December 24, 2005
Bankruptcy Of The Unions
The Christmas-time transit strike of 2005 has proven at least two
things: the moral and now actual bankruptcy of the union, and the
resilience of New Yorkers.
of people trudging miles from home to work and back in the cold
- bundled up, iPods on, feet-aching and fog-breathing - were not
uncomplaining, but they were defiantly upbeat, in that "at-least-we're-all-in-this-together"
way. Our sometimes fractious city rallies when times get tough.
We are best when things are at their worst because that is when
our obvious common interests outweigh the special interests which
too often divide us.
Workers Union Local 100 has become the ultimate symbol of special
interests in our city today. It is a role they chose, and it is
a legacy that will live longer than the inconvenience of these
past three days. Their illegal strike in the name of workers was
a strike against workers.
why this failed strike may prove to be a watershed moment in modern
labor movement. Because the Transport Workers used up not only
$3 million dollars in court-imposed fines - effectively bankrupting
the local union - but they used up whatever remaining reservoirs
of public support the public-sector unions enjoyed.
of the city was well captured by a cartoon in the Daily News
depicting transit union boss Roger Toussaint as a medieval torturer,
stretching the suffering people of New York out on the rack while
asking "Now do I have your sympathy?"
quick to invoke the language of oppression, but a look at the
facts show the absurdity of the claim. Transit workers enjoy an
average salary of well over $50,000 for a seven-and-a-half-hour
workday with free health care and a fully-taxpayer subsidized
retirement at age 55. The average New Yorker works longer hours
for less pay. Those who have health care benefits pay a portion
of their salary for the privilege, and retirement kicks in at
age 65 or older. The union walked off the job after rejecting
a uniform 10% pay raise spread over three years - in the private
sector, pay raises are earned through individual performance,
with no annual guarantees. Most people are paid through profits
their work helps generate, while the union is paid out of the
pockets of all New Yorkers - who are already among the highest
taxed citizens of the United States.
these facts, looking at the 7 million New Yorkers who use mass
transit every day walking to work while strikers screamed and
walked the picket line, it wasn't hard to figure out who the oppressed
workers were in the picture. This was a fight for special rights,
not equal rights.
union leaders can't resist reaching for the rhetoric of racism.
Roger Toussaint shamelessly invoked the memories of Martin Luther
King Jr. and Rosa Parks in a desperate attempt to frame the debate
with borrowed moral authority. Equating the effort to overturn
unjust laws of the Jim Crow era to a refusal to accept a 10% pay
raise only debases the real civil rights heroes of the past. When
Mayor Bloomberg called the strikers cowards and thugs, the union
was quick to call the mayor racist. All their mock indignation
revealed was the extent to which unions always want to bring it
back to race. They are living off the fumes of the 1960s.
a time when labor unions were engaged in a heroic battle to achieve
basic rights and security for workers who were genuinely oppressed
by big business. But the influence of organized crime on organized
labor - captured in films like "On The Waterfront" -
began to dilute their public support. In recent decades, periodic
strikes hastened the shift of American manufacturing jobs overseas.
Globalization represents a significant challenge to unions - they
should be looking to organize in places where worker oppression
still exists undiluted, like Communist China, rather than focusing
on increasing unrealistic and unsupportable benefits in the United
to make a case for their continued relevance rooted in the realities
of today. Maybe that's why the national transport workers union
took the unusual step of refusing to support this local union's
strike. They must have sensed the unreasonableness of this step
and the broader damage it could do.
negotiations between the MTA and the Transport Workers continue
with subway trains again rolling underneath our streets, work
is not done.
years ago, after the last New York City transit strike, Ed Koch
memorably said that "the city won the battle in the streets,
but the MTA lost it at the bargaining table." Mindful of
that past experience, we cannot allow history to repeat itself.
The union must be made to understand that future strikes are not
in their interest.
To this end,
there should be no amnesty offered. Judge Jones of the New York
Supreme Court imposed a $1 million dollar fine on the union for
every day of an illegal strike. With $3 million dollars in their
bank account, it is not a coincidence that the TWU decided to
end their strike after three days. One more day and they would
have to put their Upper West Side headquarters up for sale. No
doubt, strike leaders hope that they can get away with shutting
down the city, allowing bygones to be bygones after a bit of muscle-flexing.
But forgiveness of fines would only encourage future strikes.
We have seen that the feel-good labor deals of the past have a
real cost we can't afford.
trains again running and the holiday season humming, the best
present New York can give the nation is a new era of labor relations
brought about because we were tougher than a transit strike.
Avlon is a columnist for the New
York Sun and the author