New York City’s subway and bus system remains shut down as 33,000 transit workers have entered their third day on strike. On day two of the strike, a state judge threatened to jail union leader Roger Toussaint and two union officials for organizing the citywide strike. As we await the outcome of continuing negotiations, we speak with Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez about the strike. [includes rush transcript]
Judge Theodore Jones ordered the three union officials to appear in court today to face charges of criminal contempt. Under the state’s Taylor Law, public employees are barred from staging labor strikes. Meanwhile, the city of New York has asked the courts to issue a second order directing union members to return to work. If such an order was ignored, the city has threatened to fine striking workers $25,000 a day with the fines being doubled each day. The union maintains it was provoked into the strike. Despite a one billion dollar surplus the Metropolitan Transit Authority insisted on creating a two-tier pension system affecting all future transit workers.
The MTA is also in violation of portions of the Taylor Law which bars the MTA from forcing changes to the union’s pension plan. New York Governor George Pataki, who oversees the MTA, vowed there would be no negotiations until the union returns to work. Despite the inconveniences caused by the strike, public opinion polls show New York residents back the striking workers. New York radio station WWRL found 71% of respondents blamed the management for the strike. Only 14% blamed the transit workers. A poll by WABC TV found 52% supported the union while only 40% backed the city and MTA.
The city’s major media outlets have been far less sympathetic. The cover of Wednesday’s New York Post described the striking workers as “Rats.” Today’s Post cover read “Jail ’Em.” Meanwhile, the Daily News ran an editorial headlined “Throw Roger From the Train” — a reference to union leader Roger Toussaint.
Mayor Bloomberg has come under criticism for describing Toussaint and the striking workers as “thuggish” and “selfish.” On Wednesday, the Rev. Al Sharpton said, “I do not think the language would have been used in a union that was not as heavily populated by people of color.” Seventy percent of the striking transit workers are African-American, Latino or Asian-American. Roger Toussaint was born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad.
- Juan Gonzalez, Covering NYC Transit Strike, Co-host of Democracy Now!
AMY GOODMAN: This is Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaking Wednesday.
MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: This illegal and selfish strike — let me talk a little bit about that — it needs to end, and it needs to end right now. Today, in court, we are asking for a temporary restraining order against the TWU and for the judge to again order the TWU back to work. Disobeying this order would make the individual members of the unions liable for serious financial penalties, and this, I might point out, is separate from the MTA suit, which is costing the TWU $1 million a day.
AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Bloomberg has come under criticism for describing Toussaint and the striking workers as thuggish and selfish. On Wednesday, the Reverend Al Sharpton said, quote, “I do not think the language would have been used in a union that was not as heavily populated by people of color.” 70% of the striking transit workers are African American, Latino or Asian American. Roger Toussaint was born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. This is Roger Toussaint speaking at a news conference yesterday.
ROGER TOUSSAINT: To all New Yorkers, I would like to apologize for the inconvenience and beg all riders and all working people for their patience and forbearance for the inconvenience caused by our strike, a strike that we maintain that we were provoked into conducting. I just came from a meeting with state mediators, and I will be leaving from here to resume discussions with state mediators sent in from Albany to attempt to assist both parties to get out of the current stalemate in the negotiations.
Let me be very clear that we believe that the pension demands put forth by the MTA are illegal. To impose this on the negotiations is illegal and burdens the negotiations and should come off the table. We believe that if the pension demands that are illegal and a burden to the negotiations come off the table, that that would go a long way to us resuming the negotiations and resolving the strike issue. The main hold-up has been and is the pension issues. Let me explain that while you may discuss pensions in the course of negotiations, contract negotiations, it is clearly and plainly illegal for any side to impose a pension demand as a condition for contract settlement. That is what the MTA did. On Thursday night they submitted a final offer that included a new — the creation of a new pension tier. That is illegal to submit as a final demand or final offer.
I want to also address some of the remarks that have been made characterizing our members and our leadership in the course of these negotiations by the governor and the mayor. There’s been some offensive and insulting language used, such as referring to our union members and our leadership as thugs, selfish, and essentially characterizing us as being overpaid and greedy. And this is regrettable, and it is certainly unbecoming for the mayor of the City of New York to be using this type of language to the people that in New York City entrust the care of over seven million riders every single day. And maybe it is very difficult for a billionaire to understand what someone who is making a few tens of thousands of dollars are going through in meeting those bills and paying to put children through school, maybe there’s that type of disconnect. But we believe that working people in New York can more better identify with transit workers and know instinctively that the thugs are not on this side of the podium. We are not thugs, we are not selfish, we are not greedy. We are hard working New Yorkers, dignified men and women, who have put in decades of service to keep the city moving 24/7. We wake up 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning to move trains and buses in this town, and we will continue to do that, and that’s not the behavior of thugs and selfish people. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Roger Toussaint, head of the Transport Workers Union Local 100 speaking in New York Wednesday. We are joined on the telephone now by Democracy Now!'s Juan Gonzalez. He's been closely covering the strike, writing daily columns in the New York Daily News. We’re also joined from Wisconsin by Frank Emspak, Executive Director of Workers Independent News, a national labor news service, and professor at the School for Workers at the University of Wisconsin — Madison. Juan, let’s begin with you, the latest in this third day of the strike.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Amy, the rhetoric heated up, and the threats heated up even more yesterday and into the evening. And amazingly, Governor Pataki came on television late in the afternoon in a press conference and vowed that there would be no negotiations and no talks with the transit workers, the striking transit workers, until they returned to work. At the same time, the City not only apparently is now seeking criminal contempt charges against the union leaders, but has also raised the possibility of seizing the personal bank accounts of the individual — of the 33,000 transit workers. I mean, it’s something that I have never heard of in any labor dispute, but they are talking about going into court and possibly seizing the personal bank accounts of the workers as a means to try to force them back to work.
Interestingly though, while Pataki did say that there would be no talks until the workers returned, which is something that has never happened in the two previous transit strikes, both in 1966 and 1980, when transit workers went out on strike, negotiations continued until a settlement was reached. But also, it appears to be in violation of the Taylor Law itself, because the Taylor Law, which bans public employees from striking, also sets up a procedure for mediation and then possible arbitration of disputes.
And, in fact, Peter Kalikow, the chairman of the MTA, agreed to go to a mediation process, and as Toussaint mentioned in that clip you played, he and the MTA were both initially in separate rooms doing negotiations through a mediator, and then late last night, about 1:00 in the morning, they actually began some face-to-face negotiations that have continued through the night, so that Toussaint made it clear that if the illegal demand of the MTA to force a new pension tier was taken off the table that there was a possibility of settling the strike within a few hours. And he has been backed in that by numerous lawmakers, by the entire labor movement in New York City, and the Taylor Law is pretty clear.
Yes, the Taylor Law does forbid public employees from striking, but it also forbids an employer, any government agency, from attempting to force pension changes onto a union contract. Pension changes are made by the state legislature only, not through the collective bargaining process. Although unions often do agree to go with an employer to petition for pension changes, they are not legally part of any collective bargaining process. And that’s what Toussaint kept saying when he said that the proposed — the demands of the MTA were illegal demands.
So you have a situation right now where the transit workers are not backing down, the public is increasingly frustrated, but Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg continue to talk about the illegal work stoppage, but not about the illegal activities of their own MTA. Thankfully, though, Peter Kalikow recognizes that as an employer he cannot legally refuse to bargain with these workers, and so he continued to — he basically has partially broken with Governor Pataki, who appointed him, and is agreeing to continue negotiations.
I think that there is still a possibility of a settlement in this very soon. The only possibility for preventing this kind of settlement is if someone like Governor Pataki, who as we all know wants to run for president, if he decides that he is going to make a name for himself by crushing the Transit Workers Union, similar to what Calvin Coolidge did in 1919 when he was governor of Massachusetts and broke the Boston Policemen strike and then was catapulted into national fame and then became a vice presidential candidate.
AMY GOODMAN: And take out Roger Toussaint, a radical union leader, at the same time.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, I would say, at this moment, Roger Toussaint is probably the most important labor leader in the United States. He is waging a battle that is unprecedented in terms of the impact it’s had on the organized labor movement here, and I think that the willingness of his members in such a hostile anti-labor climate like you have in America today with a Republican president, a Republican governor and a Republican mayor in New York, for him and his members to stand up and — the way they have — and insist on protecting their standard of living is really a remarkable battle.
AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Juan Gonzalez, who didn’t make it beyond the cordon, as cars coming into New York City during rush hour need four people in them. And, of course, all buses and subways are shut down at this point, as the nation’s largest public transportation system is shut down.