The pamphlet Hell on Wheels: the Success and Failure of Reform in Transport Workers Union Local 100 tells the story of New Directions (ND), a rank-and-file group within Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, which represents New York transport workers. Written by Steve Downs of socialist group Solidarity, it focuses on how to achieve reform within unions.
1985: Members of Solidarity start ‘Hell on Wheels’ (HOW) bulletin. It broke the union leadership’s monopoly on information, encouraged all grades to stick together and campaigned, eg. encouraged people to refuse to work on safety grounds and ‘out of title’. Management’s attempt to make train operators work as conductors was quashed when a supporter of HOW refused to open and close doors and was not punished.
1988: HOW joined with the Nubian Society, an African-American group, to form New Directions. They won 22% of the vote in their first bid for Local President and won three seats on the Local Executive.
1992: ND changed from an electoral coalition to a membership caucus with HOW as its newsletter.
From 1994: ND became a serious contender for control of the union Local, attractive to apolitical would-be reformers, like Roger Toussaint, who joined in 1997.
2001: Roger Toussaint wins as President for ND; ND also wins three local-wide positions, five VPs and a majority of seats on the Local’s executive board.
Within a year, ND fell apart. Toussaint stopped attending meetings. He ran the Local with almost military authority. He campaigned weakly and negotiated an unsatisfactory contract in 2002. In 2005, Toussaint followed a solid 60-hour strike for a decent contract by ordering members back to work and agreeing major concessions. When members rejected the contract, Toussaint ordered another vote, until it was accepted.
‘Change from below’?
In the USA, pay and conditions claims are dealt with by negotiating a new contract to start when the old one expires. In 1992, when a proposed new contract would have eroded seniority benefits, ND launched a ‘vote no’ campaign involving rallies, large marches across Brooklyn Bridge, work slowdowns and wide distribution of literature. This resulted in the first ever contract rejection in Local 100. ND used its focus around ‘organising on the job’ to challenge the union leadership as well as management.
In 1999, ND exerted pressure to make sure the new contract did not include ‘givebacks’. Again they campaigned for organisation on the job, and built mass demonstrations. ND pushed for the first membership meeting for decades; 4,000 people attended and approved a strike vote.
ND shows what a rank-and-file movement can do if its forces are large and influential enough, although even there the day-to-day routine is education and explanation.
Running in elections
The pamphlet looks at the relationship between organisation on the job and contesting elections.
Downs viewed contesting elections as a chance to promote ND’s platform, and that their main responsibility if elected was to support rank-and-file members and fight their corner in negotiations. But others in ND felt that little could be accomplished without first winning the top positions in the Local. From 1994, ND became attractive to low level officers not committed to a long-term, reform-from-below strategy. In 1998, ND narrowly missed winning control of the Local and there was ‘a decisive shift within ND toward those who thought that winning control of the top positions in the union mattered more than organising on the job’. In 2000, ND selected Roger Toussaint as Presidential candidate. He campaigned as a potential new leader who could clean up the Local.
Running in elections is not an alternative strategy to building power in the workplace. Toussaint came ‘from below’, but once elected, severed himself from the rank-and-file movement that had given him a platform.
Toussaint ran the Local in a dictatorial manner. He made decisions about strikes without consulting the workers involved. Negotiations were not made more transparent. He appointed members of the executive onto the union payroll, which in effect bought him votes on the executive. He negotiated a compromise deal on health benefits in 2002 over the heads of members.
The pamphlet concludes, ‘this case study ... demonstrates how a union leadership, no matter how militant, that doesn’t see the necessity to build rank and file power can’t carry out what it would really like to do’. The pamphlet asks, ‘to whom [are] elected officers ... responsible: the people who elected them, or the person above them in the union hierarchy?’
The pamphlet comments that the 1991-92 slowdowns to protect seniority rights were important: ‘they showed conclusively that the membership was willing to fight’.
New York transit workers have won some gains in the past, like pensions and health benefits, which they strike to maintain. But strikes and collective action are illegal; working conditions are described as ‘brutal’; when HOW started there was no Local-wide newspaper; shop stewards are scarce and agreements not enforced; 50% of the workforce are on an attendance warning, workers are predominantly black and Latino and feel treated as second class citizens. In the big strike in 2005, most pickets aimed at ‘paying the MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] back for all the petty harassment they had endured over the years’.
Most of the action described in the pamphlet is organised independent and in defiance of the union leadership.