"You cannot insult people and demand that they timidly accept your insults,” says Roger Toussaint, president of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union.
Toussaint is sitting in a conference room in his headquarters on 64th Street, the day after his executive board ratified a three-year agreement with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. On TV, Toussaint had looked physically imposing, flanked by burly union leaders. He has ornate facial hair, sometimes wears sunglasses, and speaks in a flowery Caribbean accent that makes him, occasionally, incomprehensible. (Bloomberg suggested he was thuggish; Toussaint, from Trinidad and Tobago, pronounces it “tuggish.”) In person, though, Toussaint is compact, almost small, surprisingly soft-spoken, and, for the moment, helpful. He’s explaining why he felt pushed to an illegal strike that clobbered the city in the days before Christmas.
One factor was a last-minute MTA demand that new workers kick in 6 percent of their salaries toward pensions. “The MTA has a $1 billion surplus,” Toussaint says. “Why did they push things to the precipice?”
But quickly he returns to the core theme, the one that, in his mind, gave him little choice but to strike—the anger of his constituents. “Transit workers are tired of being pushed around and underappreciated,” he says.
Toussaint lists the causes, starting with the bullying ways of the MTA: 15,000 disciplinary actions against 33,000 workers last year; MTA inspectors sent to check on workers who call in sick; cabinetmakers told to mop floors. “The MTA isn’t in the subway or bus business,” he says. “It’s in the discipline business. The rules really attack people’s sense of self-respect.”
Among the rank and file, says Toussaint, MTA rules had produced a nearly implacable sense of grievance. “I have never seen a labor force as hateful of its employer, from Caribbean street cleaners to middle-class bus drivers in Queens,” says one person close to Toussaint.
Bloomberg, in Toussaint’s mind, piled on, exacerbating the situation in the run-up to the strike. “It was his description of us as being ingrates,” says Toussaint, “and the irony of a billionaire presenting himself as the one understanding the working poor.”
Though Bloomberg—“a man,” Toussaint notes, “who invited me to his house for dinner”—was not directly involved in the negotiations, Toussaint singles him out. “Bloomberg did more bullying than Pataki,” he says. “I can’t imagine that he would use that choice of words”—thuggish, particularly—“if he is describing a white labor leader.”
A mayor who’d had remarkable success in defusing race as an issue seemed to Toussaint to have made an about-face. And this was in dealing with a union whose membership is 70 percent minority. To Toussaint, Bloomberg seemed more intent on burnishing his legacy: “ ‘I was tougher than Koch,’ ” says Toussaint, imagining the mayor’s thoughts. “ ‘I was a greater businessman than Giuliani.’ ”
The hard words of officials fueled worker anger. “If you repeatedly disrespect the transit workers and call them names, and don’t appreciate what we do and the sacrifices that we make, it doesn’t help a resolution,” says Toussaint. “As the attacks intensified, it didn’t have the effect of intimidating the members, it had the effect of making them more radical, wanting some type of action.”
Two days before the strike, Toussaint polled his membership: Seventy-three percent wanted to strike. “That is a pretty shocking number,” notes Toussaint. The rank and file wanted “to push back against those who push all the time,” he says. “The sentiment became ‘Bring it on.’ ”
The union conference room on 64th Street is low-ceilinged, windowless, not much bigger than the battered conference table. In a corner is a photo of Toussaint smiling with Freddy Ferrer, whom he supported for mayor.
“What happens,” I ask, “if you don’t strike, given that 73 percent number?”
Toussaint helps himself to a coffee, mentions that he needs to start taking his blood-pressure medication again—in the midst of all this, he’s let the prescription lapse. He’s still not sleeping much. Four hours last night.
Without a strike? “It would mean the members would not trust the contract that was produced,” says Toussaint. “They would have had the view that more could have been obtained had we gone the distance.”
To keep the loyalty of his membership, Toussaint knew he had to be seen to stand up to the MTA, to Bloomberg. From the union point of view, the negotiations, like the strike, were about respect. “Did they expect us to roll over?” says Toussaint in his mild tone.
Toussaint likes to say that unions are engines of dignity. For members of the Transport Workers Union, dignity is often linked with retirement. “The No. 1 passion is to come to the day when you’re no longer a transit worker,” says Toussaint. These twin dreams, dignity and early retirement, hardly resonated with many of the commuters who felt victimized by the strike. Who, after all, expects to retire at 55, the current age for transit workers, or at 50, as the union initially proposed?