When the Transport Workers Union called a citywide strike over work contracts last winter, Bo Muniz, a veteran subway conductor, wasn’t overjoyed by the news. He knew that a single day on the picket lines would cost him two days’ salary in fines for breaking state law.
Now, with no contract and little else to show for the strike a year later, Muniz and other workers say Local 100 President Roger Toussaint faces a tough run in union elections. The official count of the mail-in ballots begins today, with results expected next week.
“He’s going the way of Bush,” Muniz said recently after a long shift on the 2 train, comparing Toussaint’s unpopularity to that of President Bush.
Toussaint’s leading opponent, Barry Roberts, a former bus driver who is now the union’s Manhattan and Bronx vice-president, is capitalizing on the discontent. He collected 13,000 election petition signatures in November, indicating strong support among the local’s 37,400 members.
Three other candidates, Michael Carube, Ainsley Stewart, and Anthony Staley have slimmer chances of winning, union members say. One dismissed them as “upstart candidates,” though the crowded ballot could split the vote to favor Toussaint.
Derrick Henry, a bus driver for 12 years, could be among the swing voters. “I was never a Toussaint fan,” Henry says, steering along Broadway on a rainy afternoon and stopping to pick up soaked passengers at 110th Street. “He was always talking about, ‘Strike, strike, strike, strike, strike.’ He was the more militant one.”
Instead, Henry leans toward the opposition. Though he can’t say much about Roberts, he knows he isn’t happy with the current leadership. Years ago, he points out, Toussaint agreed on a contract that provided no raise the first year; instead, workers got a $1000 bonus. “I felt like a hooker,” Henry says, looking indignant. “We’d be doing better if we got one percent!”
“I’ll probably vote for Barry,” Henry concludes.
Whatever the outcome, the union can’t expect to hold much negotiating power anytime soon. Today the contract sits before an arbitration panel led by George Nicolau, who mediated a settlement for Major League Baseball in 1992.
Nicolau has the authority to come down on either side, most likely taking “the least controversial route,” according to Lee Adler, a labor expert at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
The panel can choose to ignore hot-button issues, Adler says, because it has no mandate to resolve every aspect of a dispute.
TWU spokesman David Katzman predicts a decision this month. MTA officials refused to comment.
Health care and pensions are still the biggest issues for workers, who hoped the strike would raise wages and protect benefits that sounded generous to many non-union workers. They currently earn an average of $50,000, and don’t have to make a contribution for their health care plans.
Despite news of a $1 billion surplus last year, the MTA said benefit packages hurt the bottom line. It proposed that new hires contribute 6 percent to retirement, or three times the 2 percent workers pay now. After backing down on that issue, MTA settled for a 1.5 percent contribution toward health costs.
Toussaint was triumphant. The package he announced five days after the strike provided a 10.5 percent raise over three years, paid maternity leave, and millions in refunds to workers who’d overpaid into their retirement accounts.
The deal would give workers a “greater degree of respect and appreciation,” he said when announcing the deal from the union’s West End headquarters.
But some union members weren’t happy, fearing health concessions would lead down a slippery slope. “Put it this way,” Muniz said after a long shift in his tiny conductor’s cab. “They say 1.5 percent now. In three years, what’s that going to be? In six years? In nine years?”
Ultimately opposition led members to split their vote on the contract, defeating it by just seven votes out of nearly 22,500. A revote in April came too late. With the MTA petitioning to place the issue before arbitration, hope that the contract would take effect stopped dead on the tracks.
Now the union is taking a beating for defying a state law banning the strike. On top of paying $233,000 a month to cover the $2.5 million in fines, one of the union’s most important income sources – automatic dues – will be cut off in January.
Union leaders are scrambling to enlist members for voluntary payments. A union spokesperson couldn’t supply an exact figure, but said enrollment “runs well into the thousands.” Most members interviewed for this article said they plan to contribute, though some disliked the union’s idea of direct bank account deductions.
Pension refunds and other deal sweeteners may be slipping away, but some members still hope changes in Albany will bring better fortunes.
Eliot Spitzer was happy to cultivate ties with the union before his election, marching shoulder-to-shoulder with Toussaint in the West Indian Day Parade in September. But now that he’s ready to take the governor’s office, it’s difficult to say whether Spitzer will be the leader bus and subway workers expect: an advocate willing to intervene aggressively on their behalf.
Nonetheless, Henry has high expectations for next year. “Spitzer is such an on-point type of guy as far as corruption,” Henry said, steering along Broadway. “Hopefully there will finally be someone to hold the MTA accountable.”