The political line of the New York City transit situation article printed in the January, 2003, article, New York Transit Union Accept Take-Away Contract is not in suitable for our magazine. This article treats existing trade unions as reactionary. Not just the bureaucracy, the unions! As I read the article again I see that the authors take a totally cavalier and ultra-left attitude towards the fight in NYC transit, even if they make some good points.
Even though I am following the situation at a distance, I am not at all sure that its enough to denounce the agreement without taking into consideration what the transit union was up against. They seemed to back the bosses down somewhat on the health and welfare issue and on the outrageous disciplinary cases (almost 50 percent of the local had been up on some sort of charges in a short period of time).
While the money is on par with the agreement reached by the TWU here in Boston transit, it was not enough. But in his book Teamster Bureaucracy, Farrell Dobbs points out that even their militant Teamster local was eventually forced to make concessions when the tide turned in the class struggle.
I just do not have any confidence in the reports from those people or any others in the union who denounce the local leadership. I am open on this, but, I think we should be commenting on trade union matters in a balanced way, not just denouncing the rotten sellout like the article advocates.
What if a militant transit worker who knew the real story was reading that article? We should not reprint anything from these people again. Otherwise, I find the magazine is very appealing to the young activists we aim it to and the articles are very, very educational and useful.
Dave Walsh, Boston, MA. January 20, 2003
The editors respond:
We have no argument here. To clarify the issue, we reprint a portion of Farrell Dobbs article in The Militant of January 31, 1966 where he assessed the New York City transit strike of that time.
Lessons of the New York Transit Workers Strike
by Farrell Dobbs
Young people today have had little chance to perceive the inherent social power of the working class. All their lives they have seen the unions dominated by a gang of bureaucrats who truckle to the capitalist class. These misleaders of labor support the brutal imperialist foreign policy of the ruling class. They give only lip service to the Freedom Now struggle of the Negro people, the vast majority of whom are workers.
At the point of production the bureaucrats act to cripple the union power, usurping workers democracy to impose their own dictatorial rule over the union membership. They keep labor tied to capitalist politics, leaving the governmental power in the hands of greedy banks and corporations.
Detractors of labor point to statistics about a relative decline of industrial workers in proportion to the population as a whole. Like a con man short-changing his victim, they juggle these figures around in an effort to show that history is rendering unionism impotent. Again, and once again, the Marxist view of the revolutionary potential of the working class is proclaimed obsolete.
Workers strength as social force
Some 36,000 strikers tied up public transportation in a city of eight million and the powers-that-be couldnt move a single train or bus in public service during the walkout. Clearly it was not the sheer weight of numbers that gave the transit workers this impressive strength. The decisive factor was the key functions they perform within the citys economic structure.
Similarly in national terms, it is not the relative numerical weight of the workers in terms of the population as a whole that determines their strength as a social force. It is their strategic role in the total economic complex, plus their distinctive characteristics as a relatively homogeneous social class.
Numerical strength has primary importance in terms of class solidarity among the workers involved in a given struggle, rather than in the relative size of the embattled force. The problem of solidarity begins with the strikers themselves, and it extends from there to a quest for broader labor support according to the needs of the fight. As we shall see, it was in the broader union sphere, especially among the top AFL-CIO bureaucrats, that class solidarity with the transit workers was criminally violated.
Within the Transport Workers Union the ranks stood solid throughout the strike. Not a peep came from inside the TWU that Republican Mayor Lindsay, or his Democratic collaborators at City Hall, could use to smear the strike. It was a case of aroused workers who fought for just demands and who stood united in their common needs as class brothers.
This time the TWU officials didnt capitulate without a fight as they have done before. Instead of making a deal for a union contract on City Halls terms, they fought at least until the union had won a partial victory.
While giving them due credit for the way they stood up to City Hall, it is important to recognize the real reason why they did so. Like everybody else in the line of fire, the TWU officials were up against an aroused membership that wasnt about to hold still for a fast shuffle from anybody, either inside or outside the union. They had to fight, or else.
What a fight the transit workers made! They brushed aside a court injunction based on an antilabor state law and went on strike in defiance of the judge and the whole City Hall gang. When their top negotiators were jailed as law breakers, a second team stepped in to speak for the union. The strikers remained solid in the face of court proceedings intended to impose massive fines on the union. They stood up against savage smear propaganda in the capitalist news media and against a rising capitalist clamor to call out the National Guard against them.
At a crucial point in the strike the TWU ranks met the capitalist attack by demonstrating their solidarity and fighting spirit through a mass picket line at City Hall. Significant bodies of workers from other unions supported the demonstration. Unable to break the strike with injunctions, jailings and threats of fines, Lindsay appealed to responsible top officials of the AFL-CIO for help in stopping the strike.
Responsible officials stop the strike
George Meany responded by approving the jailing of the TWU leaders with the remark that Mike Quill wanted to go to jail. As though that scabby comment wasnt criminal enough, he added that Mayor Lindsay, who was trying to break the strike, was handling himself very well.
After the strike Walter Reuther proved his respectability with a statement that society cant tolerate stoppages like the transit strike.
Despite all obstacles the transit workers won a partial victory by forcing concessions from City Hall that it hadnt intended to make. The fact remains, however, that the settlement fell far short of the workers just demands and they remain victims of gross wage inequities.
Unmoved by the serious economic problems still plaguing the TWU ranks, President Johnson denounced the gains they did win as a violation of his wage guideposts. Johnson followed through with a call for further anti-strike laws.
Both the Republican Mayor and the Democratic President proved themselves enemies of the transit workers. The strikers got nothing they didnt fight for and even then the lackeys of capitalism cheated them out of a just settlement. The workers will get only what they can win through militant use of the union power at the job level and through mobilization of their class political strength in an independent labor party.
Labors inherent capacity to take that road is demonstrated by the transit strike, as is the workers growing desire to do so.
The Militant, January 3, 1966.
Farrell Dobbs was a prominent organizer and strike leader of the Minneapolis Teamster Local 574, 1933-1939, appointed general organizer of the Teamster International (1940), and he resigned that post in 1941 to join the national leadership of the Socialist Workers Party (1941-1971). From 1972 to 1977, he wrote a four volume political history of the Teamsters union covering 1933 to 1941 with the viewpoint of a revolutionary socialist and participant. The books of Farrell Dobbs are available through Pathfinder Press in New York City.
Socialist Viewpoint contained a selection from one of the volumes, Teamster Politics, in the November 15, 2002 issue, Vol. 2, No. 10.