Yesterday, I was out and about in the city trying to lend support to the strike. Sure, it was inconvenient, as I've heard many New Yorkers say, to get around. But, the strike is about a lot more than inconvenience.
I want to start by repeating some thoughts expressed by Roger Toussaint, the leader of the transport workers union, who was, in my humble opinion, magnificient in his statements yesterday in taking on the ugly comments made by Mayor Bloomberg. For all those people dragging out the breaking of the Taylor Law as a way of criticizing the union, Toussaint and others have rightly pointed out that had Rosa Parks abided by the law when she rode the bus, many people would still be riding in the back of the bus, including as Toussaint pointed out, many of the people driving buses in NY today. Can you imagine where South Africa would be today if Nelson Mandela had decided to obey the law rather than sit in jail for 40 years. And what about the exalted American revolution, which started because a small band of people decided to defy the law?
And I reiterate: yes, it's a drag that it takes longer to get somewhere and, yes, it's effecting people trying to get to work. But, people who are attacking the union need to ask themselves: when do we draw the line in defense of basic rights on the job? Airline workers are having their pensions ripped away, companies are filing bankruptcy to take away pay and benefits from workers (while executives still make millions), millions of workers are shouldering more health care costs and everyone is being told that they should not ask for a fair reward for hard work--all this in the richest country on the planet.
As Toussaint said, "This is a fight over whether hard work will be rewarded with a decent retirement and over the erosion or eventual elimination of health benefits for working people. And it is a fight over dignity and respect on the job; a concept that is alien to the MTA." The transit workers' union, at great risk, is trying to draw the line not just for its members but for all workers. Some people may not see that now. But, another way of looking at the strike is that if it is successful, it will send a message to other employers, in the private and public sectors, that people are willing to resist the drumbeat of lowered expectations in the service of the free-market.
Toussaint also made clear that the union would be willing to go back to work if the MTA pulled the pension issue off the table. It's time to turn the anger towards the MTA because it is the MTA and its president, Peter Kalilow, who caused this strike, not the workers. For a mere $20 million savings over three years, the MTA was willing to shut down the transit system. And I repeat my point from yesterday: if there are growing pension obligations down the road, the solution is not to immediately conclude, "ah, the workers should take the hit and take cuts in pensions." The solution to a crisis sometime in the future is to look at our society-wide priorities: do we believe every person is entitled to a retirement in our society? I obviously do and the richest country on earth can solve that problem if we're willing to confront the huge inequities in income distribution.
As for the mayor's comments--in particular, referring to the strikers and the union as behaving in a "selfish" and "thuggish" manner--he used some of the most nasty coded language imaginable. Rather than exercise leadership by seeking a settlement, a billionaire, who has no concept of what it's like to live on a middle-class salary, sought to divide the city, turning people against each other. I can't help but add: what are the unions who endorsed this mayor for re-election, over a Hispanic opponent, thinking now? I hope they feel some measure of shame or, at least, regret.