Among their strategies, the TWU hired hard-nosed labor consultant Ray Rogers (who recently led the union fight against Hormel), and asked union members to distribute a million fliers around the city, which explain how the MTA is bilking commuters?and workers?out of millions, while they themselves are pulling in record profits.
"The transit system is the economic engine of this city," the Daily News quoted Rogers as saying on the eve of negotiations, "and it's in the interests of every New Yorker to make sure the system is run well and workers are fairly compensated."
On management's side, Conway is saying that, despite reports to the contrary, the MTA is actually going to be incurring a huge deficit over the next five years, and hopes that TWU members realize this and understand that they might have to buckle down and tighten their belts.
The contract is up on Dec. 15, and is the first of a series of municipal contracts that the city will have to renegotiate over the course of the next year, including those of teachers and cops. Because of that fact?because the TWU's contract battle with the city will be a test case?the union is entering negotiations with a solid coalition of city workers behind it.
Normally, I wouldn't have given any of this a second thought?like I said, it sounded like any other labor negotiations we've all lived through countless times before. No, I wouldn't have worried about it at all, except that a few weeks before talks started on Oct. 7, I was speaking with a union member, who told me bluntly, "You better get your running shoes ready"?hinting that the trains were going to be shut down.
Now that the negotiations are under way, I tracked him down again, to ask him what he thought of the process so far. The longtime union member asked not to be identified because, as he explained, "The TA's got a million rules. We're not supposed to speak to the press without their permission. We can't even get a second job without their permission. Even delivering newspapers?I can't even do that, without getting permission from the TA." A point that, I might add, is addressed in the current set of demands.
"Last week we had a meeting downstairs from where they were negotiating," he said. "That was the fifth time that they met. We got all kinds of paperwork?some of the things they agreed to, things that don't cost the TA money. Some things they wouldn't agree to, that would cost the TA too much money. Some things they don't want to talk about, some things the union doesn't want to talk about. It's kind of hush-hush. We wanted to sit in on the negotiations?just the rank and file?but they said no. We're not allowed. I find out once a month what's going on."
Just a few days before we spoke, I had come across Hell on Wheels?the newsletter put out by the TWU's radical democratic group, who call themselves New Directions. While New Directions?which I'm told is currently run by Steve Downs, a train operator on the 1 line?obviously doesn't care much for MTA administration, they're mighty suspicious of union president Willie James as well. I asked my source what he could tell me about them.
"A lot of people from New Directions went over to Willie James' team," he told me. "Corine Scott-Mack [current vice president of the RTO?the union division that handles motormen, conductors and tower operators] was New Directions at one time. So was Richie Borish [a TWU spokesman]. There's been a lot of defections from New Directions. I'm kind of in the middle. I want to see who gets us the best contract?I'm not really on either side. I'm kind of on the outside looking in, because I think both of them fighting each other is detrimental to the rest of us."
Given what he had told me a few weeks earlier, when he seemed so certain that a strike was imminent, I asked him what the chances were now, now that negotiations were under way. Should I still go out and buy those running shoes? He no longer seemed so certain.
"Hard to say," he admitted. "The timing is right, because it's just before Christmas. But in my lifetime, there've only been two strikes that I know of. There was one in '66, when Lindsay became mayor. The founder of the union took out everybody on Jan. 1. It lasted a few days?I don't think it was as long as the one in 1980. Maybe three or four days." (According to The New York Times, the strike lasted 12 days.)
The second walkout he was referring to, the one in '80, lasted a full 11 days, despite the state's Taylor law, which makes it illegal for MTA workers to strike. As a result, each worker was docked two days' pay for each day they stood on the picket lines.
"It'll be a short strike [if it happens]," he told me. "It'd paralyze the city if the trains stopped rolling. We handle three million people a day, just on the trains. With the trains and the buses combined, it's something like six million. They gave us patches that said 'six million,' so that's how I got that number."
Still, if a strike were to take place, I asked, what if the MTA brought in scabs to keep things moving?
"That's going to be almost impossible," he said "because they've got to train them. I had six weeks of training for my job?and it's much more than that for a train operator."
Then he brought up the Malbone St. Incident.
On Nov. 1, 1918, a dispatcher who was filling in for a striking train operator took a corner in Brooklyn too fast and lost control. Ninety-seven people died in the accident and more than 200 others were injured. And that was on the first day of the strike?which was settled at 2 a.m. the next morning.
"It was the biggest disaster in New York subway history," he said. Then he continued:
"Scabs would have to be trained. It took me about six months to find out what's really going on. Every station is different. Some stations are busy in the front, other stations are busy in the back. Some stations aren't busy at all, you can open and close, boom-boom. Some stations, you've got to wait a little bit longer. There's a lot of timing involved. A lot of reflexes. It'll be hard unless they're trained. And they've got what, about three weeks? I don't think that's going to happen."
What's more, he added, train mechanics are union as well, and any scabs hired to handle those jobs would also have to be trained.
"It's almost impossible," he said.