“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?
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.
Looking at the walkout by the numbers.3
Typical number of hours of wait time at LIRR stations on December 20, the first day of the strike.43,418
Number of cars through the Lincoln and Holland tunnels on an average weekday, midnight to 10 a.m.19,853
Number of cars through the Lincoln and Holland tunnels on December 20, midnight to 10 a.m.120,000
Average number of bicyclists in New York City.600,000
Bicyclists in New York City during the strike.-6°
Difference between temperatures during the strike and normal December highs.12
Normal percentage of public-school students absent from school on any given day.69
Percentage of public-high-school students absent from school on December 20. $16,700,000
Estimated cost of the strike to city businesses per hour.62
Highest percent increase in a taxi’s revenue during the strike.70
Highest percent increase in sales, at sneaker store Alife Rivington Club during the strike.4
Requested additional percent of salary for TWU workers to contribute to their pension in MTA “final offer.”0
Actual additional percent of salary the TWU workers will contribute to their pension.7
Increase in TWU workers’ retirement age in MTA “final offer.”0
Actual number of years added to retirement age.$50,000,000
Cost of the MTA’s discounted holiday fares.