What the union has not done is oppose Cuomo’s decision to keep the subways open through the entire crisis, and the mishandling of the crisis on the part of Cuomo’s hapless appointees who have cost the lives of many of the fallen workers. Most importantly, TWU 100’s leadership has not encouraged the members to use the contractually-provided procedures to stop unsafe work.
This is a continuation of the strategy followed over the last five to six years by both former local President John Samuelsen and current President Tony Utano. They have become political surrogates for Cuomo, going out of their way to attack his political rivals even when it alienates the union from potential allies and undermines the union’s power. Samuelsen, who is now the TWU’s International President, turned to the strategy of currying favor with Cuomo a few years into his nine-year stint leading Local 100, as he searched for a way to stabilize a formerly militant union still reeling from the aftermath of our 2005 city-wide strike.
That three-day transit strike, led by then-President Roger Toussaint, was followed by a contract rejection by the members, a re-vote, arbitration, a four-day jail term for Toussaint, $2.5 million in fines against the union, fines against individual members, and the temporary loss of automatic payroll deduction of union dues. The result was a combination of leadership collapse and membership disillusionment with militancy. The generation that has been hired in the last fifteen years has absorbed that cynicism and experienced a decline in Local 100’s power in relation to the employer, and a corresponding deterioration of their working conditions.
There are a few opposition groups within the union who have encouraged members to demand PPE, and to stay away from work until it has been provided. Some have distributed masks and sanitizer throughout the system, shaming the MTA and TWU into getting and distributing more supplies. They have used social media and press connections to publicize the MTA’s failure to follow their own policies and procedures designed to protect workers and passengers. One group has recently achieved electoral success in one of Local 100’s seven divisions. Unfortunately, most of these groups only exist on the internet. So far, they have not been able to overcome persistent infighting, and a tweet from a few years back from their leader offering to cross picket lines if Samuelsen called a strike.
Rank-and-file militancy and solidarity remain the only solution to the crisis that COVID-19 poses for TWU Local 100 members. We need to learn from, and emulate, the actions of health care workers, Amazon workers, Instacart workers, and our fellow transit workers in Detroit, Madison, and elsewhere, who have shown us that collectively refusing to work in unsafe conditions is the only way to protect ourselves and our families. The path taken so far has led only to death and death benefits.