By Matty Vaz
The outcome of the events of recent days remains uncertain. Yet it is quite clear we will remember Roger Toussaint in New York City for quite some time. His name will be called anytime anyone remembers the year Santa Claus was on strike. Much of the press has moved on, but the many who are watching closely will likely see the true effects of the Transit Strike of 2005 play out over the next few decades. The 3AM action of Roger Toussaint and the men and woman of Local 100 may prove to be a crystallizing event. The three-day strike revealed the nature of countless actors and institutions. The mayor, the governor, the labor movement, the media, the police the public, and even Christmas, have all showed what and who they are. It is quite possible that a turning point, or at the very least a reshuffling of the political calculus in New York, has just taken place.
The short-term outcome will be judged on the contract that Mr. Toussaint brings back to his union. If he can gain one more penny and accept one less giveback than what he walked away from, and Local 100 continues to be a solvent organization, then a victory has been won. Beyond that, he has committed the most important act of civil disobedience that this city has seen in many decades. He has acted in the tradition of West Indian radicalism, which has been a force for almost one hundred years in New York, and he has acted in the tradition of labor militancy, which has so often been found among railroad workers. The mayor, the governor and the private sector have held labor over their collective knee for quite some time now. For many historians, the most recent defining event in labor history was the 1981 decision by Ronald Reagan to fire striking air traffic controllers. The walkout of Local 100 may have been the event that will begin to undo Mr. Reagan’s legacy. The shameful practice of working without a contract, which has become the norm for city cops, firefighters and teachers, has just met a movement to make a deadline a deadline. We may see insurgencies within the teacher’s union, within the PBA, within 1199 and within DC 37. Union members around the city are going to demand that their leadership forget about sitting in Bloomberg’s luxury box at Yankee Stadium, and start showing some backbone. We may also see more strikes in other places. Our recent strike came in the wake of a transit strike in Philadelphia. Who knows where the next one will be?
Mike Bloomberg’s intention to establish a fifth-pension tier for city workers has been exposed. Many have expressed confusion as to why Mr. Toussaint would lead a strike over an issue such as pensions for workers who are not even part of the union yet. But his efforts to protect the unborn have been honorable and unselfish. George Bush has crossed the country shouting that Social Security will soon be bankrupt. The desire to protect the retirement security that transit workers have achieved is perfectly logical. Transit jobs have done a great deal to bolster the economic health of people of color in New York, and it is the responsibility of the union that the decent living wage provided by such jobs is protected for the future. The awful contract for the NYPD pushed by the mayor and accepted by the PBA, reveals the pattern to be avoided. New police officers will now make a little more than twenty-five thousand dollars a year, a pathetic sum for a group that not only managed to serve as props for photo opportunities during the Republican National Convention but has also continued to take bullets in the outer boroughs. Interestingly, the last class graduated by the police academy, was the first to be made up of predominantly people of color. As black and Latino New Yorkers finally get hold of police jobs, these jobs have now become less fruitful. It is no mystery why so many police were supportive of this strike. At any of the picket lines, police officers could be heard expressing dissatisfaction with their last contract. Hopefully, this strike will contribute to the shattering of the police vs. black people, black people vs. police political dynamic that has existed for so long in this city. If things proceed as they should, a struggle to restore the starting salary of new police hires will become a serious issue for all New Yorkers. Roger Toussaint has accomplished a unique feat in that he brought Al Sharpton and PBA president Patrick J. Lynch to vocally support the same cause.
The strike has also demonstrated the important role that transit workers play. They went out on strike and the rest of us struggled. They provide a critical and valuable function and they should be paid well for doing so. Meanwhile, if some of these politicians, lawyers, real estate developers and big moneymen, would go on strike and keep themselves at home for a few days, we might all be better off. The mayor and the media have repeatedly bemoaned the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been lost. Really? Where did the money go? Did somebody set it on fire? Or dump it in the river? Or did people simply postpone buying overpriced items that they do not need? Tremendous numbers are thrown out for us to imagine, but perhaps we should be asking how these hundreds of millions of dollars are actually divided up on any given day. Local 100 put the brakes on things to demand their fair share, and everyone else should be doing the same.
While many New Yorkers showed their ability to make the best of things, an unfortunate number showed themselves to be impatient, unthinking and even soft. The word “hell” was used repeatedly in interviews and letters to the newspapers. We will not be proud to look back at having defined “hell” as traffic and walking. We have also shown the extent to which we define Christmas by shopping. The materialism, greed and consumption that has come to be so closely associated with the birth of Jesus Christ has become overwhelming. If we have been given a three-day break from such activity, we should be thankful. The media has shown itself to be shortsighted, racist and thoroughly under the control of the rich and powerful. Although the readers of this paper have long been aware of that fact, perhaps a few more people have recently made such a realization. George Pataki has shown himself to be a pandering and bumbling fool who should have never been governor. Unfortunately, this means that he has shown himself to be presidential material in this day and age. Mike Bloomberg has once again shown himself to be infinitely clever, and to be comfortably equipped with a compliant press, as his hands manipulate all the strings. Finally, Mr. Roger Toussaint has shown that not all New Yorkers are so quick to roll over. Some are prepared to stand for a better future. Some are not willing to accept that which the powerful and connected thrust upon them. Some still know that New York is a union town. Hopefully, when the next Labor Day comes around and flags are waving proudly in the air, we will let a true labor leader and a West Indian radical stand as the Grand Marshal of the parade. Let us forget the smooth talk of the rich, and let us remember Roger Toussaint on Eastern Parkway.
By Matty Vaz