Union Leadership Re-Elected with Less than Half the Vote: NY Transit Workers Get Contract They Rejected
More than a year after their three-day strike, New York City’s subway and bus workers finally have a contract—the same one they rejected a year ago.
Transport Workers Union Local 100 struck on December 20, 2005 to prevent management from whittling away at the pensions and salaries of future workers. Despite a budget surplus greater than $1 billion, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) was determined to shift some of the cost of pensions and health care onto the workers.
Local 100 President Roger Toussaint rejected this demand and the local’s executive board authorized a strike. The strike ended on December 22, 2005 when Toussaint agreed that all transit workers would begin paying a premium for health care benefits.
Although Local 100 members had not previously paid a premium for their health care, Toussaint claimed that this was not a giveback because workers would now have full medical coverage from the time they retired (transit workers can retire at age 55 if they have 25 years of service) until they are eligible for Medicare.
The New York Times revealed, however, that the additional benefits were only expected to cost the MTA around $30 million for the life of the contract, while it would receive over $100 million from the premium the workers would pay.
Opposition to the contract, and anger that the strike had been cut short, quickly materialized. Over 20,000 Local 100 members voted on the contract and, on January 20, it was rejected by seven votes.
Toussaint ignored calls for a membership meeting and took no steps to carry out the membership’s will to resume the contract fight. In the meantime, the MTA called for the contract to be sent to binding arbitration.
After stalling for two months, Toussaint sent the same contract back to the members for a second vote. This time, seeing that Toussaint had no intention of fighting for a better deal, the members overwhelmingly approved the contract. The MTA refused to accept the result of the second vote and continued to insist that the contract be submitted to binding arbitration.
While all of this was going on the union was heavily penalized for the strike. (Strikes by public workers are illegal in New York.) Each member who struck was fined an additional day’s pay for each day of the strike. Local 100 was fined $2.5 million dollars for ignoring an injunction against the strike.
The local’s dues check-off was revoked, effective July 2007. Toussaint was sentenced to 10 days in jail (he served four) for contempt of court. And the Public Employee Relations Board ordered that the contract be sent to arbitration.
While the press demonized Toussaint and union and community groups praised him, Local 100’s members took a more nuanced view. Toussaint won a lot of support from members for finally calling a strike, but the resulting contract bitterly divided the union. Toussaint’s refusal to honor the result of the ratification vote heightened dissatisfaction with his heavy-handed and undemocratic leadership. It cost him support even among members who had voted for the contract.
The December 2006 local elections focused on differing assessments of the strike and the contract.
Four candidates challenged Toussaint for president, including two incumbent vice presidents—Barry Roberts and Ainsley Stewart (the other two candidates were Mike Carrube and Anthony Staley).
Roberts was seen as the most conservative candidate. He had ties to the leadership of the TWU International (who called on Local 100 members to return to work during the strike) and had wavered during the strike.
Although he criticized the contract and the health care premium during the election campaign, Roberts supported the return to work and voted for the proposed agreement when Toussaint presented it to the executive board. Stewart, on the other hand, voted against both the return to work and the contract.
Two days before candidates were to begin collecting signatures on nominating petitions, Toussaint had the executive board change the rules to make it easier to qualify for the ballot. This ensured that there would be several candidates splitting the vote against Toussaint—increasing Toussaint’s chances of being reelected.
When the ballots were counted on December 15, Toussaint came out on top, but he received only 43 percent of the vote. Roberts came in second with 35 percent. Of the seven vice president spots, Toussaint’s slate won three and lost three outright.
After being counted three times, the seventh vice president vote was ruled a tie on December 15 by the monitor hired to oversee the election. However, the Local 100 Elections Committee (appointed by Toussaint) ignored that ruling and counted the ballots for a fourth time on December 22. They ruled the Toussaint slate’s candidate the winner by two votes.
Also on December 15, the arbitration panel issued its ruling on the contract. In essence, it awarded the same terms that had been negotiated at the end of the strike—and rejected by the membership in January.
Having successfully shifted some of its health care costs onto the workers, management will be emboldened to increase what the workers pay. The Local 100 leadership faces enormous challenges collecting dues without the check-off, increasing the participation of the membership (barely 1,000 of the Local’s 38,000 members attended the Local’s annual membership meeting on December 9), and building the unity needed to deal with an aggressive management.
While changing the election rules enabled Toussaint to hold onto the president’s position, winning with a minority of the vote may cost him the moral authority that comes with being elected by a majority of the members. This will make it especially difficult for him to repair damage with officers who have disagreed with him over the last six years. Despite his pledge to make efforts to reach out to his opponents within the union, his staff’s handling of the tied vice-presidential election suggests that there may be no real change.
Steve Downs was a picket captain during the strike and an opponent of the contract. He was recently elected chair of Local 100’s Train Operators Division as an independent.