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On-line resources from the
American Studies Resources Centre at LJMU

Liverpool John Moores University

Letters from
New York
By Lenny Quart

Lenny has lived in New York for most of
his life, and here he presents a varied selection
of letters expressing his own
unique take on city life.
Lenny QuartAmerican Studies Today Online

Front Page

New for 2014

An Elite Liberal University
Going to an Elite School

2013

Glistening
A Victory in the Culture Wars?
An East River Island
A Plethora of Police Scandals
Facts and Intuitions
Exploring a Queens Neighborhood
The Bronx: For Better or Worse
The City in Flux

Archive

Brooklyn Writers
Whatever Happened to America's White Working Class?
Once More about Obama
Political takes
An ennui-free city
Comfort Food for the Literate
A Unique Street
Election aftermath
Back to Obama
Transit Follies
An Economically Beleaguered City
Oscar Tedium
Prose and poetry
A Painful Conclusion to 2008
A Celebration of Two Writers
The Political Process
Growing Up in New York
Oscars 2008
Celebrating the Forward
A Bohemian Oasis
Cafeterias
Back-to-the-Land
A Word from a Convention Demonstrator
Election Post Mortem
Sidney Lumet: New York Director
The New York Subway
Times Square: Past and Present
New York on the eve of 2005
A Cheer for Self-Doubt
The Working Poor
A Vale of Tears
Spike Lee's New Orleans
Hasidim in Brooklyn
Slavery in NYC
A Cornucopia of Stories
A Painter in the City
Altman's Oscar Night
Bob Dylan: American Icon
Brooklyn Changing
Diane Arbus
Political Theatre
The New York Post
Public Life
Surviving the Inner-City
Transit Strike
Three Political Takes
The Sixties Redux
Memorials and Oscars

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Transit Strike

The import of the New York transit strike is still open to analysis. My personal experience of the strike was limited to being gouged by a cab driver on the first day when I had to quickly get uptown to do an interview, and having a very different experience on the following morning, sharing a cab and a sense of camaraderie with other passengers. The city seemed more turbulent than usual during the length of the strike, but in no sense did it feel out of control. The slight trace of chaos actually added to the pleasure of having to walk along on crowded and oddly festive sidewalks to places one usually got to by subway.

The strike took place at a time when only 12.5 percent of wage and salary workers are union members nationwide, declining from 20.1 percent in 1983. In 2004, 36 percent of government workers were unionized, while only 8 percent of workers in private sector industries were.

But despite the national decline of unions, in New York City unions continue to play a powerful role. The City’s Central Labor Council is composed of over 400 locals representing a million and a half trade unionists, and they have a significant influence over the outcome of local elections—supplying funds and campaign workers to candidates they favor, And the transit workers union, the TWU, is an industrial union with a militant history, which has sustained lengthy strikes in the past. Still this was the first mass transit walkout in New York since an 11-day strike in 1980 that had really hurt the city.

As it turned out, despite Mayor Bloomberg’s dire predictions, the recent strike of 34,000 transit workers luckily was too brief to badly damage the city’s economy. But for the union to make a decision to strike was not easy. It failed to gain the support of its national union, and it faced onerous fines under the state’s Taylor Law. It also risked alienating the public, including low-income workers (the heaviest users of mass transit) whose pay scale and benefits are not comparable to what the transit workers receive. Of course, it’s hard for people to get beyond their immediate needs, and in this country, the notion of working class solidarity exists only in the realm of fantasy or in a Pete Seeger songbook.

My initial feelings were that the strike was a dubious, even self-destructive, strategy, and that the TWU’s head, Roger Toussaint, under pressure from a militant faction, was calling the strike to shore up his leadership. But at the same time, I had empathy for the transit workers (I have been a committed union member for over 40 years), who had good reasons for striking. These men and women work at arduous, high-pressure jobs, and they resent the humiliation they felt at the hands of MTA management. The union had to deal with an MTA whose negotiators were a team of wealthy white men, almost all of them products of large corporations and law firms, while first and second-generation West Indians (the union’s membership is about 70% minority) with some Irish-Americans dominated the union side—all which helped fuel the fury leading up to the strike

The latter fact gave the strike a racial subtext that added to the workers’ anger. In addition, there was the MTA’s expensively dressed head Peter Kalikow, whose wealth came from a third generation Manhattan real estate dynasty, but had bankrupted the last two institutions he headed —the New York Post and his family real estate business. This crony of Al D’Amato and other Republican big time operators was a perfect representative of an MTA that had long thrown away their credibility in the TWU’s eyes. Furthermore, the agency shiftily was known to keep two sets of books— one for the public, and one with the real numbers— and it owed over $20 billion in debt service costs. It had also lost $300 million to fraud and cost overruns at its own headquarters, leading Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to say: "Of all the authorities, the MTA is the most mismanaged, least competent one out there, and everybody knows it." Probably the last straw was the MTA’s last minute proposal to make new workers pay more into their pensions than current employees—creating a two-tier pension system.

When I spoke with a labor economist friend, about the strike, he provided an incisive analysis of what had transpired:

“In any bargaining process there are questions of principle and issues that are negotiable. Faced with financial pressures the MTA looked for ways to reduce its labor costs, and it chose pensions. Toussaint saw this tactic as divisive, and an issue of principle on which to strike. While many of the city unions came to his support, they simultaneously worked hard, behind the scenes, to mediate a settlement. The Unions understood that in this period of relatively modest wage increases, and givebacks on health and pension benefits, the public would not be sympathetic to a long transit strike.”

But the contract has been just voted down by a seven vote margin catching city officials off guard. It has to be seen as a defeat for Roger Toussaint, and opens up the possibility of unforeseen complications in the negotiations that will follow.  However, if the strike remains unresolved, it’s clear as urban critic Robert Fitch (Solidarity for Sale) states, “the strike did not miraculously bring a fractured labor movement together, or suggest how unions without the TWU's powerful leverage could fight management demands for pension and health cutbacks that have become the norm in labor negotiations.” It’s truly a hard time for unionism in this country.

L. Quart