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TOUSSAINT: PICK YOUR FIGHTS

posted 19 Dec 2013, 19:20 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 19 Dec 2013, 19:43 ]
Roger Toussaint


Roger Toussaint delivered the following address to the Sixtieth anniversary Convention of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) on November 22nd 2013. Toussaint, a Trinidadian, was President of the
Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) Local 100 during the famous New York City Transit strike of 2005. The address has been lightly edited. 
 
The drama involving me in New York City (NYC) and (Mayor)
Bloomberg was necessary. For a long time these people had gotten too accustomed to bullying people without proper response or consequence. 

When we took over the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) Local 100 in NYC at the end of 2000, we were very clear that we were embarked on a project to shoulder the burden of setting things right, of changing the way Labor was doing business, infusing some progressive vision about the kind of world and society that was needed, placing the stamp of our progressive trade union values on the situation and on the judgement we exercised in the treatment of issues as progressive trade unionists. But we were going to be bold and apply shock therapy to the situation. 
 
Here's why. Labor and the social justice movements were in a rut and had pretty much been since the early 1980's. The employers and the governments at all levels in the United States (US) had a brash arrogance about them that needed to be cracked. 
 
This bullying had its immediate origins in the breaking of the
strike by Air Traffic Controllers by the federal government in 1981. They went on strike and Ronald Reagan succeeded in firing all 11,000 of them which sent a chilling message all across the Labor movement and which lasted for decades. 

 These Air Traffic Controllers had endorsed and supported Reagan's election for president in 1980. They didn't consider themselves a union, they were an association and thought of themselves as being special. Believing that they had a friend in the White House
Ronald Reagan
they didn't bother to reach out to the pilots or to either the flight or the ground crews - they didn't need anybody. And when they were fired, the AFL-CIO basically just stood and watched. 

All of Labor paid dearly and for a long time - concessionary bargaining became the order of the day from coast to coast and prevailed, with little exception, for about 30 long years and with it, the political offensive on people's rights and liberties grew, along with the arrogance of the governments and employers. 
 
So by the time we took over TWU at the end of 2000, we were coming from behind, way behind and our generation of workers now on the scene were entirely untrained and unaccustomed to the rough and tumble days of the struggles of the 1960's and 70's. Moreover, after the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center (WTC) it became easier for the media to paint fighting with the government and god forbid, striking, as unpatriotic and selfish. 
 
Yet we were determined to find a way to accomplish our mission. We treated the challenges of the situation as an opportunity to think outside the box and in new ways, but again the element of being bold was essential. Why bold? Not because we were drama queens, but because we perceived that we needed to meet or match the ferocity and boldness of the attacks we were faced with. Battles are not truly joined until and unless that ingredient is in the mix. 

Or, as Butler understood and used to say, match brute force with brute force, not with talk, not with flowers! 
 
As fate would have it, our union was the only union left in all of New York and of the few in the country that had long operated under the mantra "No Contract, No Work". All the others had been out there for years without a contract and all public sector unions are prohibited from striking. Yet we made clear, for us, "A Deadline was a Deadline" and for which, we became the scourge of the earth as far as the media and the government was concerned.  
 
(It didn't help either that the person often making that position loud and clear in the press, was black and spoke with a distinct accent, stubborn and boldface to boot. They might accept black men that are "non-threatening", not that). 
 
And we are talking New York City: the transportation system there is by far and away the biggest in the country carrying 8 million fares on an average weekday, the bus fleet on the road alone every day was over 7,500 buses. And this was the home of the Wall Street Stock Exchange, of the big trading houses, some of the biggest banks, insurance companies and most expensive real estate in the world. 

But our mindset was that we were putting down work for the revival and future of Labor and I would contend that we had some impact by upholding the idea, very boldly and publicly, that organizing and fighting back was the better and real alternative to taking abuse and that could be effective in bringing gains and winning victories. 
 
And it did. Apart from conducting about half a dozen successful strikes against smaller employers around NY State, twice we took on the State and City governments themselves in massive confrontations with some of the wealthiest people in the world and stunned them with boldness they were unaccustomed to. In 2002, despite operating in the shadows of the attack on the WTC and anticipated war with the imminent invasion of Iraq (Congress had already voted to approve war, it was just a matter of when), we made clear that we would shut NYC down.

What is often better than a strike is a believable threat of one, with emphasis on believable. We began preparing from our first day in office and with two years to our deadline we treated every challenge and confrontation with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), the City and the State as a battle to gain the upper hand in preparation for war. 

Our thinking was that the outcomes of contract battles are reflections at particular points in time of the balance of power between the parties and is therefore normally well decided long before you get to the table. The fancy arguments and quality of the presentation you make at the table are often secondary. Our whole approach was about coming to the table strong. So we pursued policies that drove fear into their hearts and they started to convince themselves that maybe we were really crazy. (I hope that you are listening with your inner ear, and NOT think for a moment that I'm saying go out there and act all a stupid and engage in silly fight talk).  
 
So the first time around, in 2002, we settled right on the brink of a shutdown, which would have absolutely occurred and was no bluff, even though in my judgement we were not quite ready and we had a plan on how to pull it off. So that was the story behind the drama that was reflected in the media reports you received. 

Preparation for this also meant enormous challenges in the public arena and internally. Even though we had come to power as part of a rank and file upsurge, the whole culture among our members was not only untrained and unaccustomed to heightened confrontations, but our members were often looking for outcomes that either took care of their particular titles, or were short term while we, as progressive leaders, had to do things in ways that built long term unity, strength and power. Members could be funny and easily misled. 
 
They say they want this and they want that but they don't bother to tell you that they have no intention of sacrificing or fighting for it. 
 
I am telling you this story in some detail because I think you can get some takeaways from it that might help you if you focus on the principles and values we applied and how, not on the specific of the problems or of the remedies we came up with. 
 
Founded in 1934 and ranked among the great unions that arose in the aftermath of the Great Depression of the 1930's, our union,
TWU, had long lost its way. Without going into the details, when we took over we analyzed the relationship(s) between the members and the union to better understand the extent and degree of detachment or alienation between the two. 
 
It is important to face the facts of that situation without rose colored glasses and without relying on clichés about who we are and how much support we really have. We found that 85% of the resources of the union was devoted to servicing about 10% of the membership who more often than not were the members who tended to be always in trouble. And, these, despite the "high maintenance" they required, gave back very little to the union, almost never attended union mobilizations etc. We decided to correct this and re-focus the bulk of the resources of the union towards the 85%. 
 
Don't get me wrong here, one of the our best areas of performance was getting management off our members’ backs and dramatically driving down the voluminous write ups and disciplines that had earned the MTA the reputation of subjecting its employees to "plantation justice" where the whipping continues until all problems are solved, and the data proved it. 
 
But we took that on boldly, first by establishing a major daily presence in the field since most problems tend to go away if the union is around and by firing all the arbitrators as soon as we took office, arbitrators, who had been firing our people left and right, even though the law forbade us from doing so unilaterally, we fired them anyway and faced down management threats to set the courts on us. 
 
We had already done tons of work branding the MTA and convincing the public that under the MTA plantation justice was the real law, so we had put them in the position of trying to restore what the public saw as "plantation justice", and that made them distinctly uncomfortable. It meant that we were thinking two and three moves deep, making bold moves but always keeping well ahead of them. 
 
So the issue with the members was how to restore their connectiveness to the union, make the union, once again, fully owned, operated and run by transit workers, and battle ready, which is what we said. 
 
Among the main measures we undertook was: to establish a regular union newspaper for the first time in decades; we required Annual All Mass Membership meetings of all titles where we packed the Jacob Javits Convention Center in our thousands, unheard of; launched an aggressive program to recruit and train a cadre of 5% or at least 1,500 shop stewards after they were elected by their members, again for the first time in most instances and repeatedly turned our members out shutting down traffic in midtown Manhattan 10 - 15,000 strong in displays of power and readiness. 
 
For the start, all officers and representatives were required to spend at least 50% of their time in the field, on the shop floor, crew rooms, on the tracks etc. myself included, leading by example. We cut officers’ salaries, again myself included, by 25%, moving ourselves closer to the members. 

I am not suggesting you go cut these fellas’ salary. I'm just giving examples of what we did. The objective is what's important - taking real steps to get and keep our officers closer to the members. In addition, we looked at where our members’ actual interests were and what they were doing - for us as the union to intervene. 
 
Here are some of the twenty or so annual events and programs we launched to provide multiple ways for every member to connect with the union and what a year's calendar looked like from January to December: Martin Luther King Day; Black History Month Celebration; Women’s Day; Irish Day; Memorial Day; Annual Family Day; Hispanic Day; Indian Day; African American Day; Italian day; Russian Day; Veterans’ Day; West Indian Day, All-Women’s' Weekend Retreat; All-Retirees' Weekend Retreat; Annual Next-Generation Conferences exclusively for younger members. Quite an ambitious program! 
 
We tracked the actual responses of the members through attendance and other means and paid attention to recognizing and rewarding high degrees of participation and volunteerism. But through which literally thousands of members came to participate in union activities most for the very first times in their lives as transit workers, on subjects near and dear to them and the communities they come from. We attempted to meet them closer to where their heads were at, as opposed to where our heads were at, and it largely worked. 
 
These not only became whole family events but our Indian and Russian days are attended by hundreds each year and are the largest union gathering in these communities in the US. We were also paying special attention to previously neglected segments of our membership and bringing them into motion, eliminating second class citizenship within the union, and requiring the rest of the members to care about them and lift them up.  
 
Very importantly, we were also doing this by negotiating provisions into our contracts that provided special opportunities to right the wrongs of second class citizenship, like establishing paid maternity leave, upgrade and training programs for unskilled entry-level members; first time ever prescription coverage for our retirees; - everywhere we saw second class citizenship we attacked with resources and demanded priority remedy.  

That is why the organization became known inside the MTA and publicly for carrying the mantle of dignity and respect. I have found that matters of human rights and dignity, respect, justice, personal safety better resonate among the public and make it more difficult to be faulted. 

We also fought and campaigned with equal intensity against all attempts to raise transit fares on our riders, knowing that we needed their full support when we squared off with the MTA which our whole existence was about (not like the kind of support that a Johnny-come-lately ally could expect).

Were it not for this multi-faceted approach and effort, we would have been crushed if we dared stand up to the MTA, the
NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg
Governor, the billionaire mayor Bloomberg, the media moguls, the powerful banking and real estate interests. I would contend that without preparation, it would have been politically suicidal. In 2005 we did shut down NYC and most working New Yorkers and our own riders to this day, though hugely inconvenienced, continue to hold TWU in high esteem because of the way we did it, how we were able to change the conversation and their perception of us as union members and their neighbors.  

And had we not done the work to prepare the members, including conducting numerous real life drills confronting management, mobilizations, days of action, taking direct action and being prepared to and frequently resorting to self-help, when personally authorized and directed by me, to remedy matters that clearly deserved breaking normal rules of engagement, while all the time measuring and testing for how far members were really prepared to go, as opposed to just what they said to us - we would not have survived the whopping $2 1/2 million in fines and especially the elimination of automatic dues payments which ended up lasting for 18 months. 
 
The impact on the Labor movement all over the US would have been catastrophic, worse than what we had experienced after the air traffic controllers, as it would have gone down squarely as a defeat of a large
AFL-CIO affiliate while on the national stage. 
 
In fact when they imposed the elimination of dues, we were ready with our own infrastructure to collect dues directly in the field and pointedly turned that challenge into reinventing the organization in the field in a way it had not been in many decades. So, in due turn, having insisted that officers live in the field; we ended up preparing our strike machine as well as our recovery operation. 
 
Even though members can do things against their better interests, and listen to nonsense; once you get them involved and moving, this is liberating and yields long term benefits, establishes new standards and so on. 

So there is a price to pay and often a steep price, especially if you are challenging people to work hard, be accountable and do what's best for long term strength and power and to demonstrate concern for the common good. You will be respected by some and probably resented by others, hated even. Some got burnt out. Some turned on us. One guy literally had a mental breakdown, working his behind off. Some established officers and representatives felt threatened and reacted, because as members came to life, more of them envisioned taking their jobs from these officers. So it can get complicated. 
 
I hope that you can gleam some useful lessons from this about vision, trade union values, principles and how to exercise judgement in our field of work as progressive trade unionists. Those are choices you make regarding the kind of world you want to live in and leave for your loved ones and those coming behind. 

The final thing I want to talk about is how this plays out today: because today we are at a juncture. That is, to first talk about the kind of world we are in today, the challenges facing us as trade unionists; as people interested in a better world. We are at something of an historical juncture or crossroads. Historical junctures come once or twice in one's political lifetime. 
  
When I was entering my teen years here in T&T, people all over the globe were in the middle of another historical juncture unfolding at that time, which defined the lifelong values of my generation of youth in T&T.  

While both of my parents had answered calls by Labor and the PNM for protests over the colonial state of affairs here - as my older siblings vividly recall, whether it was outside the Chaguaramas base or in Woodford Square and yearned for an end to colonial oppression and for nationhood, my generation, barely 10 years later was protesting the very PNM government that had come to power, (and with it, the two party race-based politics that came to dominate politics here), condemning American Imperialism, advocating for solidarity with the national liberation struggles raging across Africa and Asia and standing up for black pride. 
 
That was an historical juncture. Weird things happen at historical junctures. And ironies abound. History (and our history here) is full of full of leaderships that become obstacles and targets. Those who know they are should take heed and worry as to what will be their ultimate fate and what footnote will be entered in the history books about them. History is unforgiving and always remains unimpressed by alibis and other rationalizations. 
 
As I was saying, weird things happen at historical junctures. Such junctures require us to shake off the old and bring in the new. It comes with birth pains and messy stuff. By definition it takes us into uncharted territory. It can drag on for years before the direction becomes locked in and clear. And every generation has to find its way. 
 
It took the entire post-World War Two period to shape and generate the particular forces and dynamics under which we became independent in T&T. And it took less than 10 years to get to the February 1970 rebellion and a new dynamic.  
  
For several years in the late 1960's and 1970's, we were caught up in intense debates over political ideology and which direction to go in. We were searching for a path forward, trying, painfully, to find our way while caught up in an historical juncture. Today the world as we have known it has been and is being actively reshaped before our eyes. 

The world of work, in which we operate as practitioners, has been changing radically for some time from industry and manufacturing to services; from public to private; from local to global; from collective bodies to individual units - some of this driven by technology and objective forces, some by greed. Many of the painfully slow advances we made over decades are being threatened, or have been reversed. 
  
A deregulated capitalist economy produced the global financial collapse that began towards the end of 2008. The way it works is that something has to give when you have an unsustainable situation or arrangements in society. That was a crisis of globalization, which, especially for dependent economies, was characterized by the reign of the IMF and the World Bank. Those are the forces
that drove the world into a downward spiral as markets crashed, trading houses fell one by one and as the banks and financial institutions that were too big to fail, did exactly that and then ironically, came back even bigger! 
  
It may have been counter-intuitive, but these very same institutions were allowed to rebound with a ferociousness and banality unseen in modern times creating the greatest disparities in wealth ever seen with the smallest number of rich people making the most money ever since the invention of money and driving everyone else into want or debt. 

The 2008 market crash was a breaking point in a crisis that was already developing years before. In fact since the 1980's of Ronald Regan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK, rich people and governments all over the world had been on a crusade to reverse the gains made globally on people's rights and liberties, equality, to establish a social safety net, public services; in a nutshell, in the covenant that emerged after the great depression of the 1930's, which in some respects became expanded and reinforced by the liberation movements of people of colour which swept the world in the 1950's and 60's. 

Essentially, that covenant, pact or understanding, was that in return for hard work, you get to maybe own a home, send your kids to school, maybe go on an occasional vacation; improve your life with public services, a little bit of culture and leave a better life and opportunity for your loved ones when you pass on. 
 
And after all these years, it is clear that those of rich and privilege lineage never forgave the generation that liberated us and never gave up their efforts to roll back the tide of history. Something can be said about the longevity of their interests and their pursuits. Who would have thought that the reversals we are seeing today could have come to fruition? Who could have thought that a government official in the year 2013 in T&T could dare label trade unions along with calypsonians as the scum of the earth? 

As the world of work has changed dramatically, our labor unions despite already being in trouble with declining numbers, declining density and power have failed to keep up and in many instances walked away from its greatest strength: that of being the hope and the voice of all who toil and who suffer. 
 
Whether here or in the US, the data tells the same story and is not materially or significantly different. And I am not talking rhetorically or about how we perceive ourselves and what we say of ourselves or to each other or even to the press. NO! I am talking about how people who are not in unions, the overwhelming majority of working people see us and what they say about us among themselves, especially when no one is listening! 

That to me is the test. Pride in being a Union member has its place, but that is not to be confused with the notion that we are societies of the special, the privileged or some exclusive club especially when it comes to the less fortunate that surround us and so greatly exceed our numbers. 
 
And as a purely practical matter, if the message that people keep hearing with their "inner ear" is that we don't really care about them, only about ourselves and maintaining our privileges - they will return the favor when our backs are against the wall and that can come even after you have retired, the forces of reaction will come for you too, as they have in country after country to take away your retirement security. 
 
So, we need to renew the political will and commitment within the labor movement to the principles of solidarity and defence of the common good as well as to building political will and power within our organizations and in relationship to the existing power structures. 
 
Despite failures some really courageous and dramatic resistance movements are popping up in country after country. Today, YOU (delegates and worker activists) are the inheritors of the baton of change for a better world. Every generation has to find its way, even if you benefit from the light of our experience, you have to do it your way and in your own time (more of that later). 

Every generation comes face to face with choices regarding what kind of world you want for yourselves and for your children coming behind you. And there is a price, a hefty one, to pay for the choices you make and the road you take even when, and maybe especially when, you ask people to do the right thing and decide based on the common good because that is often not how we have been socialized. But if change was easy, you are probably not really on a path towards it. 

But there are two sides to this story too. The fruit vendor in Tunisia who lit himself on fire in 2010 in frustration over being
stripped of his means of feeding and taking care of his family had no way of knowing that he was going to touch off the "Arab Spring" that was going to rock and forever change entire countries and societies mired in thousands of years of traditions. He did not set out to change the world; just to keep doing what he had been doing- feed his family. 
 
But indeed, a new world of struggle was born and not from the traditional forces and players. Just like what occurred here and elsewhere in the late 1960's and 70's. And you have to decide how you fit into that world. 

Across Europe (Spain, Portugal, Greece, but also Germany, France and the UK) and Latin America, we have seen the explosion of the greatest number and sized protests in several decades often with new tactics - most notably: defiant Occupations. 
 
Even in the US, the bold occupation of the Wisconsin state legislature in the spring of 2011 went on into huge protests in Ohio and dozens of other states and by the end of 2011, led to the Occupy Wall Street movement that turned Wall Street into a camping ground for weeks. And, neither the movement, nor the non-traditional character of its participants has changed. Today, previously un-organized and widely neglected low wage workers are shouldering the burden of creating a new world of resistance and change. Two Fridays from now, Black Friday, the day after thanksgiving, 1,500 protests are planned against Wal-Mart alone at cities and towns across the US, demanding a liveable wage and some respect! 
 
So what are some of the key features and lessons to take away? 
 
Success is where preparation meets opportunity. We almost never know the how, the where or the when. Those are variables. But what we do know, what is constant, is that unsustainable situations must produce crises and at least tend towards collapse. The trick is to have confidence that crises are part of the DNA of the system and that the arc of history tends towards justice (Martin Luther King) and to therefore undertake the capacity building projects that positions our organizations to make the most of opportunities that will surely present themselves. That's Strategic Planning. 
 
Of course we must bring the right Vision and Values to bear on the situation: Vision is about being forward looking and on the right side of history. Our Trade union values emphasize solidarity, an injury to one is an injury to all, and working for the common good are what drive us. 

Principles of our struggle or the way we conduct business, is that we view strength in numbers and ascribe great value to a mobilized population and to collective and direct action, boots on the ground. I know of no significant societal change that was not ultimately rooted in that ingredient.    

Battles are not really joined until and unless the actions we undertake begin to meet or match the boldness and ferocity of the attacks we are faced with. 
 
A word to the wise and of caution: Pick your fights, don't play with fire and stay out of the kitchen if you not ready for the heat. Have a clearly defined vision of victory and grab onto it as soon as it presents itself. Being good at retreats can be even more important than being good at attacks. History does not contain many good outcomes for armies that linger or get stuck on the battlefield and the longer the strike, the less the chances of a successful outcome. The data is almost universal on this. 

The fight for Change never ends. Change is a journey, not a destination. Without struggle there is no progress. 
 
Thank you very much.

 

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