U.S. Politics

Occupy Wall Street Affiliates Chain Subway Gates Open For Fare Strike

By Nick Pinto

A group calling itself the “Rank and File Initiative” claimed credit yesterday for opening up more than 20 subway stations throughout the city for free entry.

Chaining open emergency gates at stations on the F, L, R, Q, 3, and 6 lines during rush hour yesterday morning, the anonymous activists posted signs designed to resemble MTA service-change announcements that read “Free Entry, No Fare. Please Enter Through The Service Gate.”

A press release claiming credit for the action said it was carried out by activists affiliated with Occupy Wall Street, as well as by rank-and-file members of Transit Workers Union Local 100, which is currently in negotiations with the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The release cites Albany’s chronic underfunding of public transit, which has led the MTA to borrow heavily just to maintain its operating budget—debt which must be serviced in part with transit fares that have gone up 50 percent over the last decade.

“This means Wall Street bondholders receive a huge share of what we put into the system through the Metrocards we buy and the taxes we pay,” the press statement reads. “More than $2 billion a year goes to debt service, and this number is expected to rise every year. If trends continue, by 2018 more than one out of every five dollars of MTA revenue will head to a banker’s pockets.”

Last night we spoke with a representative of the Rank And File Initiative, who wished to remain anonymous. He told us that teams set out in the early hours of yesterday morning, disguising their identities, to lock open gates at roughly 25 stations.

“It was three or four people to each station, so you can do the math of how many people were directly involved,” he said. Not every team was successful—one dispatched to a Bronx subway station had to abort their mission—“But everyone came safely back without getting caught, which was our first priority.”

The source stressed that MTA station agents were not aware of the action, and no MTA employees were involved in actually locking the gates open. But that’s not to say that Transit Workers Union members weren’t involved.

“We’ve been planning this for months—Occupy people, other activists, and union members,” the source said. “Union members were central to the planning. They told us the best places to go, they talked to their colleagues about what was going to happen, and not to be freaked out when we came in, and they gave the final green-light for the mission in the morning.”

Transport Workers Union Local 100 leadership denied knowledge of the action, and the Rank And File Initiative source confirmed that they were not notified. Relations between TWU 100 members and their leadership have long been strained, dating back to 2005 when union members, historically fairly radical, felt their leaders rolled over in a standoff with the MTA.

“There are a lot of angry and afraid union members who wish they could do more, but they’re held back by the leadership,” the source said. “We listened in on a conference call with [TWU President John] Samuelson and the shop stewards, and they were all telling Samuelson the union needed to be doing more. He got so mad he was muting out whole parts of the conversation, until it was just him talking on the line.”

Yesterday’s wildcat action—carried out by union members without the knowledge or coordination of their leadership—violated both the Taylor Law and the Taft-Hartley Act.

It suggests that TWU 100 leaders may be losing control of their members, and also may lend some credence to claims by Occupy Wall Street organizers that labor’s rank and file will take part in the upcoming May 1st “Day Without the 99 Percent” action, despite skeptical statements from some union leaders.

The tactic isn’t without precedent. San Francisco saw a fare strike in 2005, and the Spanish Indignados, to whom Occupy Wall Street protesters have often looked for inspiration, have been running their own fare strike, Yo No Pago, since early this year.

The source said his group’s inspiration for yesterday’s action came on November 17 of last year. During that day of action for Occupy Wall Street, someone—quite possibly members of Occupy’s Direct Action Working Group—locked open doors at four stations.

“We wanted to do something like that, but scale it up,” the source said.

Going forward, the coalition is unlikely to repeat the fare strike tactic, the source said, though it will conduct other sorts of actions. The group also plans to release how-to guides to help anyone else who might want to stage a fare strike in New York subways.

“It’s a great tactic, because it aligns the interests of transit workers with the interests of the working classes throughout New York,” he said. “That’s important, because whenever transit workers get hit, it’s bad news for everyone else who rides the subway too. You see fare hikes and service cuts. It makes sense to make common cause.”

Here’s the full press release concerning the fare strike:

“This morning before rush hour, teams of activists, many from Occupy Wall Street, in conjunction with rank and file workers from the Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the Amalgamated Transit Union, opened up more than 20 stations across the city for free entry. As of 10:30 A.M., the majority remain open. No property was damaged. Teams have chained open service gates and taped up turnstiles in a coordinated response to escalating service cuts, fare hikes, racist policing, assaults on transit workers’ working conditions and livelihoods—and the profiteering of the super-rich by way of a system they’ve rigged in their favor.

“For the last several years, riders of public transit have been under attack. The cost of our Metrocards has been increasing, while train and bus service has been steadily reduced. Budget cuts have precipitated station closings and staff/safety reductions. Police routinely single out young black and Latino men for searches at the turnstile. Layoffs and attrition means cutting staff levels to the bare minimum, reducing services for seniors and disabled riders. At the same time, MTA workers have been laid off and have had their benefits drastically reduced. Contract negotiations are completely stalled.

“Working people of all occupations, colors and backgrounds are expected to sacrifice to cover the budget cut by paying more for less service. But here’s the real cause of the problem: the rich are massively profiting from our transit system. Despite the fact that buses and subways are supposed to be a public service, the government and the MTA have turned the system backwards—into a virtual ATM for the super-rich. Instead of using our tax money to properly fund transit, Albany and City Hall have intentionally starved transit of public funds for over twenty years; the MTA must resort to bonds (loans from Wall Street) to pay for projects and costs. The MTA is legally required to funnel tax dollars and fares away from transportation costs and towards interest on these bonds, called “debt service.” This means Wall Street bondholders receive a huge share of what we put into the system through the Metrocards we buy and the taxes we pay: more than $2 billion a year goes to debt service, and this number is expected to rise every year. If trends continue, by 2018 more than one out of every five dollars of MTA revenue will head to a banker’s pockets.”

Village Voice, March 29, 2012