Militant transit workers

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Dec 14 12:11:48 MST 1999

A judge just handed down an injunction against NYC's transit union, which
has threatened to go on strike tonight at midnight. There is some
interesting background to this confrontation which should interest us as
Marxists. There is a sizable leftwing caucus in the TWU that is by and
large led by independent Marxists and black nationalists, many of whose key
members are actually both at the same time. Tim Schermerhorn, the leader of
this caucus called "New Directions", is an occasional speaker and audience
member at NYC's Brecht Forum, whose black Board members he is a long-time
friend and comrade of. New Directions nearly won the last election, but the
current president Willie James won through blatant irregularities.

The TWU is one of the city's most important trade unions and has been a
bellwether of labor militancy for a long time. In 1968, the colorful Irish
leader of the union Mike Quill took them out on a powerful strike that
paralyzed the city. Quill had been around the CP and never sold out. When
he was accused of weakening the economy during the Vietnam war by allowing
wage inflation to take place, he denounced the war. He also denounced the
liberal "antiwar" mayor of NYC, John Lindsay, as a labor-hater. He always
referred to him contemptuously as "Lindsley". When the 80 year old Quill
was threatened with jail for violating an injunction against the strike, he
said "The judge can drop dead in his black robes."


NY Times, December 14, 1999

The Union Faction That Keeps Talking Strike


Like many such rabble-rousing efforts, it began as a newsletter, in this
case named "Hell on Wheels." Fifteen years ago its leaders waged what they
now unabashedly call "propaganda campaigns" to topple their union
leadership. For years, slowly and methodically, they stoked the discontent
of the city's 33,000 transit workers over wages, benefits and other
contract provisions, like the use of welfare recipients to do work done by
union members.

That dissident band of transit workers, now called the New Directions
Caucus, is wielding unusual influence over contract talks, pressing the
union leadership to strike rather than accept an unsatisfactory contract.

Indeed, if they have long been a thorn on the side of Willie James, the
president of Local 100 of the Transit Workers Union, they have lately
emerged as the force that could add bite to James's bark.

Monday, the quiet-spoken leader of the caucus, Tim Schermerhorn, 44, told
reporters that union members ought to vote to strike at a membership
meeting today if the contract package is not substantially better than
management's last public offer. He said that he had not seen the latest
details of the talks, but that at a time of economic boom in the city, a
satisfactory package would have to include wage increases significantly
above the cost of living, and a reversal of management's new disciplinary
system and the policy allowing welfare recipients to take union jobs. The
dissidents have 22 of the 46 votes on the union's executive board, which
must authorize any strike by a simple majority vote; that voting bloc,
along with some swing votes, could make or break any deal.

"If we don't get a contract that is just, if we don't get a contract that
represents some advancement for members of the union, we should walk,"
Schermerhorn said at a news conference yesterday outside the Grand Hyatt
Hotel, where negotiations continued between officials of the Metropolitan
Transportation Authority and the union. "If we can't win a good contract
now, we won't win ever. The economy is a primary consideration."

How many members they can persuade to vote to strike remains unclear. But
the caucus does seem to have considerable support. These days, New
Directions slogans can be frequently seen on transit workers' lapel pins
and scrawled on the sides of subway tunnels.

The mayor has even singled out New Directions in his most caustic remarks
against union agitators. In the last elections, Schermerhorn, a subway
motorman, narrowly lost to James.

Clearly, this is New Directions' moment, partly because this contract
dispute could shift the balance of power within Local 100.

Also at stake is the tenor of union-management relations for years to come.
It would serve the transportation authority well to make an attractive
contract offer to James. Otherwise, during the next round of talks, the
authority could face far more militant union representatives, led by the
New Directions crew, on the other side of the bargaining table.

Today, New Directions leaders stand to gain or lose considerably.

If James delivers a promising contract package at the membership meeting
today at the Manhattan Center, New Directions leaders can claim credit for
holding his feet to the fire. If he does not, they can argue that he sold
them out.

By contrast, if they force the union into an unsuccessful strike,
Schermerhorn is likely to share the blame along with James.

"On the one hand, they've positioned themselves as militant advocates of a
very good contract," observed Joshua Freeman, a history professor at Queens
College. On the other hand, he said, they're not leading the negotiations.
"They have responsibility without authority, and that's a pretty tough
position to be in."

For his part, James has described Schermerhorn as "a publicity seeker" bent
on torpedoing any progress made in contract talks.

Nor did Schermerhorn have many words of praise for James.

"Willie is coming off to the public as militant," he said with a laugh
yesterday. "The ranks of Local 100 don't see him that way. They see him as
a union official under pressure, and we have to keep the pressure on."

The transit workers union has had a radical thread throughout its history.
And it is that legacy, particularly the militancy of the union under its
longtime president and founder, Michael Quill, that Schermerhorn and the
New Directions cadre are trying to invoke. "The real powers that be in the
city -- business -- is planning an orgy of profit-making," he said,
referring to holiday shopping and the tourism season.

"They're not going to rake it in if the trains aren't running."

Schermerhorn was 9 when his father, a car maintainer, took him to the 1966
union meeting at which his father voted to strike.

"The thing I was impressed with most was the power of these meetings, how
the strength and self-confidence of people would infect each other," he
recalled in an interview on Monday.

In his last 17 years on the job, Schermerhorn said, that strength and
self-confidence are what he has sought to engender in his co-workers
through New Directions.

"Whatever we get is because a strike threat was made real," Schermerhorn

So will there be a strike starting tomorrow?

"I think the strike is possible, but not likely," he said, "because I think
our union officials will do everything possible to prevent one."

Louis Proyect

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