On Tuesday, December 20th, some 34,000 transit workers went on strike in New York City, shutting down the United States’ largest transportation system, in the financial center of world capitalism, for the first time in twenty-five years.
The workers were fighting to defend themselves from the attacks of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), who sought major concessions from the workers, despite the fact that it had just claimed a $1 billion dollar surplus.
Among other benefit cuts, the MTA wanted to create deep divisions in the union by imposing a two-tier system in which newly hired workers would have to work seven extra years to reach retirement, and contribute a higher percentage of their wages towards their pension.
The rank and file members of the Transit Workers’ Union (TWU) Local 100 voted to go on strike days before the strike actually occurred; but union president Roger Toussaint did everything he could to avert it, including proclaiming “the clock stopped” after no agreement was reached by the deadline at midnight on December 19th. Finally, after the MTA laid out a pathetic “final offer” and walked away from the bargaining table, Toussaint had no choice but to call a strike.
As soon as he did, an all out attack was launched against the workers.
The local and state governments mobilized to impose the anti-worker Taylor Law which prohibits so-called ‘public sector workers’ from striking, imposing fines of $1 million dollars a day against the union and fines in the thousands against individual workers. The aim of this was to “bankrupt the union”; a strong, multi-racial union with a militant background.
Wall Street demanded that the transit workers accept a ‘new era’, where gains for workers, and pensions and benefits were a thing of the past.
Despite the fact that the striking workers’ had the widespread support of New Yorkers, an extensive media blitz was commenced in an effort to whip up a vicious anti-worker hysteria (which we’ll go further into below); and people like Billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who just spent $70 million dollars (or over $100 per vote) on his 2004 election campaign, had the nerve to call the workers, who make an average of $47,000 a year – in a city where the real poverty line for a family of four is around $57,000 – greedy!
The majority of Democrats weren’t visible at all during the strike, and those who were fought actively against it.
Tellingly, workers faced resistance even within their own union! A section of the local leadership voted against the strike, and the national leaders of the TWU not only openly denounced the strike and called for workers to scab, but even went as far as arguing in court alongside the attorney general
for the striking workers to be penalized!
After two and a half days on the picket line, the workers were told to go back to work by the local leadership, without a contract
(despite the fact that one of the main slogans being chanted by the rank and file on the picket lines was ‘no contract, no work!’).
Later the official word would be that the workers went back after the MTA agreed to grant them some concessions, one of which was the return to the workers of extra money they had contributed to their pensions. But no sooner than that news got out, Governor George Pataki vowed to immediately veto any such pay backs.
When the first details of the new contract were released they had defeat – for the transit workers, and the working class as a whole – written all over them.
The contract promises major concessions by the union which will be used as a stepping block for the bosses to launch further attacks against the already declining living standards of other workers in both the private and public sectors.
The penalties against the union and workers stand, the mayor and governor have promised to enforce them.
The 37-month contract gives workers raises of 3, 4, and 3.5 percent, which combined with the loss of pay for days on strike and a new stipulation that requires workers to pay 1.5 percent of their pay for health benefits for the first time, means that its unlikely that the transit workers’ pay will even keep up with the rate of inflation.
Another major defeat comes in the extra month added to the length of the contract. This was designed to move the expiration of the contract until
after the holiday season, thus weakening the transit workers’ position if another similar situation develops in three years. The Christmas-week deadline was originally lost as a part of the betrayal of the 1980 strike, and workers had to fight for a decade to win it back, only to have now lost it again.
Despite the fact that union leaders and sections of the media are painting this as some sort of a victory for the transit workers, the only visible achievements seems to be that the workers gained Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday, and forced the MTA to drop its demand to raise the minimum retirement age for new-hires from 55 to 62, and require them to work 30 years instead of 25 before they can retire, thus creating a damaging two-tier split in the union’s ranks. But even the pension deal was nothing more than a tactical retreat by the MTA.
They have secured a much greater cut in labor costs in the new health care premium, which will immediately be imposed on all
workers, than they would have in pension changes that applied only to new
As this is being written, the rank and file transit workers are about to vote whether or not to accept the contract. There is a section of those workers emerging that is calling for a no vote on the contract and a return to the picket lines. The Free People’s Movement completely supports those workers, and strongly urges them to consider the statement and platform we originally put forward at the outset of the strike (which is also included in this issue).
This strike, and the events surrounding it, have taught us lessons and served to further confirm the legitimacy of conclusions we have (or should have) drawn long ago.
We have attempted to draw out some of those lessons which are of international applicability and the utmost importance to future struggles.The need for workers’ media
Before, during, and after the strike, all forms of mainstream media – newspapers, television, and radio – both in New York and around the world, showed exactly which class they represent.
Despite the fact that polls showed wide-spread support among New Yorkers (especially Blacks and Latinos, though of course, no break down of the polls by class were done) for the striking workers, the media launched an all out war on them.
The workers were slandered and attacked in racist and anti-worker diatribes, which often bordered on the fascistic. One story went as far as to blame the striking workers for the fact that the city’s numerous homeless had no where to sleep since the train stations were closed, instead of rightly placing the blame on a system in which there are so many without a home to begin with!
Even the so-called “liberal”press like The New York Times
denounced the strike as “unnecessary” and an “outrageous and illegal action.”
More than once the workers were branded terrorists (which perfectly illustrates that the so-called ‘war on terror’ is nothing more than a guised part of the war on our class in the U.S. and around the world) in mainstream newspapers, and multimillionaire Mortimer Zuckerman’s right-wing rag the Daily News
went as far as inciting violence with a front page headline that read “Throw [TWU president] Roger [Toussaint] from the train!”
Despite this fact, when members of the Free People’s Movement marched along side our brothers and sisters on the picket lines, we saw many of them reading that exact paper – the one which had attacked them the most! When we asked one Black train driver why he and his fellow workers would want to read such garbage, he responded, “we’ve got to read something.”
He had a very strong point. The capitalist class has a strangle-hold on nearly every form of communication; and as the saying goes, “freedom of the press only applies to those who can afford a press.”
Groups like ours publish workers’ newspapers and journals like this; but in the age of “news on demand” via cable television and the internet, it’s very hard for a few publication with limited distribution to compete with a trillion-dollar industry.
There is a very real need for workers’ and their allies to establish broad communication networks and independent media venues, in order to express our own views, organize, and discuss our experiences to draw lessons and decide our future tactics and strategies. The internet medium equips us like never before to do just that, and there are still the traditional mediums, like newspapers, which can reach the worlds’ working and poor majority, who have little access to food, let alone a computer with an internet connection.
Workers’ and other oppressed people need to work hard to build any, and all, means of communication amongst ourselves – in our workplaces, our communities, our countries, and worldwide – and we must also strongly support such means which already exist.Political vs Economic struggles
As this strike has demonstrated, all economic struggles will also inevitably become political struggles; and workers must act accordingly.
In order for the transit workers to win their basic economic demands, they also had to undertake a political struggle. This is illustrated by the fact that the striking transit workers not only had to go up against the MTA and the corporate media, but also the governments of Bloomberg and Pataki – which like all governments under capitalism, use ‘law and order’ (in this case in the form of the Taylor Law) to insure the continued exploitation of the working class – themselves.
Workers must be prepared to wage such a combined struggle effectively because the bosses always are. That’s demonstrated every time another anti-worker law is passed, an injunction is sought or fine levied against workers, the police defend scabs crossing a picket line, or police and/or any branch of the military are brought out to crush a strike with brute force.
It’s up to workers to themselves decide which forms of struggle inside of the political realm are best for any specific situation; but they have to be organized and ready to make such decisions.
In this situation, it’s evident that one such form of struggle (which was taken up by some – but not nearly enough – rank and file workers) was the demand for amnesty from all penalties and injunctions, and the abolition of the Taylor Law.
This demand should have been a strike demand, and could have been won by the transit workers – in the same way they confronted the New York City and state governments in the strike of 1966, smashing the virulently anti-worker Condon-Wadlin anti-strike law in the process.
All workers, both union and non-union alike, and especially those in the public sector, had a stake in the struggle against the Taylor Law, and many of them could have, and should have been united with in it.
A law is not ‘just’ or ‘sacred’ simply because it is a law. Most of the progress that has been made in the United States (and around the world), whether it be in civil rights struggles or labor struggles, was achieved by oppressed people standing up against such laws.
We mustn’t forget that slavery and segregation were both protected by the law in the United States, and forming a union was illegal.Solidarity and Unity
Despite the best efforts of the capitalist class, in strikes like these it’s relatively common (and correct) for others workers to understand the struggle being waged is their struggle too.
It’s also not unusual for other unions and workers’ groups to issue statements of solidarity with striking workers; but it usually goes no further than that (especially in the U.S.).
To put it bluntly, despite the good intentions of workers and organizations expressing solidarity with actions such as these, it’s not enough.
Too many times striking workers are left in isolation, expected to wage the struggle of our whole class by themselves!
For statements of solidarity to be of any use, they must be backed up with actual expressions of unity. Because honestly, how can we expect any small section of our class to defeat the interwoven and interconnected capitalist class (which is exactly what needs to be done)?
In the current era, in which the bosses continue to wage a one-sided war on our class, the only way for us to win on any front is to unite on every front. Concretely, this means that workers of all industries, in all areas of the world, must be ready to defend workers of any industry, in any part of the world!
Throughout the strike, many taxi drivers, private transit operators, and workers on the Metro North commuter lines (who have been working for three years without a contract) were vocal in their support for the striking workers, and voiced their readiness to go out on strike as well, but none of the leaders of any of their unions even discussed taking such action.
There was a clear need for working class unity to defeat the management of the MTA, the vicious campaign against the striking workers in the media, the anti-worker Taylor Law and the government that upholds it; but there was an even clearer lack of any such unity.The bureaucracy, the rank and file, and the unions
Once again the labor union bureaucracy has played a major part in the betrayal, and subsequent defeat of this strike.
Rank and file workers must understand the role of unions in the present era, and the position that the union bureaucracy plays in them.
The main goal of a labor union is to organize workers into a force capable of protecting their share of the national income against the bosses’ constant drive for more profits. Ostensibly, a labor union is a means for workers to win new gains, but in practice, and especially in the current situation, they’re relegated to defensive mechanisms, used to protect hard-won gains made in the past. Realistically, many haven’t even proven specifically useful in this defensive task.
In the worst cases we have even seen some unions break the strikes of other unions and union leaders order workers to scab!
To put it simply, we have to understand that the labor union bureaucracy doesn’t act in the interest of the working class because it’s not a part of the working class!
In most cases, the leaders of labor unions are scabs to the highest degree. They act not in the interest of the workers they supposedly represent, but rather as officers of the bosses! That is the class who they are most economically tied to and thus who they identify with.
This doesn’t mean that unions themselves are of no use to our class. In fact, despite their downfalls, they are still important means of defending our class interest, and building the foundations for more important work in the future.
The key for rank and file workers is to work within the traditional unions when they can, and when it is advantageous to themselves and their class; but also to work to form rank and file organizations within them that put forth their class interest, and to actively work to build industrial unions and other independent workers organizations (equipped to take on the various forms of political struggle) which are conscious of the fact that workers and bosses have nothing in common, and that can eventually replace them.The need for independent working people’s organization
Once again during this strike, the so-called “friends of labor” in the Democratic Party clearly showed which class they represent.
Democrat Eliot Spencer, State Attorney General and 2006 candidate for Governor of New York, did everything he could to crush the strike, including obtaining “a court order enjoining the unions and their members from striking”, asking the court to hold the TWU in contempt and impose fines of $1 million dollars a day – doubling everyday – on the union, and asking the court to hold two smaller ATU local unions that represent about 3,000 Queens and Staten Island bus line employees in contempt and to impose fines of $500,000 per day. 
Fernando Ferrer, who was the Democratic candidate for mayor of New York in 2004 and received the backing of the TWU in that race, was nowhere to be found during the strike, and didn’t as much as issue a statement of support.
New York Senator Hillary Clinton, a well known Democrat and likely candidate for the 2008 presidential elections claimed she was ‘neutral’, while fully backing the anti-worker Taylor Law.
How about Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer? Congressman Anthony Weiner? Former Council Member Gifford Miller? Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields? Former Public Advocate and Candidate for State Attorney General Mark Green? Not one of them came out in support of the striking workers.
Despite the fact that a large percentage of union dues go to support them, it has been made clear time and time again that the Democrats, represent the same ruling, capitalist class as the Republicans – and every other such party around the world.
Working people need to break with the bosses’ parties and form their own, independent organizations, to fight in their own interests. This is how our movement, the Free People’s Movement, came into being.
But we are not, and can not be, the only such organization. Working people around the world must decide what sort of organizations they need, and the strategy and tactics they must use.
So while the Free People’s Movement and it’s allied organizations in the International Working People’s Association warmly welcome working people to join us, we also pledge to support any and all alternative forms of struggle they take up.
We must unite in the revolutionary struggle for a complete reorganization of society, to put the needs of the working class and its exploited allies – the vast majority of the population of the world – above the never ending quest for profit of the rich, ruling minority.
 “Stop the strike dead in its tracks”, Daily News
, December 20, 2005
 Executive summary self-sufficiency standard for the city of New York 2004, Women’s Center for Education and Career Advancement.
 Christine Armario and Luis Perez, “Strike leaves many homeless out in cold”, Newsday
, December 22, 2005.
 “Throw Roger from the train!”, Daily News
, December 21, 2005.