Driving my kids to school through the gridlocked streets approaching the Brooklyn Bridge Tuesday morning, past picket lines of dreadlocked transit workers chanting “No contract, no work!” — their action paralyzing a mass transit system that ferries 7 million people to work — my mind traveled back to a student rally in Cape Town in 1984. The speaker was a garment worker whose name I remember only as Maria.
She was part of a tiny, maverick union, that had somewhat recklessly broken away from the sweetheart Garment Workers Union (a “little castle with a big flag,” was how its architect described the rebel organization) and had even more recklessly launched a strike action in a factory where it didn’t have a majority. The action was doomed, but I was fascinated by the effect that joining it had had on Maria, a black working class woman at the very bottom of apartheid’s social pile, the most voiceless and powerless section of the population. We watched transfixed as this woman long denied a voice suddenly stood before the microphone and a hall filled with hundreds of middle class students, her eyes glazed with pride and rage. “I drew my first ever strike wages this week,” she said in Kaaps, that mix of Afrikaans, English and a smattering of Xhosa rivaled only by Yiddish as a patois for rendering the tragicomedy of the powerless. “And I feel damn proud about that.”
Although you’d never know to listen to New York’s billionaire mayor bleating about the “selfish and illegal” action of the transit workers, joining a strike means risking everything for working people, those whose livelihoods are already at best tentative. It’s an action take only when they feel they’ve been pushed too far, an economic version of La Pasionara’s legendary intonation to the doomed Republican defenders of Madrid as the Fascist armies massed at the city’s gates, that “we can live forever on our knees, or we can die on our feet.” Maria had chosen to face death — or poverty, in this instance — on her feet, and with that choice came a surge of power — the heady recognition of one’s own subjectivity and ability to transform circumstances through collective action. The decision to strike had given Maria her dignity, and no amount of economic pain could take that from her.
Union leader Toussaint: “This is all about dignity.”
And I sense the same effect for those 32,000 transit workers who downed tools today, most of them people of color facing a mostly white establishment that has treated them with palpable arrogance and disdain. I’m reminded of the old days in South Africa when I hear union leader Roger Toussaint — could there be a more fitting last name for a charismatic Trinidadian union leader who started his working life cleaning subway cars? (Toussaint L’Overture was the leader of the Haitian slave revolt that made the tiny island the first black polity to liberate itself from European colonial rule). Asked by a reporter to comment on the fact that his strike is illegal and could bring massive fines to the union and the strikers (and even jail time for himself), he answered in his sonorous Trini baritone, “If Rosa Parks had observed the law, most of our members would not have been transit workers.”
And I’m also reminded of the old days in South Africa when I hear Mayor Bloomberg, a rather short fellow who appears to treating the action as something between a personal affront by some cheeky subordinates and a terror attack on the city by some alien “thugs”, insisting that he won’t negotiate until the “illegal” strike action is ended. Don’t be a shlemiel, Mike, you’re only making things worse.
The right to strike is a basic right of any democracy. The fact that the law forbids it for state employees in New York is simply a reflection of the balance of power in the legislature that adopted that law. The transit workers don’t believe the law is fair to them; they know that the critical leverage they have is their ability to withhold their labor. Like Maria back in Cape Town in 1984, they’re risking everything. Her strike, also, was illegal. But she had no say in shaping those laws, and I suspect most of today’s transit workers in New York feel the same about the 1966 Taylor law in force today. Like most of us in New York, they’re living from paycheck to paycheck, and on the eve of the Christmas holidays, they’ve embarked on an action that is going to cost them two days’ wages (in fines) for every day they’re out.
Long before the strike, it was clear that the MTA is appallingly managed. I sensed that much a few weeks ago when they suddenly announced that they had a huge surplus for this year, and would be simply giving away tens of millions of dollars in subway fare discounts over the holiday season. That seemed insanely short-sighted even without knowing anything about the state of their contract talks with the union — there had to be more prudent ways of spending that money; now, in light of the fact that they’re telling the union they have no money, the MTA’s decision seems giddily reckless. (Even if the substantial issue of the MTA’s long-term finance is far more complicated, the fact is that with contract talks looming they should have had the brains to consult the union over how they’re were going to spend the surplus. The bigger picture, of course, is one of the degradation of infrastructure all over America, choked of investment by a free-market ideological consensus in the corridors of power — just look at the state of AMTRAK, never mind those levees that gave way in New Orleans. And also the crippling cost of health care in a society ruled by narrow corporate special interests and an adherence to free market shibboleths with a dogmatism worthy of the Taliban. The New York transit strike is also a symptom of a deep structural crisis in the American economy, which is no longer able to maintain middle-class and working-class living standards, much less offer the next generation a better quality of life than their parents. )
Back in New York, however, not only has the work of the transit workers become progressively more dangerous in the past five yeras, but the fact that one of the union’s major grievances is the upward of 15,000 disciplinary proceedings each year (almost one for every second employee) signals that the management culture has to be archaically authoritarian. That, surely, was a ticking time bomb. Then you have the spectacle of the head of the MTA refusing to even join the talks until the last hour. What does it take to get Master to come the table and face his employees? The provocation is palpable. Listen to Mike Bloomberg and you hear the words “illegal and selfish” occur more often even than the word “victory” in a Bush Iraq speech. Listen to Roger Toussaint, and the word that occurs most often is “respect.” At the end of the day, that’s what the union is demanding. And it’s not hard to see that the authorities could have avoided this — and could end it — simply by getting off their high horses and changing the way they’re communicating. Bloomberg would do better to drop the discourse of 9/11, a city under attack showing its fortitude, and recognize that there’s a major problem going on inside the city’s transit system — a problem to which, as the mayor, it is his responsibility to mediate a solution.
I don’t know how this will end. Not well, I fear. But I do know that it was a decision not taken easily, an act of courage by people who felt they had been pushed too far, and were ready to make sacrifices in pursuit of redress. And as mind-numbingly enfuriating as it is to be stuck (literally) for hours in gridlocked traffic, while the radio touts the billionaire mayor complaining of the “selfishness” of workers who’re forgoing two days pay for every day that they’re out in order, partly, that the next generation of transit workers will enjoy the same deal that they have, I’ll say this: If a couple of days road rage and epic inconvenience is the price of the dignity of those who ensure that I get to work safely and speedily every day, I’ll pay without complaint.