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NYC Union Chief Roger Toussaint Remains Defiant Hours Before Heading to Jail for Leading Transit Strike

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Roger Toussaint, president of the Transport Workers Union, Local 100, heads to jail today to serve a 10-day sentence for authorizing a strike in December that shut down New York City’s Transit system for a little more than two days. Hours before heading jail, Toussaint joins us in our firehouse studio to discuss the strike, the future of the union and what he calls the “extortionist media.” [includes rush transcript]

By this evening, the President of the Transport Workers Union, Local 100, Roger Toussaint, will be in jail, serving a ten-day sentence in a lock-up in lower Manhattan known as “The Tombs.” Toussaint was sentenced to jail earlier this month by Judge Theodore Jones of the Brooklyn Supreme Court for authorizing a strike that shut down New York City’s Transit system for a little more than 2 days. The strike took place in December and violated the state’s Taylor Law, which forbids public employees from striking. Toussaint and union supporters maintained that the strike was a defensive strike to stop the Metropolitan Transit Authority from, among other things, creating a two-tiered pension system. Toussaint was the only union member ordered to jail even though lawyers for the MTA and the state Attorney General said they wanted community service for union officials as opposed to jail time. And in further punishment for the strike, last week, Judge Jones fined the 33,000 member union $2.5 million and suspended its ability to automatically collect member dues.

In addition, last week, transit workers overwhelmingly ratified the contract offer that they had previously rejected. The package entails a 10.9% increase in raises and a new paid holiday. It also requires workers to put 1.5% of their earnings towards health premiums. MTA head, Peter Kalikow has stated that the agency is not legally bound by the second vote and the matter will go into binding arbitration. Roger Toussaint was elected head of the TWU Local 100 in 2000. He is originally from Trinidad and Tobago, settling in Brooklyn when he was 18. He was hired by the MTA as a cleaner in 1984, and became a track worker in 1985. In 1994, he became a formal union member when he was elected leader of the 1800-member Track Division. In 2000 he was elected President of the TWU.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Roger Toussaint joins us here in our studio. In just a few hours he will be headed back to our area to turn himself in at the Tombs. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Roger Toussaint.

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about why you are headed to jail today?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Why? Well, that was up to the judge. But essentially, they are trying to send a message to the entire labor movement and all the social justice causes that if you stand up and fight, they are going to crush you, so it’s important that we send back a message to them. That’s why they’re subjecting us to what is the equivalent of a public flogging. The fines, the dues checkoff elimination, as well as the jail, is truly excessive, makes no sense other than to send a message.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, Roger, your members after the first — after the strike ended and had a vote where they rejected the contract by just seven votes, and then subsequently you had a revote recently where it was overwhelmingly approved. Why do you think there was such a shift among the membership, in terms of their views of the contract?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: There were two issues. One is that there was a misunderstanding of the provisions of the contract, particularly the contribution for a new benefit, which was retiree medical coverage. People misunderstood that as a contribution for existing coverage rather than new coverage. The second thing is that people misunderstood it as tripling over each year of the contract.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In other words, that it would go from 1.5 to 4.5 at the end of the three years?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: And that was put out there by opponents within the union who were working with the media, with the Post and the M.T.A., in my opinion. So, those provisions were clarified, and that helped turn the vote around. Secondly, there is a question of binding arbitration. All members understand that in binding arbitration, we can end up losing job titles, job descriptions, and so forth. So those were the two factors that turned the vote around.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re under enormous pressure right now. The union has been fined $2.5 million. The automatic dues checkoff, losing it is a crisis for you. What are you doing? And explain what automatic dues checkoff is.

ROGER TOUSSAINT: The employer takes dues out of each member’s paychecks and forwards it to the union. That is a provision under state law that’s called automatic dues checkoff. It’s renewed every two years by the government. It was intended to control unions. So, one of the provisions of the Taylor Law is that if you are found guilty of violating the Taylor Law, you can lose dues checkoff. So they’re taking it away from us.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the Taylor Law, for those of our viewers and listeners not from New York state, is a state law that prohibits public employees from striking.

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Strikes, job actions, slowdowns, sickouts, any type of what is called concerted activity, group activity.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what will you do? $2.5 million is the fine.

ROGER TOUSSAINT: We are in the process of setting up a separate infrastructure to collect dues, online by checks, by four or five different methods for people to contribute.

AMY GOODMAN: And dealing with the fine?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Well, the fines will probably end up arranging to pay off over a schedule of payments of six months or eight months.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What was astounding to me was that the judge’s sentence on the dues checkoff was for an indefinite period, but you could come back after 90 days. So, it wasn’t like a determinate sentence. It was, if you behave yourself —


JUAN GONZALEZ: — you may get your dues checkoff back. If you don’t, I may continue to extend it further.

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Exactly. The word is they want us to proclaim publicly that we will not go back out on strike. And that will never happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Roger Toussaint, you have been reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Yeah. That’s according to the New York Post.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, well, various reports. Is it true?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: I mean, I’ve been doing lots of reading, but —

AMY GOODMAN: How are you preparing yourself for jail?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: I’m doing mostly meetings with my officers and staff. I will think about jail when I get there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, luckily, I understand that the head of the Corrections Officers Association has said that he doesn’t believe you’re a criminal and that the correction officers will make sure that you’re treated well while you’re in jail, so that may upset the judge’s plans a little bit. But I’d like to ask you, in terms of the impact of the strike and why — because I think this is critical to understand. This strike really sent shockwaves throughout the business establishment of New York City and, I think, across the country. And your sense of what is, again, the message that is being sent to the labor movement and how other union officials and union organizations should respond?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Well, I think that we are at a defining moment in America. Pensions, health benefits are under attack from coast to coast, and the powers that be need there to be no resistance, no fight back. We made a decision back in December that we were not going to allow them to impose a new pension on future transit workers. Same thing with health benefits. Union rights, with respect to gains won over the past decades, work rules, job descriptions and so forth, was also under attack. So, in taking our stand in December, what we were saying is that there needs to be a fight back. We, too, need to weigh in on defining and on shaping the future of this country, on this society. So, that’s the overall issue, I think.

And we’ll do it again, meaning that we are proud of the stand that we took back in December. We understand the consequences, and we understand the magnitude and the enormity of the challenge that we are faced with, but there needs to be a fight back. And I think most working people understand what we are saying and what we are doing. And hopefully it helps encourage more of a fight. And there will be — a lot more sacrifices will be called upon before we turn this whole situation around.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And to those critics who say that you did launch the fight back but then went back too soon, and that the union could have gotten a better deal had it stayed out longer, what’s your response to that?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Well, armies that outstay their welcome on the battlefield can get wiped out. Strikes are not about games and playing games with people’s lives. You’ve got to get in and out as soon as possible. We actually accomplished what we wanted, meaning to get the pension, the new pension deal off the table.

AMY GOODMAN: The two-tier —

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Two-tier pension. We were able to get items that were not available prior to the strike, such as retiree medical coverage and, in fact, a pension refund worth $131 million to our members. Once we got those things, it was important and necessary to then exit the scene.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Roger Toussaint, President of the Transport Workers Union, Local 100, elected president in 2000, going to jail today for ten days for leading a strike in December.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Roger Toussaint, President of the Transport Workers Union, Local 100, elected president in 2000, led a major strike in New York in December. Now, his union has been fined $2.5 million. The union, though, has overwhelmingly approved the contract. They have lost their automatic checkoff for dues, and Roger Toussaint heads to jail today for ten days. You follow in the footsteps of a major union leader who led your union, Mike Quill, who also went to jail. Do you see similarities?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: I would not flatter myself to put myself in the same times or in the same shoes. I mean, I stand on the shoulders of many.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see the circumstances as being similar?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Coming out of a strike, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you say to those who say it was an illegal strike, you’re not allowed to strike?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Well, I mean, most of us would not be here if laws were not — unjust laws were not broken and challenged.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I think the important issue of the climate in which your strike was conducted, at a time when the labor movement is generally considered to be in retreat, and, of course, with a Republican president, a Republican Congress, a Republican governor of New York, and a Republican mayor of New York City, that a lot of other labor leaders thought that you were partly suicidal even to actually go out on strike. I know, privately, while some supported you, privately they were saying, “The TWU has got to be crazy. They are not going to be able to get out of this whole.” Your sense of that?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: We’ll prevail. Keep in mind that the Democrats are not much better, but we’ll prevail, and we’ll come out stronger as a union, both with respect to how we organize, how we deal with our membership, because the pressure to collect dues individually and not rely on the employer is going to force us to change how we organize and how we deal with our membership, and that will be for the better.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say the Democrats are not much better, explain.

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Well, I think that there were opportunities in the past decade or more to deal with the healthcare problem that the Democrats had available to them, and they fell down on that issue. A consequence is that at every single labor negotiations, protecting health benefits has been the biggest issue, and people have had to trade work rules, past gains, in order to hold on to their health benefits. So that’s what I’m thinking of.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the speech you gave. It was actually the news conference. It was Wednesday, December 21. This is Roger Toussaint.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And this was after Governor Pataki had accused them of being criminals, I think, the T.W.U. strikers.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right. This is Roger Toussaint, President of the T.W.U.

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Fellow 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’ll 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 forward 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 resolving — resuming the negotiations and resolving the strike issue.

The main holdup 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 a 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 has 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 and meeting those bills and paying to put their 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 this 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. He is President of the Transport Workers Union, December 21st, in the midst of the strike, a press conference in New York. Now, he is with us in our Firehouse studio. We are downtown, New York City, just yards from the place that Roger Toussaint will be turning himself in today, later in the day, for a ten-day sentence, but he will be coming over the Brooklyn Bridge just before he does this with what’s expected to be thousands of people, including union leaders. Can you talk about that final walk before jail?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Well, the only reason why we are marching is because they changed the venue for me to turn myself in. Originally it was supposed to be Brooklyn. Then they called us on Thursday and told us it’s got to be Manhattan. That was meddling to try to mess up our plans, so that’s the reason why we decided to march over the bridge. So we’ll turn it against them. We expect that there will be labor leaders out there. All of the unions that have been left without contracts for the past few years will be out there, transit workers, of course, community leaders, and so on. So instead of this whole episode being an act of intimidation, it ought to be to encourage greater resistance and resolve, and in that respect it, will be turned around.

AMY GOODMAN: Your brother is the scholar, Arnold Rampersad, at Stanford University, wrote the biography of Langston Hughes, and he was quoted as saying, talking about you, “He could have been a scholar, too, but he decided to do something useful with his life. Although he’s younger than me, he’s someone I have always admired because of his temperament, seriousness and commitment to social causes.” You come from quite a family. Can you talk about what gives you this resolve? You were born in Trinidad?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Yes, I mean, but primarily, I came up in a generation of young people in Trinidad that were shaped by the 1970 rebellion there. In the 1970 rebellion, as much as one-tenth of the population were involved in protests. The army mutinied in support of the demonstrators, so how I came up wasn’t unique for a young person in Trinidad. All of my whole generation was shaped by those events, and several people were killed, and all of the leaders were jailed, both military leaders, as well as students and labor, and so forth. So, much of how I look at the world came from that experience in 1970. Then, after that, I came up up here and participated in the student protests in the mid-’70s in New York.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And if you were to, say, look at the labor movement as you see it now in the United States, if there was one thing that the labor movement could begin to do to turn around the situation that it finds itself in today, what’s your estimate of what would need to be done?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Well, I think that you’ve got to find an issue or a cause and rally around it. It could be any number of things. The fight that our union is now conducting is one possibility, to rally around that cause, to rally around us both with respect to the show of solidarity today, as well as with respect to the money that we need to pay those fines. That would be one way to send a message. Something else that I would like to see done is to shut down the New York Post, as an example, some way to display the strength and solidarity and the unity of both labor and the communities, in order to build up a “fight back” movement. So, you can pick any number of different issues or causes, but there are numbers that are available out there. Unfortunately, —

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you say “shut down the New York Post”?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Well, the New York Post, it could be the Daily News, as well. My point is: labor and the communities need to show the strength and power of protest and solidarity, and in doing so, you need to target the opponents of working people. The New York Post, it is an extortionist media, and that would be a good way to send a message out there.

AMY GOODMAN: And as you head to jail right now for ten days, you are speaking to a national, actually international, audience, as we broadcast around the world. What do you think is the most critical message to put out right now?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: There’s a rightwing agenda out there to shut down pensions, health benefits, Medicare, Social Security, to reverse work rules that have been established over decades, and we desperately need a “fight back” movement. And we need a whole new generation of sacrifice and struggle and protest. So if what we have been going through contributes to that, then so be it. We need to see more rigorous challenges and protest taking place.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel like have you the support of the leadership of the AFL-CIO?

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Yeah, pretty much, but more importantly, I think that most working people understand what’s going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Roger Toussaint, I want to thank you very much for being with us. I hope you will give us a call from jail, and we will let people know how you are doing over these next ten days. Roger Toussaint, President of the Transport Workers Union, Local 100, goes to jail later today.

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