MTA Strike: Players and Movers

The people create the players and movers by voting them into office, going shopping, or purchasing or subscribing to services. Our need to maintain an organized society and to have easy access to goods and services has created a sphere of people we generally acknowledge as political and business leaders. These days, however, many movers have become players, and vice versa. With money and politics mixing more in the open, people have become more sensitive and critical to the continued blur between the two. The most famous blur between politics and business in recent history is Vice President Dick Cheney and his former relation to Halliburton, which provides products and services to the petroleum and energy industries, and has become a major contractor to the United States government. Although there has been much criticism over billionaire Michael Bloomberg entering politics as the Mayor of New York City, he has been careful not to use his media empire to push his political agenda.

But money and politics have gone hand-in-hand as far back as, say, labor, money, and law.

When Mayor Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki repeated several hundred times about how "illegal" New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) strike is, many people reflected on the founding — and evolution — of this nation.

Had it not been for "illegal" strikes, demonstrations, protests, boycotts, and other forms of civil disobedience, America, as we know it, wouldn’t exist. From the Boston Tea Party to the Civil Rights Movement, "illegal" gatherings have sparked the creation of this country, when players and movers united for a greater good.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat back in 1955, she committed an illegal act — and was arrested for it. How the city of Montgomery, Alabama handled the legal issue was followed by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the largest and most successful mass movements against racial segregation in history, and launched Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the organizers of the boycott, to the forefront of the civil rights movement.

It is likely that a good number of laws today will one day succumb to future collective wisdom — and, like all things in the universe, we will change, evolve and move on to greater things.

Most of the unionized labor force in New York City (over 1.2 million according to the New York City Central Labor Council), however annoyed by the inconvenience, cold weather, and holiday shopping dramas, support the TWU Local 100 strike, as it represents an important stance in organized labor. Curiously, most commuters that have been interviewed have repeatedly used the word "inconvenience," not "illegal," or "selfish," as much as the city and state have been peddling those terms.  In fact, I went around looking for banners and placards cheering the MTA, the Mayor and the Governor on their take of the strike — couldn’t find anything. There were, however, plenty of signs that the same residents who were grumbling about the "inconvenience" and cold weather were also supporting the strikers. We’re complex that way.

Activists and community leaders throughout the city took a clear stance early on with this issue. The ANSWER Coalition organized TWU support teams to pass out leaflets, build public support for the strike, and show solidarity to the transit workers.

Even some of the more brave politicians took a clear stance on the strike as well. Getting politicians in this City to take a clear stance on anything is pretty unique and admirable in itself. Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was recently elected to represent Manhattan’s 8th District in the New York City Council, however, went beyond the typical and dubiously safe, "this is a bad thing for everyone," soundbite. She clearly supported the demands of the TWU Local 100 workers, taking a risk in her young political career. Her district contains two of the nine bus depots in Manhattan: the 100th Street Bus Depot and the 126th Street Bus Depot. Perhaps her stance was safe after all. Siding with the working-class people has become a popular thing these days, imagine that!

What continues to be difficult to figure out however is this whole money issue. On the one hand, city and state officials have repeatedly told us about the great shape our economy is in, encouraging us to go out and spend more. Just a few months ago, the city itself was ready to spend a whole lot more — about a billion dollars to build a Jets stadium, and over $3.2 billion to host the 2012 Olympics. If our economy has experienced such a great recovery, as President Bush and other Republicans have been telling us for the last two years, why do transit working have to contribute more of their money to healthcare, the pension and the 401(k) plan?

Perhaps it’s not a question of how much money there is, but where the money goes.

"All capital projects on the MTA are financed through floating government bonds on the stock market. The result of this has been that the public transit authority is increasingly and massively indebted. An increasing share of the public fare box goes to private banks," said the TWU Local 100 president, Roger Toussaint in a recent interview.(1)

In fact, the MTA has been playing more than just the market with its budget. In 2003, the MTA turned a budget surplus into a deficit when it hid more than $500 million from the public by creating two sets of financial plans, one public and one secret. New York State Comptroller Allan G. Hevesi discovered the scheme in an investigation after he subpoenaed and forced testimony from MTA officials.

The MTA now claims to face a $2.7 billion budget deficit and has threatened to increase fares (again) as well as cut back bus and subway service.

Both the city and the state are facing huge budget deficits as well. The State of New York confronts a possible $10 billion deficit in the next fiscal year. The city, meanwhile, faces a shortfall of at least $4 billion, even after deep budget cuts and major tax hikes announced by Mayor Bloomberg and the Democratic-controlled City Council.

Earlier this year, however, the MTA launched a public relations campaign to urge voters to support Proposal #2, otherwise known as the "Renew and Rebuild New York Transportation Bond Act of 2005." This proposal (which voters passed during the November 8th Elections) allows the state to borrow $2.9 billion to maintain and improve the transportation network over the next five years. Half of this budget is earmarked to fix roads, bridges, and railroad systems outside the New York City area. The other half would be used by the MTA for the New York City metropolitan area’s mass transit systems. Some of the MTA’s ‘big-ticket’ items in this proposal will be the purchase of new subway and commuter railroad cars, local and express buses, linking the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal, building Phase 1 of the Second Avenue Subway, and "facilitate the initial elements of creating" a rail link between Lower Manhattan, Jamaica, and JFK Airport.

There was little public relation on the part of the MTA to promote a new contract for all the workers that would operate and maintain all of the above items, along with the existing infrastructure and equipment. Instead, plans have been drawn to reduce the MTA work force, including the elimination of subway conductors, an idea that has been highly contested by the union and the public in general.

Looking at the broader scope of this strike, Mr. Toussaint warned of the decline in organized labor throughout the United States.

"The market share of the workforce in the US now in unions is below 13% – in the private sector it is below 3%, the public sector is down to about 18%. The labor movement in the US is facing extinction in the near future."

The world according to Wal-Mart.

In the first half of the 20th Century, many strikes by transit workers were put down by hired strongmen, known as ‘beakies,’ who were sent out by the various transit companies that ran the rail and bus systems. In 1934, during the Great Depression, transit companies hired and fired workers at will and offered minimal compensation and poor working conditions for those willing to tolerate it. That year in New York City, Michael J. Quill, an Irish-born militant, who came to the US to escape British colonial rule in his homeland, along with Douglas McMahon, created the Transport Workers Union of America. City officials weren’t too thrilled back then either. But the city and state didn’t have much to fight this new phenomenon of organized labor.

With the Taylor Law, established September 1, 1967, state and city administrators gained legal ammunition. The 33,700 transit workers who operate most of today’s New York City’s public transportation have been threatened with heavy fines and penalties. Workers face 2 days worth of pay deducted for every day they are on strike. Through additional legal muscle, union leaders could look at penalties of $25,000 per day, and the Local 100 as a whole could loose $1 million for every day the workers are on strike.

The union has maintained that if the state and city really had the people’s interests at heart, it would have made the worker’s contract a priority, rather than trying to "bully" the union into submission.

In the verbal mud-slinging between the city and the union, ‘bully’ has been one of the less colorful phrases exchanged thus far. Members of the union have compared the MTA’s bookkeeping practices as "Mafia-like" and fare hikes as "mass extortion." Mayor Bloomberg has expressed the union’s action as "thuggish," while using the term ‘illegal’ several dozen times in the past two days. The mayor has stated that negotiations should not continue until transit workers go back to work.

"Roger Toussaint and the TWU have shamefully decided they don’t care about the people they work for and that they have no respect for the law. The leadership of the TWU has thuggishly turned their backs on New York City, and disgraced the noble concept of public service," said Bloomberg in a statement.

After Hurricane Katrina, Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki had different words for the TWU Local 100 workers who took 70 busses and 20 support vehicles to New Orleans to aid in the evacuation and relief efforts. Players and movers united for a greter good.

Like the Katrina disaster, this strike is another call to check our priorities and the politics of our experience in this country. Even today people are still asking ‘why didn’t everyone just get in their cars and leave when they were told,’ in the same way some are thinking that ‘we should simply fire everyone and disband the union.’ And why not? We’re invading nations at will, torturing prisoners, spying on our own people, and trading politicians and CEOs over and under the table like playing cards. Pensions? Unions? Protesters? Let them all sleep with the fishes! Hey, we’ve given everything else a try, why not a Mafia government?


Rafael Merino Cortés is the editor of, where this article first appeared.


(1) June 29, 2005 interview with the National Union of Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers (RMT) – Bristol Rail Branch (0224), Bristol, England.