London to New York: transport workers in solidarity

This is the full version of an article that appeared in RMT News, November/December 2015, p.26.

New York City’s transport workers are fighting similar battles to those we are waging in the UK.

They expect an attack on their pensions. NYC transit workers can retire with a full pension at age 55 after 25 years’ employment. Their TWU (Transport Workers’ Union) President John Samuelson describes their defined-benefit pension as ‘a “forever” benefit and worth its weight in gold’ and adds, ‘We are ready to defend our hard-earned benefits.’

TWU Local 100 – the branch representing New York transit workers – is also campaigning to reduce the dangers of diesel exposure at work. Train operators’ chair Steve Downs explains that this is ‘an issue that crosses a number of departments’ including bus drivers, train and maintenance workers. 2014 saw TWU win the first successful claim to the Workers’ Compensation Board establishing that diesel fumes exposure had caused lung cancer. The Local is demanding that the MTA replace diesel-powered vehicles and equipment with battery-powered alternatives.

After years as rank-and-file activists and shop stewards, John and Steve were elected and took up their posts in the Local in 2010. Soon afterwards, the union faced big cuts to both bus and Subway (underground) services. Steve recalls that ‘It was important to have allies in our fight to preserve services, because provision of services is what gives us jobs.’ But the union’s commitment to campaigning alongside passengers and communities goes further: ‘The Local is also made up of people who live in the city, who live in neighbourhoods that don’t have good services. It’s not just “Let’s do this to save our jobs”, it’s “Let’s do this because it’s important to our sense of what a fair city would look like”.’

Since then, the Local has moved from defensive to more proactive campaigning, demanding extensions to services.

Steve explains why improving services is also the key issue for making public transit more accessible to disabled people: ‘The Transit Authority is given money to make it more accessible. They’ve done a lot, including retro-fitting Subway stations with elevators [lifts]; any buses bought in the last 20 years have wheelchair lifts on them; and so on. The issue now is that you may be counting on a bus that has a wheelchair lift on it but there have been service cuts and now that bus is only coming every half hour instead of every ten minutes.’

As London Underground closes all its ticket offices and plans to cut around 800 station staff, Steve confirms that there are similar threats to the New York Subway’s station staffing: ‘Every station is staffed by at least one person in a booth. They are trying to cut that, so that some stations would be unstaffed and just have an intercom.’

Again, active community campaigning has strengthened the union’s resistance: ‘We have built pretty strong political support for the idea that somebody has to be available to help passengers. We go out into the communities that would be most affected by staff reductions and talk to them about how many times has a station agent had to call an ambulance for somebody or call the police about a crime, or what happens if a train has to be evacuated in case of a fire. There is a strong feeling that they want to have a human presence.’

While the MTA uses new ticketing technology as a pretext to cut station staffing, it is also using new signalling technology as a pretext to try to remove conductors (guards) from trains. In the 1990s, the union ‘fought them to a standstill’, in Steve’s words: ‘We were able to limit the damage to the arbitrator saying they could take the conductor off trains that were 300ft or less, which is half a train for us – our trains are 600ft’  [London Underground trains are generally between 300 and 450ft]. But it is not easy for the MTA to further remove conductors, as ‘the arbitrator also said that they couldn’t make any other changes without the union’s agreement.’

In October 2015, the TWU announced a victory as the New York city authority agreed to provide $2.6bn towards funding the MTA’s Capital Plan, to invest in improvements. TWU’s campaign had included full-page newspaper adverts featuring the mayor operating a graffiti-covered subway train and jumping a turnstile!  

Like RMT in London, TWU has also unionised the city’s cycle hire scheme. This summer, Local 100 secured the ratification of the first union contract at New York City Bikeshare. The 200 workers will get an immediate pay rise averaging 10%, more predictable working hours, better benefits and working conditions, an agreed discipline and grievance procedure, and a Workers’ Council where management and union representatives will negotiate.

Central to the Local’s organising efforts has been a shop stewards’ training programme, which Steve describes as “one of the best things we have done. It has helped to develop a core of people on the job: about 1,000 people have been through that training over the last five years. It’s a six-week class, 3 hours a week.  Half the class deals with nuts and bolts – what’s in your contract, how do you write a grievance, how do you handle a safety dispute – and half the class deals with the state of the labour movement, the big political picture, or our history.’

Steve says that Local 100 is doing ‘pretty well’ at involving black, female and minority members, mainly through ‘active recruitment’ and ‘finding meaningful things for people to do in their union, bringing them into our campaigns.’ As train operators’ chair, Steve deals effectively with any rare occasion on which people make sexist or other discriminatory comments in meetings: ‘I’m not particularly heavy-handed, but I’d just say look, that’s unacceptable. It would be shut down straight away.’

We may be thousands of miles apart, but transport workers face similar issues everywhere.

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