Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Giving Voice to Toussaint

In this week's Village Voice Tom Robbins' focuses on the "trauma" of TWU Local 100;s president Roger Toussaint. The piece sympathetically analyzes the difficulties of the union's leader by portraying how he was beset on all sides by enemies and had to walk a dangerously thin line in advocating on behalf of his members.

Makes for nice reading and, while we are big fans of Tom Robbins, the piece doesn't do enough justice to the way in which Toussaint creates his own problems with little help from others. John Samuelson is a case in point. When we were working for the Local John was one of the most dedicated and selfless union members we've seen. Yet somehow Toussaint couldn't find a way to utilize Samuelson's skills and he was discharged from the staff.

This is what has happened with too many of the people at the Local. If you show a spark of independence and creativity a clash with Toussaint is inevitable. He is simply one difficult man to work for and engenders absolutely no loyalty with those under him. All of which provides the right context for understanding the mess Roger got himself into during the recent transit strike.

In political science the term "rain or shine attachment" denotes the ability of a leader to create a foundation of attachment that is strong enough to withstand a crisis that challenges the group. Without this foundation of support the onset of crisis will severely undermine the group's leadership. This is precisely what happened to Toussaint during the strike and its aftermath.

Without a base of loyalty leadership becomes extremely vulnerable and in Toussaint's case, this lack is exacerbated by the fact that his leadership style is based on fear and intimidation. Few folks even like Roger, so when he makes mistakes his brittle leadership structure begins to crack. People are genuinely happy that he is falling on his face and wish him the worst.

So, while it is true that Toussaint was in a precarious position given the Local's militancy and the MTA's intransigence, there is no doubt that he had no flexibility because of the environment that he himself created at the union.

As far as the comments on the union dissidents are concerned we think it is a mistake for Robbins to try to diminish their stature by attempting to pigeonhole their political ideologies. That is exactly what Toussaint's line has been.

And guess what? This kind of character assassination simply doesn't work because people like John Mooney and Ainsley Stewart are well-known quantities, folks whose dedication to the union and its members cannot be questioned. Since when does someone's radical politics insure that the person will be a good union leader?

The unanswered question in all this is the following: Was the union in a position to get a better deal at the negotiating table before a strike vote was called? Given the leadership of the Local's lack of openness it is hard to determine. One thing is sure, however, a mess has been made and there is one person who should be held responsible.