One of the most baffling outcomes of the New York City transit workers’ strike that crippled the nation’s largest mass transit system this past December is the failure of nearly a third of the union members to vote “yes” or “no” on the contract. With a membership of more than 34,000 workers, only 22,461 felt compelled to vote. The contract was voted down by a mere seven votes.
It is even more disturbing when members had the option to vote via the Internet or by telephone.
So what happened? Roger Toussaint, the president of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, blames the dissident faction in the union for the contract’s defeat. “They very deliberately gave workers the wrong information about the percentage they were to pay on their health insurance,” Toussaint said during an interview with the Rev. Al Sharpton on his radio show. He said it was these dissidents’ intention to sabotage the contract.
Toussaint also admitted that poor communication might have been a factor. “Many members voted against the contract offer because they were confused about the health care contribution,” he said.
Union Vice President Ainsley Stewart, who opposed the new contract, said the dissidents were most upset by a provision that would have required workers to contribute 1.5 percent of their salaries toward health care premiums for the first time. The rejected contract also would have provided raises of 3 percent in the first year, then 4 percent and 3.5 percent in the following two years.
Many callers into Imhotep Gary Byrd’s show on WBLS and WLIB expressed views that supported Toussaint’s conclusion about the failure of communication. “The union failed to clarify the confusion about the contract,” one caller said. “We didn’t know whether we had to pay 1.5 or 4.5 percent of our salary each contract year. Our leadership should have fully explained this problem.”
It seems incredible that so many workers with access to information technology could be left confused. But that state of confusion is explained when you visit the local’s Web site, www.twulocal100.org . Two weeks after the contract had been rejected, the Web site still had not been updated. Poor administration of this communication tool is inexplicable, and proper maintenance possibly would have eliminated some of the difficulty members had interpreting the contract.
“Good information from the Web site or from our section leaders probably would have prevented the contract from being rejected,” another caller to Byrd’s show asserted. “Now it appears we are headed for binding arbitration, and if this happens, we’ll be worse off than before the strike.”
Even so, Toussaint felt strongly that another strike was unlikely. But given the power of the dissident faction within the clearly divided union, there is no way the president can guarantee that it won’t. Without the presence of mediators, as there were at the last impasse during the 60-hour strike that virtually paralyzed the city, binding arbitration seems unavoidable. Such an outcome may force the dissident faction into a wildcat strike and the invocation of the Taylor Act that forbids strikes by public employees. The subsequent fines could cripple the already injured union even further.
As this issue went to press, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees the mass transit system, had already filed paperwork with the Public Employment Relations Board that could force the union into arbitration. The strike, which started Dec. 20, was the first-system wide strike since an 11-day walkout in 1980. The union was fined $3 million for the December walkout. Workers were docked two days’ pay for each day on strike, although the courts have yet to determine exactly how much of those penalties the union and its employees will pay.
By Herb Boyd