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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Can an old labor dog re-learn some old tricks?

I've collected here some news on the NYC transit workers strike. Several interesting articles have turned up. As is widely reported, State Supreme Court Justice Theodore Jones has ordered the president of 100 of the Transport Workers Union to appear in court, where he may face jail for continuing the illegal strike. Mayor Bloomberg, ranked by Forbes as the 34th and 94th richest person in the country and world, respectively, is outraged by the audacity of transit workers. Remember this is the billionaire mayor "who once spent $2 million on a 'seven deadly sins' party for his company, complete with a 'gluttony bar' and entertainers who repeated the phrase 'Money, ain't it gorgeous?'

Bloomberg, perhaps motivated by the steep rise in limo rates, rushed - as always - to the defense of New York's working class, said this in a recent Guardian article:
Working people are the ones who are being hurt. The busboy is getting hurt, the garment industry worker is getting hurt, the owners of mom and pop businesses ... The ones getting hurt the most are the ones who can least afford it. If they don't get paid, they don't eat.
Surely, New Yorkers seem divided on the strike, which the National Association of Manufacturers blog called "dumb on so many levels," characterizing the unions demands as a "letter to Santa."
They now contribute not a cent to their health care (know anybody with this perk?) and are rejecting the MTA's "outrageous request that they contribute a whopping 1% (Yes, you read that right: one percent) to their health care. They want the retirement age lowered to 50. (You'd have to say that's moving in the opposite direction from the rest of the civilized world, no?) and they want to put a cap on how much discipline the MTA can mete out to its members.
Not surprisingly, NAM has been on the wrong side of almost every issue, recently endorsing Alito for the Supreme Court and pushing for ANWR drilling. But a bunch of wealthy factory owners complaining about the generosity of workers benefit packages, while not unexpected, certainly reeks of hypocrisy. Generous packages, work autonomy and pensions are worth defending.

But the effects of the strike are not so clear - and certainly not evenly shared. The Wall Street Journal reported
For some on Wall Street, the transit strike has a silver lining: An early vacation. "During the week before Christmas, you get a lot of vacations already. Throw the strike on top of it, and it gives people so many more reasons not to come to work," said Lundy Wright, head Treasurys and agencies trader at Nomura Securities in New York.
In the article "Technology helps companies, commuters work around transit strike," the Associated Press quoted Merrill Lynch & Co spokeswoman Selena Morris saying, "We're open for business as usual. It makes it a lot easier for people to function when you have a crisis like this, just to log in from wherever you are. It's inconvenient, obviously, but I think we've been able to work around it."

Professor of economics at Columbia Business School Frank Lichtenberg also remarked on technology's role in insulating the elite from the effects of the strike. The strike, he said, "does still represent a significant disruption," but "clearly this information technology has reduced the cost of this kind of disruption and made it somewhat easier to bear."

In a report from the AP, we learn that
Homeless advocates and city officials say the walkout that has closed the nation's largest transit system has also potentially displaced hundreds of homeless people who use the subway's trains, stations and tunnels for shelter, especially during winter.
Local shelters claim they can handle any increase in residents that results. AFP reports that the strike has contributed to a blood shortage in the city.

In his attacks on the union, Bloomberg has been throwing out some pretty large numbers - $400 million or more dollars a day - as the economic cost of the strike. But do the numbers really add up? The Wall Street Journal takes a look at them and concludes that
forecasting economic impact is easier when a local event is less diffuse, like a major sporting event or political event, when organizers know how many guests to expect. Yet even these forecasts are dicey and often more useful to boosters than economists... The higher estimate on transit-strike costs, of $440 million to $660 million, is more nebulous.
The author reports that
[s]everal economists I spoke to questioned the methods behind the estimates, and some called the numbers inflated. What's more, a lack of day-by-day economic stats from the city, coupled with the difficulty of accounting for economic activity that was shifted to before or after the strike, will make it impossible to verify, after the fact, whether the projections were correct.
Yet the media has repeated Bloomberg's unreliable claim uncritically, sometimes even citing higher figures.

And speaking of the media, the strike has been like an early Christmas present. As the New York Times reported, "For television, this transit strike is a G-rated disaster: full crisis coverage without death or destruction, just inconvenience."
News choppers lovingly hovered over stalled traffic on the Queensboro Bridge while on-the-scene reporters hunted for stranded commuters they could assist. On Tuesday morning, a Fox 5 news team joyfully stumbled on a young woman in labor stalled in traffic on her way to the hospital. A Fox promo made the most of the incident, urging viewers to "see how a Fox Five crew helped her out." (The crew alerted a police officer.) The pregnant woman looked a little less thrilled by the moment. When the reporter asked her if she was expecting her first child, she replied, "And my last."
The local Fox affiliate ran a value-laden banner graphic with its coverage: "Illegal Transit Strike."

Most interesting, perhaps, are three facts: One, the union has engaged in an illegal action; Two, the international leadership has denounced the strike; And, three, the Transport Workers Union has some rocky relationships with many of the other New York Unions.

How this will all play out remains to be seen, but the fact that strike is already illegal opens the door for militant action, like sabotage and occupation. In addition, it's aggressively defending against the imposition of the two-tier benefit system. Defending the pension system is important, a point made even more clear by an AP article today revealing that more and more employers are freezing their pension plans. Aside from the fact that the Transit Authority, reeling from corruption scandals and flush with more than a billion dollar surplus, could certainly afford the demands being made of it, a two-tier system is a death-blow for a union. It undermines solidarity amongst workers and also provides leverage for the boss to subvert wages and benefits in the future, as well as inviting attacks by management on senior employees nearing retirement. Will other New York unions come to the transit workers defense when things heat up?

Further, not much coverage has been given to workers non-pension complaints, such as
the closing of toll booths and the reassignment of workers to cleaning and other chores, the large number of disciplinary actions against workers, and the proposal to eliminate the conductor on trains who is there to monitor what is happening with the train and the passengers.
Train operators complain about the fear of driving through tunnels filled with debris; female workers recently went public with descriptions of the rusted, filthy, freezing bathrooms provided for them.
Clearly there is more at stake than just pensions. And the union has shown a pro-active and aggressive stand so far, which bodes well for them. They know that if they don't go after the MTA now, they might be forced to take them on under less advantageous circumstances. And going out against the wishes of the international, while maybe not preferable in all cases, is another good sign in terms of the likelihood that local workers will have a say in the direction and goals of the strike. Democratic control is obviously vital to a militant workers movement.

Not much attention has been paid to the president of local 100. It's worth checking out the article Newsday ran about him today. There is some criticism in the article of his dictatorial management style, but it is encouraging that he seems to have some understanding of the stakes and a bias towards militant action.

Of course, sectarian, authoritarian leftists are sneaking around, hoping to go for a ride at workers expense. If we're lucky, this strike foreshadows a renewed militancy and pro-active orientation for American workers. According to the recent Newsday article above,
[t]he strike could... inspire other unions to become more militant, particularly on employee benefits issues. Or it could be a disaster.

"I think it could have a lot of influence," said Freeman, a labor historian at City University of New York's Graduate Center. "Employers all across the country are trying to roll back benefits such as pensions and health care, and it could be very influential elsewhere if it succeeds in stopping or diminishing these efforts."
Time will tell.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think it's quite fair to label people as authoritarian leftists 'sneaking around' when the awful union leadership is in plain view, D! The Sparts are fucking terrible, but the workers who put together Revolutionary Transit worker are interesting, even if they're fucking Leninists, at least they're taking action in massive class struggle and not trying to control it. Seriously you should be a lot more critical of Toussaint considering how this strike ended and how other strikes in the past never started.


Thu Dec 22, 09:10:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Phoenix Insurgent said...

I am definitely critical of Toussaint; I cited an article that referred to him as "dictatorial." As far as I can tell, he now has the unfortunate honor of having broken the union's "no contract no work" track record. The turn the strike took on day three was definitely a disappointment to me, and, as it looks from here, a mistake. Yet again it looks like labor in America isn't up to the task of taking on the boss in a pro-active, militant and democratic way.

Those reasons for that are probably many, including structure and organizational model, but Toussaint definitely deserves a lot of the blame for taking the union out on an illegal strike and then returning to the bargaining table without achieving his one stated goal: getting the two-tier pension off the table.

Fri Dec 23, 02:39:00 PM 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Word, yeah definitely good thoughts. It's really a shocker that they went back to work without the two-tier pension. Everywhere around the world pensions, insurance all this shit is becoming a thing of the past. We're all fucking rotting in this system.

By the way, do you remember epanastasis (sp?) from livejournal? He was a train driver and must've been on strike. He's one of the writers for Revolutionary Transit worker.

Here's a reflection I wrote on anti-politics:

Good article to point out Gifford. I've been thinking the same thing in the last couple days. To be honest the whole outcome of the strike is very depressing. I'm interested in the process that led to getting the workers back on the trains. Between when I posted the article above and the strike ended it seemed that the city was aiming to get a restraining order so that they could bring in scabs. Were the workers so afraid of this step? Or was it the mounting fines?

I was fully expecting to wake up the next morning and hear that the strike was ongoing and becoming indefinite, because I figured after a certain amount of penalties in fines against both the union and the individual workers, that pretty soon a point of no return would be reached. And it seems clear that Toussaint and the rest of the union leadership understood exactly this. That if the rubicon was crossed and the city would not back down, the tide would turn into an explosive class war that could have opened up swaths of activity in other sectors (including the non-unionized). Were the city to compromise at some point it would be an open rupture in the face of capitalism and workers in many other places would follow suit.

Still, capital's weakness is exposed, and if the chaotic squawking of the ruling class in this brief period can be put on record and understood, then this may not be total defeat. I would also wonder if these workers are going to be able to stand not only their new, shitty contract but the fines imposed on them as well.

Good try gals.


Sat Dec 24, 05:58:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Phoenix Insurgent said...

Yeah, I was really surprised by the turn things took on the third day, too. I was at work cringing as the reports came in all day hinting at a back to work order, especially when it became clear that the pension issue remained unsettled.

Hopefully, something can be salvaged from this. Maybe disillusionment with the leadership will lead to some push for more democratic accountability. There is something to be said just for having gone out on an illegal strike to begin with.

And I suppose if the pension is saved as is, and the two-tier system is rejected, then the main goal of the strike was achieved.

It's still disappointing, though, since all the signs were pointing to continuing action, and forcing the bosses to withdraw the pension plan seems preferrable for so many reasons to negotiating for it - especially if something like health care has to be traded for it.

Personally, I would have liked to see the rails and buses occupied, though. It it's possible, occupation really seems so much better than striking when it comes to public services like these. Forcing the Governor to lock-out workers might have gathered more public support than pure withdrawal of labor. The current news blackout is frustrating.

Sat Dec 24, 01:04:00 PM 2005  

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