The Transit Strike: A Lesson In Power, Politics And Race

Kevin S. Parker

December 22, 2005

Brooklyn, NY – Like most other New Yorkers I have been gravely affected by the transit strike and for what it is doing to this city. But maybe not for the same reasons as most other people who have not grasped the real issues at hand. Even so, I can no longer sit idly by and maintain observer status as the MTA, the governor and mayor are allowed to run this city into an abyss of confusion, race and political grandstanding. So unlike others who may be willing to give lip support to the workers while covering their mouths, I am unapologetic in going on record and throwing my support behind Roger Toussaint and the transit workers. I have reason to do so on a personal level since I am a "child" of the TA. It was as a direct result of the benefits that my father enjoyed as a transit worker that my family had the good fortune of moving out of the projects and poverty. How can I now sit back and look as those same benefits are arbitrarily rolled back? That’s personal. But as an elected official, my support goes way beyond the personal. The question here then becomes, how do I stay silent and allow the governor and the mayor to criminalize and demonize a union leader in his efforts to protect his members? Even under an extremely difficult and tenuous situation, Roger is and has been providing leadership, which is what he was elected to do. Sadly, the same cannot be said of Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg. They have not only provided leadership of failure, but have set a racist tone to this conflict by calling Roger and his workers thugs and repeatedly calling the strike illegal. On the other hand they stand behind the MTA who rushed to failure, provoked this strike and never gave the process a chance. And then they are bold to the point of accusing Roger of playing the race card. Let’s face it, Roger is not the one who played the race card. This impasse is and has been about race and politics from its inception. We only need to look back to the day and time when MTA workers first gained the kind of pension and benefits which are now being called "cushy." The complexion of the union was sure of a different hue at that time. Now that the TA workforce is majority Black and Hispanic, they are suddenly, "spoiled" "selfish" and "overpaid." And the union bosses who fight to maintain these benefits are "frauds." Are these colors of the "race card" too obscure to see? Not from my view.

Mayor Bloomberg should have the nerve to talk such rhetoric when in reality he should be supporting the transit workers since it is the Governor and the state that are milking the MTA with debt service costs. Moreover this is the same mayor who two months ago supported the United Federation of Teachers in asking the state Legislature to reduce the retirement age from 62 to 55 the very same measure the Transit workers are fighting to have maintained. Could it be that Mayor Mike is upset with the TWU for not supporting his reelection bid? Or is it that the TWU executive are the ones who knew the Mayor’s "primary colors" all along? If New Yorkers look and listen carefully, I think we will all begin to finally see the Mayor’s true colors shining through. I have been listening. And looking at Bloomberg use the New York city media as a propaganda machine to spread his rhetoric reminds me of a scene in the movie Malcolm X. A police officer, dismayed by the late civil rights leader’s command of a sizeable Fruit of Islam squad proclaimed, "this is too much power for one [black] man. Clearly, the overwhelming majority of the 33,700 transit workforce is behind their leader even in the face of massive fines. And unfortunately for Bloomberg and Pataki this is no movie. There are no retakes or edits here. So indeed Local 100 led by Toussaint are rightly wielding the only power that they now have after the MTA’s bad faith negotiating tactics were employed. A power that was necessary to exercise in dealing with an agency with a dubious history as the MTA. How can you trust the MTA when they have a documented history of working from two sets of books? Remember the rate hike debacle of 2003? At that time, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi’s reported that the Authority kept two sets of books to justify the rate hike. So can we really trust the MTA? That’s why I am calling on the Governor and the Mayor to stop calling names, roll up their sleeves and get down to the bargaining table to put an end to this strike. A strike that is as much about self-determination and the right to protest as it is about pensions and benefits. Sixty years ago our grandparents, and parents in some instances, walked for a year during the bus boycotts so we can have the very right that enables us to work in the jobs many of us hold today. Now its is our turn. Finally, I am thankful for the sobering voices of New Yorkers who have been able to look beyond the veil. Like the New Yorker who, in support of Roger Toussaint and the transit workers, suggested that this is what honor looks like. "It is tough, inconvenient and difficult. The right thing usually is, otherwise it wouldn't be worth it."