredibly stabilizing, effective force against any negative tendencies that the Republicans might have in Albany,” he said. He hopes the caucus can roll back the pension cuts Cuomo — the IDC’s most prominent patron — drove home five years ago.
For the man who styles himself a Sanders-esque firebrand, there are always compromises to make — and concessions to give in the name of reality.
Defending the IDC is a “pragmatic decision,” Samuelsen said.
“It’s not an ideological decision.”