Tim Schermerhorn

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Dec 23 06:30:04 MST 1999

[Tim Schermerhorn is a member of the revolutionary socialist organization
Solidarity and on the editorial board of their magazine Against the Current]

NY Times, December 23, 1999


To Be a Radical, Without Saying 'Strike'


PEOPLE, and not just any people, have begun to call Tim Schermerhorn the
subway subversive. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani labeled him a latter-day
Marxist, a union radical intent on shutting down New York by hobbling its
buses and pulling the plug on the subway network in the city's underbelly
right in the midst of the holiday boom.

The unusual injunction the mayor obtained on Dec. 14, prohibiting Mr.
Schermerhorn and others not just from staging an illegal strike, something
already spelled out by the state's Taylor Law, but forbidding them even to
engage in strike talk, seems proof of the serious regard Mr. Giuliani has
for the burly, stubble-faced subway operator's rabble-rousing potential.

"Marxists? I always liked Harpo," Mr. Schermerhorn hedged on Tuesday during
some downtime between his 5 a.m.-to-1 p.m. shift as an A-train motorman, an
early-bird schedule that averages him around $55,000 a year, and a 7 p.m.
meeting of the New Directions Caucus, the transit union splinter group he

Willie James, the president of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union,
which last week tentatively accepted a 12.5 percent wage increase over
three years instead of heeding Mr. Schermerhorn's battle cry to cripple the
city with a walkout, says the insurgent's agenda is crammed with "dumb
stuff." Mr. James, who beat Mr. Schermerhorn by just 600 votes in the last
union election, dismisses his rival as a publicity seeker.

But Mr. Schermerhorn's brethren in New Directions, which he helped found 15
years ago when he became convinced the union "didn't function for the rank
and file," believe in him so implicitly that they will, for the sixth time,
put him up as their candidate for union president when the next election
rolls around next year.

"Even though we advanced this program on 'dumb stuff,' " Mr. Schermerhorn
said, appropriating Mr. James's put-down, "10,000 people voted for us in
the last election."

"And the union wouldn't be getting this 12 percent raise if we hadn't had
the rank and file in motion," he insisted. "There was great readiness.
People were planning not to have Christmas. I think it was a lost
opportunity. A strike in February is unlikely. A strike last week wasn't.
When people are ready to make that level of sacrifice, you want to do it at
the time it will have the greatest effect."

Ruining the holiday travel trajectories of the estimated six million people
using the city's transit system daily in mid-December was, Mr. Schermerhorn
figured, the most effective way to strike if a strike was what it took.

Clueless at 24, union presidential material at 34, and currently, at 44,
the undisputed Don King of the prizefight between the Metropolitan
Transportation Authority, a k a "the Boss" in Mr. Schermerhorn's lexicon,
and the under-appreciated workers in the transport trenches: not bad for a
guy with a post-football physique, burly and gimpy, who shuttled through
three colleges -- he was asked to leave his initial pick, the University of
Kentucky, after losing his temper in "a race incident" -- before receiving
a history degree from City College in 1979.

W HEN Mr. Schermerhorn, who preceded his 17-year transit tenure with
several jobs, did a short stint at Alexander's, where his mother worked
until her retirement, his first thought was, "Wow, this place could use a
union." Two years after hiring on with the M.T.A., where his father had
worked as a car maintainer, Mr. Schermerhorn began New Directions.

But for the moment, Mr. Schermerhorn has officially been shut down.
According to him, "the Boss" has put a gag order on him and his message to
mobilize against the new contract. He says he opposes the contract not
because its raises are too low but because of givebacks he sees as
threatening to worker autonomy. Then Mr. Schermerhorn decided the gag order
does not apply to conversations with non-unionites.

That's why the Brooklyn-born transit maverick was parked in a booth at the
Brooklyn Diner confronting a tape recorder and an over-cooked hamburger
deluxe (he sent the latter back to the kitchen in favor of a rarer model)
on Tuesday evening. He was sweating out his group's appeal of the
injunctions obtained by the city and M.T.A. The city withdrew its
injunction yesterday, although the M.T.A.'s injunction, which contains far
smaller penalties, still seeks to clamp down on any union member advocating
a transit strike.

Once potential strikers learned that the mayor had obtained an injunction
calling for large fines, it frightened them off. Once Mr. Schermerhorn was
forbidden to spread the strike gospel by the city and the M.T.A., his
leverage was compromised. But he wasn't frightened off.

"I'm proud to be on Rudy Giuliani's list of outlaws," he said as he doused
his burger and fries with ketchup, an act of civil disobedience against the
sensible diet he normally sticks to as a Type II diabetic. Mr. Schermerhorn
lives downstairs in a two-family house in East Flatbush with his wife of
six months, Kay; their upstairs neighbors are his parents. He tagged along
with his father to his first union meeting when he was 9 and liked it.

"I saw that regular guys like my father got together and felt powerful," he
recalled. Further political perspective for future use came from his
grandfather, who told him, "You don't let people push you around in life,
you organize people."

Louis Proyect
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