A Life in Transit: ‘What You Can Get Is Set by How Far You Are Prepared to Go’
Tim Schermerhorn is a Black socialist, lifelong political activist, Labor Notes board member, and retired militant New York City transit worker. An active member and reform activist in Transport Workers Local 100 for 33 years, he ran for union president in 1997 and almost won, but fraud narrowly denied him victory. In these excerpts from a forthcoming memoir, he describes what shaped his activism and lessons for a new generation. –Eds.
I got hired by the New York City Transit Authority, which runs the subways and buses, in the aftermath of a 1980 strike. Even though the strike was a victory, its early ending by local leadership betrayed us—and that hurt.
There was still an old opposition in the union, but they were at the point in their careers that they were retiring before long. At the same time, there were people getting hired who were members of socialist organizations, like me. We wanted to work in transit because transit workers have potential power, and we wanted to change the union to be more democratic and militant.
A few of us started a newsletter, Hell on Wheels, to organize activism among the rank and file. Even though we were still on probation as new hires, two of us put our names on issue number one. (A third worker wrote under the nom de plume Dr. Dynamite.)
I was an open red. I did not hide it, even a little bit. That was not always easy, as there was anticommunism from some older workers and management.
I worked as a subway train operator on vacation relief. There was a political strategy behind that: I worked all over the system on all shifts and got to meet a lot of people. The Transit Authority was being aggressive—they made investigation and discipline a management career path. We offered representation to people who had not gotten it before.
Health and safety were a key focus. Much of union leadership was unaware of the actual rules. Our approach was to learn federal law and health and safety guidelines, so we could say, “Don’t do anything to endanger yourselves or the public.”
WORKING TO RULE
We used the Material Safety Data Sheets—the official Transit Authority safety guidelines. We read labels and we took action.
Track workers and train operators could stop work over safety. Making the community aware of risks to hospitals and schools built important support—but we won because we had learned the work rules and organized transit workers to implement them.
When something hits the tripping device on the undercarriage, it stops the train. The operator has to walk around the entire train, plus a reasonable length behind, to see what stopped it. Sometimes the operator would call the supervisor to investigate before proceeding; that was one way of stopping work over safety.
Because of actions like this, management had to replace the walkways in the tunnels, which were made of old wood that would rot. Now they are all fiberglass and yellow.
Exact work-to-rule is the basis of a slowdown. Sometimes it was as effective as a strike. One time we had a massive job action on the same day as a one-day Long Island Railroad strike.
Track workers also stopped work over safety. For example, one day while the Stillwell Avenue station was under construction, one of the stewards called me up and told me there were not enough flagmen on the site.
We found out that a couple of Transit Authority superintendents were on the take from the contractors, and flagging was one of the things they had skimped on. We shut it down—and got more flagmen that day.
A POWERFUL STRIKE
We formed a caucus called New Directions, dedicated to building union power. In our first run for union office in 1988, our goal was to introduce our program, not to win. But we did well—we won three executive board seats.
By 1992, we had grown throughout the local and we were running to win; in 1994 we had enough executive board members to make it a fight. As members of the executive board, we broke up private discussions between the union and management to settle arbitrations before the actual hearings.
In 1997, the incumbent Willie James won the election for president over me in a close vote. New Directions challenged the results with the Department of Labor, which found evidence of fraud and ordered a rerun. However, the incumbents won the new vote too. We believed they cheated again, but we did not have as much evidence this time.
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Our New Directions candidate, Roger Toussaint, won the union presidency in 2000, while I won the vice presidency for the Rapid Transit division.
Toussaint had a different philosophy—call it militant service unionism. He could use his position to be assertive, but he did not mobilize the rank and file or expand union democracy. In 2001 there was a split in the caucus between Toussaint’s supporters and those committed to building the rank-and-file movement.
Some people consider unions to be on the left if the top leaders espouse progressive rhetoric, as Toussaint did. But rank-and-file unionism is much more than that.
If you have a rank-and-file movement, there is a deep realization that democracy is power, so the individual union leader becomes secondary. If your union is ready, you do not follow the conventions of every negotiation; you do not follow the limits set by bosses, union traditions, or the state. What you can get is set by the general society—and what you are organized to do, and how far you are prepared to go.
The 2005 transit strike was declared from the top, but it was organized in the field, where I now was. Along with many others I recruited strike captains, organized picket lines, and distributed strike paraphernalia all over the city.
The strike was very powerful, but the general feeling was the leaders backed down and settled too soon; the contract was voted down. Toussaint later submitted the same contract to a second vote and it passed.
The union was fined $2.5 million. Workers were also fined one day’s pay for each day on strike, and the union lost the ability to have dues deducted from paychecks. Toussaint was sentenced to 10 days in jail.
After the split in our caucus I focused on political education, both on and off the job. I would run one reading group after another of W.E.B. DuBois’ book Black Reconstruction; it was generally young Black workers who attended. DuBois’ analysis of the central role of Black labor in U.S. history helps us understand the struggles of today.
Unions in the public sector have a greater connection with social justice struggles, in part because Black workers are a larger part of that workforce. Since the 1970s we have had to fight against the shrinking of the public sector, which affects people of color and Black workers in particular.
At the same time, we’re also in a struggle against the remnants of Jim Crow segregation and racist violence by the modern police forces that were generated from slave patrols. Low wages, cuts to social services, and police violence combine to create an intolerable situation that periodically explodes, as it did in 2020. Online communication makes it possible to tie together a national struggle.
Our fight is not just with our individual employers, villains though they may be. Our fight is with capital organized as a class. Their organization strengthens all bosses—and individual bosses are limited in settling with labor even if they are willing to. That is why militant unions have to have a class strategy, while having to confront racist, right-wing nationalism as well.
Social consciousness is higher in today’s generation of young people; I am in regular contact with young activists in a number of struggles. There will be sparks that may lead to an explosion. Black workers are central in the organizing of some important struggles today, such as at Amazon. We need to push for working-class unity in struggle—but without turning our backs on Black issues and the fight against racism.