Breslin on TWU leader Roger Toussaint: From Rank & File, Straight to the Top

Mike Friedman mikedf at amnh.org
Tue Dec 17 10:57:37 MST 2002


http://www.newsday.com/news/opinion/columnists/ny-nybres173049295dec17,0,2872189.column

>From Rank & File, Straight to the Top
Jimmy Breslin

December 17, 2002

He is out of the Ebbets Field houses on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn
and he worked nights as a track walker in the subway.

"When was the last night you worked on the tracks?" he was asked last night.
"July 30, 1998."

His name is Roger Toussaint and now, as he is walking down a hotel
hallway, he is the big new labor leader in a city that needs one so
desperately.

He turns around and cameras are almost hitting him in the head. He
tells the plainclothes detectives, "Form a wall. Then don't let
anyone past. Form a wall."

He is through giving those directions and now he goes into an
elevator with Ed Watt, his chief assistant during the negotiations,
and they went up to rooms where firefighter union members were
waiting, and they clapped when he came in and Jerry Cassidy, the
union head, hugged Toussaint. Then Toussaint turned to a young woman,
a secretary, and asked her about some papers that had to be delivered
to the union headquarters on the West Side in time for a meeting in
an hour or so.

"I can take some little mistakes now, but we can't have it that way
afterwards," he said.
Somebody handed him a cell pohone and he listened to it and then
smiled. "We are doing good on local television!" People laughed. It
is at least incongruous for Toussaint to be talking about television
appearances.

He is a track walker who had on a dark suit and an unbuttoned shirt
and he sat through long negotiations, thinking at times that the
other side wanted to force him into a strike that would wreck the
union and turn it over to the whites, to an international leader
named Sonny Hall.

"Mayor Bloomberg had his prints all over this," Toussaint was saying.
"He wanted to have zero, zero and zero."

"He forced the police to go to state arbitration and they got way
less than they would've with bargaining," somebody said.

"He wants all the unions to do that," another said.

"They were his fingerprints," Toussaint said.

"Was there any time that you thought it was lost and you'd wind up
out on the street?" he was asked.

"After we stopped the clock. Nothing happened. We sat there and
nothing happened. Then we were told that there would be zero for the
money. I don't know what time it was. But I was on pins and needles."

It was at this point that Toussaint and the governor's negotiator,
Peter Kalikow, talked alone in a room.

This was the moment when a weak labor leader, with nobody listening,
can quit on his chair.

Last night, Toussaint might have been dealing with a Kalikow, who had
been reading scripts for all the other hours, but at this hour it was
obvious that the script called on him to sit there as a symbol of the
full strength of the political government of the state and city, of
politicians who neither liked nor trusted Toussaint.

Who is this man anyway, with his straight face and his goatee and his
Trinidad accent? Where does he get off to bring around labor politics
that begins with him calling his union group "dissidents?" Who is he
to tell the mayor to "Shut up" in public? Who does this track walker
think he is?

He is Roger Toussaint and he is new and he is here for a long time
because he sat in that room, and ask Peter Kalikow what he told him,
and told him for all the people behind him to hear and understand
that Roger Toussaint does not quit.
After that, Toussaint and his people had trouble swallowing the
thousand-dollar payment instead of a raise. It still sounds like
zero, they were saying.
"But there was a benefit package of $400 million, with retirees
getting medical coverage," he was saying. "I could not risk losing
that. There are massive changes in the discipline rules. We had to
take the payment. The rest of the contract is so valuable to us."

It was somewhere during the long day, in the cold dusk at City Hall,
that Denis Hughes, the head of the state AFL-CIO, was saying, "You
figure that two years ago, this guy was a track walker. Tonight he
has pulled off a most extraordinary labor negotiation. It proves how
you should do business. When you want a labor leader, you go to the
rank and file. All that talent is there. Look what they got here."

Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.

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