Thursday, December 22, 2005

Inside the TWU

Four years ago we had the pleasure to do some of the best grass roots organizing the Alliance has ever done on behalf of Local 100's efforts to keep subway token booths open. In the spring and summer of 2001 we worked to set up one of the largest coalitions that this city has seen. When we had finished there were more than 110 separate community, civic and good government groups in our Keep the Token Booths Open Coalition.

As part of this organizing drive we held rallies and press conferences all over the city. All of the candidates for mayor and the other city wide offices joined with us. There were over 85 separate print media stories and scores of TV and radio reports as well. This massive public pressure, when combined with the legal work done by State Senator Eric Schneiderman, successfully stopped the MTA from closing the booths.

At the end of the drive we sat down with Roger Toussaint to discuss ways that we could continue to move forward together. To our total surprise Roger, without once either praising us or thanking us for the work that had been done, suggested that our original retainer should be cut in half! His rationale was that our scope of work had been for lobbying and public relations and the work we had done, in his view, was only for public relations.

How mistaken he was. Roger completely failed to understand that the coalition-building effort was an integral part of a budding grass roots campaign that, if used properly, could turn the TWU into a political powerhouse that could be seen as representing not only the workers but the riders as well. In other words, a coalition of riders and workers with a common agenda and a common enemy: the MTA.

This coalition could have begun to attack the governance issues that make the MTA such an unaccountable quasi-public agency. It could also have begun to build the kind of movement that would bring this Authority under the control of the citizens of the City of New York, insuring fiscal transparency and service accountability.

The Alliance was poised to do this. The Coalition was ripe for expansion but Toussaint was not capable of grasping the concept and mobilizing the union's forces in the right direction. All of which is sad because Roger is without a doubt a tough labor leader but his toughness needed to be properly harnessed. Instead we parted ways and a golden opportunity was lost.

What we were also privy to was Toussaint's darker side. He seemed to always be angry and his moods were unfortunately infectious. People were scared to say anything that would set him off. There never seemed to be a light moment and, as we have noted, he was famous for never thanking or complimenting the people who worked for. Needless to say this all generated a good amount of paranoia, against the outside world but inside the Local as well.

It will be interesting to see how the current crisis impacts this potentially volatile internal situation. In yesterday'sNY Times Sewell Chan gives us a glimpse into the internal workings of Local 100 and some of what we pointed out is alluded to in the story. The dissension that the story evinces could easily continue to grow as the consequences of the strike, along with all of the concomitant tensions, begin to sink in. As all of this mushrooms we wonder how long Toussaint’s “us vs. them” mentality will continue to serve its function.