Rest in Power, Tim Schermerhorn: Leader of New York Subway Union Reform Effort

Longtime New York City subway union activist Tim Schermerhorn will be remembered by the thousands of workers he inspired or led in fights for decent working conditions, better treatment, and justice and dignity on the job and in society. (Pictured: Tim, center; Steve Downs, left; Corine Scott-Mack, right)

Tim Schermerhorn—subway train operator, rank-and-file activist, union militant and officer, socialist, troublemaker, Labor Notes board member, son, husband, father, grandfather, and my dear friend and comrade—died this week.

Tim was hired by the New York City Transit Authority in 1982. As a founder of the Hell on Wheels newsletter in 1984, and later the New Directions caucus, he was central to building the confidence and organization of the generation of transit workers hired after the 1980 transit strike.

He ran for president of Transport Workers Union Local 100 in 1988 to get our ideas about union power and democracy out to the membership. He didn’t expect to win and he wasn’t disappointed when he didn’t. But he did win among the subway crews and was elected to be a Vice-Chair of the Train Operators Division.

He ran for local president three more times, increasing his and New Directions’ vote each time, until he received 49.5 percent in 1998. In 2000, the New Directions slate won the top positions in the local but the caucus had chosen a different candidate for president. Tim was elected VP of Rapid Transit Operations, the subway crews.

Tim attended Brooklyn Tech in the early 1970s and was part of fights to defend New York’s hospitals and schools against austerity during those years. Tim’s father had been a transit worker and part of the Black-led movement to reform the union in the 1960s. Tim sometimes talked about going with his father to the picket lines during the union’s big strike in January 1966.

INSTANT CREDIBILITY

Those roots in the union, and in Brooklyn, served Tim well once he became a transit worker himself. When campaigning with him, we couldn’t enter a crew room without there being someone who knew his dad or knew Tim from school or a campaign to keep a hospital open—who would then speak up for him. In its early days, he gave New Directions instant credibility.

Combine this with the fact there was no one better than Tim at holding a one-on-one political discussion with someone, and you’ll see why Tim was a formidable organizer and builder.

Although Tim served as a union officer for many years, his preferred role was as a rank-and-file activist. On the road, in addition to confrontations with abusive supervisors, he led many slowdowns—a response to the unrealistic train schedules, an attempt to impose a speedup on crews and require them to give up break or lunch time to keep the lines running according to schedule. He took pride in the fact that he “never gave the TA an on-time train” and he helped teach others how to work-to-rule or slow their trains down without getting caught.

MOTION TO STRIKE

In December 1999, New Directions was leading a fight for a good contract. Ten thousand transit workers came out to a rally called by the Local's leadership and shouted down the union's officers with chants to "Strike! Strike!" There were extensive slowdowns on the subways and buses.

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When members showed up to a mass membership meeting that the caucus had gotten the local executive board to call (the first in a generation), a Local 100 VP read them an injunction that Mayor Giuliani had gotten that not only prohibited a strike but barred Local 100 members from even talking about striking. The VP called on the members to respect the injunction and then left. Tim rushed to a mic and made a motion to authorize a strike, which was met by a roar of approval by the roughly 4,000 members present. This was in direct violation of the wishes of the union leadership and of the injunction. That night, police were sent to his home and work location to arrest him. They didn't find him because he had been warned by a sympathetic officer.

Getting reelected was not a priority for him. After winning a VP spot two years earlier, in 2002 he voted against the contract the new president negotiated, guaranteeing that he wouldn’t be welcome on the incumbents' slate. After his term, he went back to operating trains and teaching new train operators and conductors how to assert their power to fight speedup.

Tim worked to build rank-and-file power beyond Local 100. He reached out to activists from other TWU locals that he met as a delegate to conventions; he conferred with activists in other New York unions; he was committed to the Black Rank and File Exchange that grew out of Labor Notes conferences; and he was a strong supporter of the Black Workers for Justice in North Carolina.

MENTOR TO YOUNG ACTIVISTS

Due to health reasons, Tim retired from transit earlier than he would have liked. After retirement, he still worked with young activists in different unions to help them deepen their commitment to rank-and-file power. And he returned to TWU 100 to share his knowledge in the local’s stewards program.

Tim also regularly organized classes on W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction in America because (as he wrote in Labor Notes earlier this year) “DuBois’ analysis of the central role of Black labor in U.S. history helps us understand the struggles of today.” This intimate connection between class struggle and Black liberation remained the core of Tim’s politics throughout his life.

Tim suffered kidney failure about seven years ago. Managing this condition, while waiting for a transplant, took up more and more of his time and attention. That task was lightened by his grandson Jason, whom Tim’s wife Kay describes as “Tim’s heart.”

Sadly, Tim did not receive a new kidney. He was all set to go to Chicago for the Labor Notes Conference in June, but ended up in the hospital instead. Complications from kidney failure resulted in his death on September 11.

Tim will be remembered and honored by the thousands of workers he inspired or led in fights for decent working conditions, better treatment, and justice and dignity on the job and in society.

Steve Downs is a retired transit worker and a founder of New Directions in TWU Local 100. Have memories of Tim you'd like to share? Write to editors[at]labornotes[dot]org.