Since 9/11, anger in this city tends to be other-directed, at “fiends” or at Al Qaeda. Our civic narrative is preoccupied with economic progress, recovery, preparedness, survival (many of these linked to a Christmas shopping boom).
That there is a competing narrative, the angry one represented by Toussaint and his minority workers, has largely been ignored. Bloomberg has nimbly sidestepped class resentment until now. The strike suddenly resurrected the notion of two cities, color-coded. To mid-Manhattan commuters, the strikers were selfish and Toussaint was indeed a law-breaking thug. Still, based on the same facts, Toussaint was a hero to others. “The papers said he held the city hostage for three days,” exclaimed one Brooklynite close to the union community. “At least we had three days!”
When the strike was finally settled, both sides declared victory. But Toussaint had more cause for celebration. “We have more than a reasonable settlement,” he says. His workers will make contributions to health care totaling $32 million over the three years of the contract (which will take more out of their paychecks than the 6 percent pension contributions that had initially been proposed). But in return, Toussaint wrangled two key concessions, neither of which had been on the table before the strike. In addition to an 11 percent wage hike over three years, he secured lifetime health insurance for retirees (crucial to those retirement dreams) and a refund of previous pension contributions that, according to union calculations, is worth more than $150 million to 22,000 union members.
For Toussaint, the strike worked. “If we don’t strike, we would’ve ended up like cops, firefighters, teachers, sanitation, fourteen Metro-North unions with no respect.” he says. “It would be, ‘Maybe the next mayoral election we’ll give you a contract.’ ” Still, the battle won, there is a chance that the legal fallout may imperil the union. Toussaint vows to fight in court, but the union faces $3 million in fines. Overlooked, and potentially more damaging, is another penalty dictated by state law. Currently, the MTA automatically deducts union dues from paychecks and wires them to the TWU’s coffers. Because it waged an illegal strike—transit workers do not have the right to strike—the union may lose the automatic deduction. Without it, union revenues will certainly decrease. “I don’t think the strike cripples the union,” says Toussaint carefully. “We will be able to show the resilience of our organization, but it will be a challenge for us.”
But whatever the long-term effect on the TWU, Toussaint clearly feels he took the only possible course. In addition to a decent contract, he found a way to vent his constituents’ pent-up anger. “We stood up for ourselves,” says Toussaint.