New York subway workers: lessons in winning "reform from below"

Submitted by Matthew on 19 August, 2010 - 4:33 Author: Becky Crocker

London Underground RMT activist Becky Crocker reviews Hell on Wheels: the Success and Failure of Reform in Transport Workers Union Local 100, by Steve Downs.

This pamphlet tells the story of New Directions (ND), a rank and file group within Union Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, which represents transport workers in New York, including on the subway system.

Written by Steve Downs of the socialist group Solidarity, it focuses on the problem of how to achieve reform within unions.

After nearly 15 years in opposition, ND fell apart very shortly after its people got elected to run the Local in 2000. For Alliance for Workers’ Liberty activists attempting to reform our own unions, ND’s story is very relevant.

The author almost seems to take for granted the explosions of militancy that form the backdrop to this story. Given leadership, even unofficial leadership, NY transit workers can respond with 10,000-strong demonstrations and unofficial strikes. It makes us wonder whether a high level of militancy is necessary for a real rank and file shake up of the unions. What do socialists do in the absence of such militancy?

It is a shame that the pamphlet is almost silent about the role of the socialist group behind ND. We could learn a lot about how to organise and how a small socialist group can be a lever for wider change. It is possible that Solidarity’s method of organisation was a factor in the collapse of ND. They seem to have submerged themselves in ND at the expense of their political identity, making it easier for conservative elements to dismantle it from within.

The main events in the story of New Directions:

1. 1985. Hell on Wheels (HOW) bulletin started by members of what would become Solidarity. It broke the monopoly of the union leadership on information, encouraged all grades to stick together and campaigned, e.g. 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 Hell on Wheels refused to open and close doors and received no punishment.

2. 1988. HOW joined with an African-American group, the Nubian Society, to form New Directions. The pamphlet describes their work as: “leading Local 100 members in resisting the New York City Transit Authority’s demands for contract concessions and greater control of the workforce, opposing the union leadership’s acquiescence to those demands and fighting for greater union democracy.” They won 22% of the vote in their first bid for Local President and won three seats on the Local Executive.

3. 1992. ND changed from an electoral coalition to a membership caucus with HOW as its newsletter.

4. From 1994, ND began to look like a serious contender for control of the union Local, attractive to apolitical would-be reformers, like Roger Toussaint, who joined in 1997.

5. 2001. Roger Toussaint wins election for President; ND also wins three Local-wide positions, five VPs and a majority of seats on the Local’s executive board.

6. Within a year, ND falls apart. Toussaint in effect shut it down by not attending meetings. He ran the Local with almost military authority. Toussaint 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 negotiating major concessions. When members rejected the contract, Toussaint contemptuously ordered another vote, until it was accepted.

“Change from below”

The pamphlet describes the central factor in the collapse of the ND as the “long-running conflict within the caucus over the strategy for rebuilding and reforming Local 100. Specifically… between… a strategy of reform from above and… from below”.

Downs, the writer of this pamphlet, always pushed “reform from below”: “for greater organisation of members on the job as a key to both improving the union’s ability to fight management and the members’ ability to replace their officers”. Replacing top officers he says, “would not be enough”.

One example: 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 extensive distribution of literature”. This “resulted in the first ever contract rejection in Local 100”. So ND used their focus around “organising on the job” to challenge the union leadership as well as management.

Another example: in 1999, ND exerted pressure to make sure the renewed contract did not include “givebacks”. Again they campaigned for organisation on the job, built mass demonstrations (a record 10,000 workers gathered outside the Metropolitan Transport Authority’s offices, chanting “strike!”). ND pushed for the first membership meeting for decades; 4000 people attended and approved a strike vote.

Downs and his comrades wanted ND to be an active rank and file group. As well as propaganda and elections, it was to engage with members in ways that tangibly affected what happened in disputes. The pamphlet says little about how disruption at work was organised: some was due to their own actions, some to their influence.

The AWL shares this orientation towards the workplace because there we can interrupt the exploitative relationship between workers and management, build the confidence of workers and hit directly at management. A powerful and confident workforce is less easily controlled by union leaderships who want to settle deals against our wishes.

The AWL is small. At the moment, we mostly make propaganda for rank and file action, rather than being able to organise large-scale demonstrations. ND shows what a rank and file movement can do if its forces are large and influential enough, although the day-to-day routine remains education and explanation.

Running in elections

The pamphlet looks at the relationship between organisation on the job and another aspect of ND’s work, contesting elections.

This is relevant to AWL activists; we run for positions in our unions and have discussed in the past how to balance this with our workplace focus.

Downs says he and his comrades viewed contesting elections more as a chance to promote ND’s platform than as an end in itself. After winning more seats, they acknowledged the responsibilities of winning union positions. But they always felt their main duty was to support rank and file members and fight their corner in negotiations.

Others in the ND group 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, after ND narrowly missed winning control, 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 to clean up the Local from the leadership.

The pamphlet phrases the debate on elections as “change from above” or “change from below”. But it is not so simple. Running in elections is not an alternative strategy to building power in the workplace. Without getting a new leadership elected “from below”, there is a limit on what you can do to reform the union. Toussaint came “from below”. The problem was not that ND sought electoral positions, but how ND ran the Local once elected.

Elected leadership and rank and file

Toussaint, once elected, severed himself from the rank and file movement that had given him a platform. He rejected any role for ND that might influence the Local, implying ND would be interfering with the work of elected officials. He and those around him effectively shut ND down when they ceased attending its meetings.

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 effectively bought him votes. He negotiated a compromise deal on health benefits in 2002 over the heads of the members.

It seems that ND did not ultimately collapse around the “reform from above or below” debate. It was more that Toussaint, after coming from below, abandoned his desire to reform. Plus, the left wing was not strong enough to bind or replace him.

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”. It seems more the case that the leadership didn’t want to effect much change.

The pamphlet raises the question of accountability, “to whom [are] elected officers… responsible: the people who elected them, or the person above them in the union hierarchy?” The author of this pamphlet says that ND could have continued as “a place where active members and officers could meet to discuss what ‘rebuilding our union’ meant in practice and how to achieve the goals for which ND had fought for years”. But that would have required the leadership to feel in some way accountable to the rank and file movement which had got them there.

Questions about union militancy

The story of a 10,000 strong march across Brooklyn Bridge, successful slowdowns and illegal strikes (all strikes are illegal under New York law) contrasts vividly with what we see on London Underground, which is regarded as one of the most militant workforces in Britain. Last time RMT on London Underground organised a protest, there were just five people and the Regional Council President dressed in a chicken suit!

The author of the pamphlet comments that the 1991-92 slowdowns to protect seniority rights were important for ND’s development: “they showed conclusively that the membership was willing to fight”. The fact of having an angry workforce seems to be integral to the author’s idea of how to achieve union reform.

It is a point of view we share. We in the AWL want a militant and democratic membership, where we don’t just take action because our union leader Bob Crow says, but because we feel ownership and control of the action. Most of the action described in the pamphlet is organised independently and in defiance of the union leadership.

But how do we achieve this? Small socialist groups can’t at will control the level of militancy of thousands of workers.

In a way, the pamphlet is least useful where it is most inspiring. We might want to replicate mass participation by workers, but there is no indication of the nuts and bolts of how these actions were organised. It doesn’t tell you what the union density was, whether the union meetings were organised around workplaces, or branches, what methods were used.

Paradoxically, the explosions of militant action might be correlated with the union’s weakness. NY transit workers have obviously 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 were scarce and agreements not enforced; 50% of the workforce were on an attendance warning, workers are predominantly black and Latino and feel treated as second class citizens. In the big strike in 2005, it says “most pickets” aimed at “paying the MTA back for all the petty harassment they had endured over the years”.

In contrast, RMT is almost part of the London Underground institution. Union organisation has a character of “doing what the union says”, and that may be partly because of a relatively high level of organisation.

When Toussaint got elected, the pamphlet says, “members’ expectations were high — they thought they finally had a leadership that wouldn’t back down from a confrontation”. When the first dispute led by Toussaint was slow to kick off, however, “the membership did not mobilize on its own – as it had in the past when ND led the fight… .Believing that they had a militant, strong leader at the head of their union, the members waited for direction from Toussaint.”

This only went so far. In 2005, Toussaint had to go ahead with a strike because the members’ high expectations made them determined. But in general, perhaps if the members have faith in a leadership that is perceived to be “left-wing”, that can make them more apathetic.

So, what do we do?

If we can’t control the basic situation at will and can’t create the conditions in which to build a big, lively rank and file project, where do we start?

We, like Solidarity, are a small group of socialists, trying to influence the wider situation. It would be useful if the pamphlet talked more about the socialists involved in this project. We assume Steve Downs, Tim Schermerhorn, Naomi Allen, and a few others are Solidarity members. Did they try to build their organisation by recruiting others? The pamphlet talks as though the agency within this situation was ND, not Solidarity.

When HOW became the newsletter of ND, Solidarity abandoned control. They ended up without a voice when Toussaint effectively shut down ND, and Hell on Wheels along with it. ND had allowed their voice to be controlled by people they didn’t trust. They started a new bulletin, Rank and File Advocate (RAFA), a year later.

More than that, the pamphlet talks as though Solidarity buried itself in pursuit of building a broader project. They describe a central plank of their politics as “building the union from below”; they are not explicit about their wider goals.

If members of Solidarity had been more assertive as socialists, more might not have been achieved, but more might have been retrieved and learnt from Toussaint’s betrayal. The union bureaucracy, even confronted by a strong rank and file, is a robust part of holding together the capitalist order. There is a massive political battle ahead of any attempt at union reform as we confront the capitalist system and the place of the bureaucracy within it.

The pamphlet concludes that ND failed because the “top down” approach won out. Even if “top down” summed up all Roger Toussaint’s failings, the “top” of any union has its place in capitalist society. We will need political understanding — and organisation — if we are to defeat it and achieve reform in our unions.

• Thanks to Solidarity for copies of Hell on Wheels. To order the pamphlet visit

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