Workers Vanguard No. 1123
1 December 2017
No to Anti-Union Attacks!
NYC Subway Shambles
Working People Need Free Safe Mass Transit!
The meltdown of the New York City subway system did not happen overnight. The power outages, signal malfunctions, equipment failures, crumbling tunnels and worn tracks that cause daily service disruptions are the result of decades of chronic underfunding of this vital infrastructure. Responsibility lies with the filthy rich bankers, Democratic and Republican politicians and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) bosses who have let things go to hell, while making working conditions miserable for the members of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100. Insofar as the NYC transit system gets people where they want to go, it is thanks to the hard work of Local 100 members.
The riding public is seething, and for good reason. Morning commute delays have brought not only the nuisance of severely overcrowded platforms and getting packed like sardines into train cars, but also docked pay and job dismissals. The system is bursting at the seams. Average weekday ridership has ballooned to 5.7 million, nearly double what it was two decades ago. The situation is even worse in outer boroughs like Queens and the Bronx, where the heavily black and other minority residents have limited public transportation and far worse subway service than that in Manhattan, reflecting their treatment as second-class citizens.
There is a desperate need for safe, reliable mass transit citywide. Indeed, the subway is a ticking time bomb. On the morning of June 27, an A train derailed and careened into the tunnel wall between stations in Harlem. Two hundred feet of track, signals and concrete were reduced to twisted metal and rubble and at least 34 people were injured. After having ignored the decrepitude of the subway for years, Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo, who controls the MTA, declared a “state of emergency” for the NYC subways two days later.
The main outcome of Cuomo’s cynical “concern” for the system that he helped bleed dry was a war of words with NYC mayor Bill de Blasio over whether City Hall should fund half of the MTA’s $836 million stabilization plan. (That plan itself represents a drop in the bucket of the $68 billion that the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates is needed to modernize the transit system over the next 20 years.) Meanwhile, service remains abysmal. The very next month, a Q train derailed in Brooklyn, albeit without any reported injuries.
The New York Times recently published a major piece titled “How Politics and Bad Decisions Starved New York’s Subways” (18 November). After giving lots of detail on the shortcomings of the subway, the article comes to its main point: “The M.T.A. has given concession after concession to its main labor union.” In the view of this haughty mouthpiece of the bourgeoisie, the funds necessary to fix the transit system should come out of the hides of the workers. The purpose of the article is to mobilize public opinion behind further attacks against Local 100. While transit workers’ wages and benefits are modest enough, these gains are the result of the workers having a union, and that is what the city rulers hate.
Not surprisingly, in its lengthy report the Times says nary a word about the brutal working conditions of transit workers, who toil away just to make ends meet in often dangerous jobs. Indeed, 13 have been killed on the job since 2001. Every year, many transit workers have their bodies broken through industrial accidents. Frequently, workers die within a few years of retiring. Earlier this year, station agent Darryl Goodwin died while being hounded by the cops and MTA, after they claimed he had not opened a gate fast enough for the racist police (“Darryl Goodwin: We Will Not Forget,” WV No. 1116, 25 August).
The MTA invites further disaster by pushing speedup and broadbanding (combining job duties). Skimping on maintenance has created a huge backlog of repairs, even as hundreds of maintenance jobs have been cut over the last decade. Train crews frequently have to work days on end without a lunch break, and the ever fewer station agents are kept busy dealing with irate passengers. Above ground, bus drivers face traffic, difficult weather conditions and abusive riders and suffer bodily wear and tear like back, kidney and repetitive motion injuries. Workers are also subject to a harsh disciplinary system, referred to by the multiracial workforce as “plantation justice.”
The decades-long starving of the subway in one of the wealthiest cities in the world reflects the irrationality and decay endemic to today’s capitalist society. As the country’s economic position began to deteriorate in the late 20th century, infrastructure was left to rot. Only now that rampant subway delays are impacting the bottom line, costing city businesses millions in lost productivity, are bourgeois politicians like Cuomo giving lip service to fixing the subway. Even so, nothing much has changed. In July, trash that caught fire on a Harlem subway track left nine people suffering smoke inhalation and ignited chaos during the morning rush hour. Three months later, the MTA announced plans to do away with 300 overnight station cleaner positions, in order to avoid paying shift premiums.
Criminal Neglect of Infrastructure
The bond-holding Wall Street vultures—who have long fed off the decaying subway system—are again circling overhead, demanding more money be used to service the MTA’s astronomical debt. Already, 17 percent of the transit budget goes to that purpose. Between 2011 and 2015 alone, $270 million was siphoned out of the system to ensure the bankers got their cut. A revised capital plan, approved by the MTA board in May, will increase the agency’s overall debt from $38 billion to roughly $43 billion over the next five to seven years.
Mass transit should be a service for the public good, not an interest-bearing piggy bank for finance capital. The capitalist profiteers have shown time and again that they’re more than willing to let NYC’s infrastructure fall to pieces: leaking gas pipes, bursting water mains, structurally deficient bridges, the list goes on and on. That reality has become increasingly clear to subway commuters, who have to endure the daily grind of standing shoulder-to-shoulder near the platform edge in a filthy station, just to enter a train that may very well break down while en route.
Problems with the signal system and the tracks are major causes of subway delays. Signals not only direct train movement throughout the network but also ensure a safe distance between trains. The age of the signals is a major danger. Much of the system is based on technology that predates World War II, beginning with its cloth-insulated wiring.
Last spring, the top subway official admitted that the signal system is 30 years beyond its useful life. While the agency struggles to maintain this antiquated system, many subway experts point to the need to modernize. But at the current glacial pace of upgrade, it will take the MTA half a century to do so.
Track-related issues require a great deal of careful attention and maintenance, too. Like the signal system, a good portion of the track is antiquated, and massive trains pass over it day and night. Transit bosses are making anemic attempts to install a newer, continuously welded type of rail that would reduce the number of joints and therefore the number of potential failure points. Continuously welded rail (CWR), along with other technologies like friction pads and concrete ties, would also reduce the amount of wear on the rails. Upgrading to CWR began in 1979, but nearly 40 years later only half of the system’s tracks have been replaced.
For a Planned Economy
Under Workers Rule!
Members of TWU Local 100—the powerful 41,000-strong industrial union that represents transit workers of all job titles—have everything to gain by fighting for a safe, reliable subway system. Such a struggle would resonate widely among working people and the ghetto and barrio poor, especially since Local 100’s black, Latino, white and immigrant membership has roots in every part of working-class New York City. Against efforts by Democrats and the MTA bosses to pit riders against the union, the TWU could win massive public support by resurrecting its historic demand for free mass transit.
Instead, the misleaders of the unions support the profit system and preach reliance on one or another Democratic Party false “friend of labor.” In his final weeks as Local 100 president, before being elevated to be TWU International president, John Samuelsen assisted Cuomo by mobilizing union resources to shame the mayor for supposedly not paying the city’s “fair share” for the subways. Over the years, the Democratic governor has ripped off transit for his pet projects and amassed a lengthy anti-union record, including (with Samuelsen’s complicity) the knifing of a looming strike by nearly 6,000 workers on the MTA’s Long Island Rail Road in 2014.
In recognition of his services to the governor, Samuelsen was appointed by Cuomo to the MTA Board last year as a nonvoting member. The job of union officials is to defend the membership against the bosses’ attacks, not help the bosses run the company. Union officials off the MTA board!
Tellingly, Samuelsen some time ago renounced the December 2005 transit strike led by his militant-talking but no less class-collaborationist predecessor Roger Toussaint. In so doing, Samuelsen reinforced all the wrong lessons drawn by transit workers furious at the strike’s sellout. Truth is, the battle could have been won. It was hugely popular among wide swaths of workers and the poor and showed the way forward for labor by openly defying the anti-strike Taylor Law. After 60 hours—with Toussaint’s favorite Democratic politicians making themselves scarce, city union chiefs refusing to support the strike and the TWU International opposing it—the Local 100 tops called off the strike despite not having a contract in hand or amnesty from reprisals.
Under the direction of Democratic attorney general Eliot Spitzer and Republican governor George Pataki, the capitalist courts and MTA went after Local 100 with a vengeance. The union and individual workers were hit with steep fines. Automatic dues checkoff was later revoked, showing the danger of making the boss the union’s banker. Dues should be collected by union reps. The MTA agreed to restore the dues checkoff in 2008 after Local 100 tops criminally signed a no-strike pledge.
In spring 2006, Toussaint forced through a rotten contract by insisting on a revote. The union’s retreat emboldened management to launch new attacks. Many of the workers who had exhibited determination on the picket lines became disillusioned with the union. As a result, the cohesiveness of Local 100 was torn apart and its financial resources diminished. Collective consciousness of the union as an organization for defending the membership’s livelihoods and lives against the bosses has been thrown far back.
There must be forged a new leadership committed to mobilizing labor’s power independently of the state agencies and political representatives of the class enemy—especially the Democrats—and not just in the TWU. Such a class-struggle leadership of the unions would undertake the vitally necessary battles against America’s bourgeois masters. It would enforce the right of every worker to shut down any unsafe work site on the spot and would establish union safety committees, made up of elected reps and completely independent of management, to fight against hazardous conditions on the job. It would insist upon billions for mass transit as part of a massive program of public works. It would engage in struggle to organize the unorganized and for jobs for all through a shorter workweek at full union wages.
These needs of the working class run right up against the inability of the capitalist system to satisfy them. Workers need their own party, one that fights for the interests of workers and the oppressed, while directing their struggles toward ending the rule of the capitalist class and establishing a workers government. The only way out of capitalist decay is for the proletariat to seize the productive wealth in society from the greedy and rapacious capitalist rulers and begin building a collective, planned economy based on social need, not profit.