David North
Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness

The New York City transit strike

While you prefer to conduct your polemical battles in the realm of abstract generalities, on the one occasion when you descend to the world of actual events, the political content of your denunciation of our “objectivism” becomes clear. You are opposed to the struggle waged by the Socialist Equality Party and the WSWS against the trade union bureaucracy. Your lengthy attack on the party’s role in the New York City transit strike aims to discredit our effort to arm transit workers with a political perspective. However, before answering your attack in detail, it is worth noting that the transit strike is the only event to which you actually refer in your entire document. Could you not at least have referred to one event that occurred outside the city in which you live? Why not an examination of the party’s campaign against the war in Iraq? Or the intervention of the ICFI in the crisis in France? Or the struggle conducted by our comrades in Sri Lanka, against the government’s efforts to renew the war against the Tamils? None of this interests you. Given the fact that you refer to no other events—not even the war in Iraq—the attention you lavish on the transit strike is entirely out of balance. At the very least, it expresses a provincial outlook.

Your portrayal of the SEP’s intervention as a mixture of confusion and inaction reeks of factionally-motivated dishonesty. Your review of events lacks all concreteness. You refer to “the three-day strike in December [2005],” but do not even specify the actual dates it took place. This is not a minor omission. No one who depended on your account would be able to relate objective developments to the intervention of the SEP. You write: “Though there was a long buildup to this strike and though this was a union where the party had a long history, there were no demands raised until the day before the strike began.” Along with the absence of a specific time frame, your critique does not quote a single sentence from anything written by the SEP on the transit strike. No one who read your document would have any way of forming a precise conception of the scale of the party’s intervention or the program for which it fought.

As your attack on the party’s intervention in the transit strike is intended to demonstrate the “objectivism” and “abstentionism” of the party, it is necessary to reply in considerable detail. The strike began on Tuesday, December 20, and ended on Thursday, December 22. Your document gives readers the impression that the SEP was taken unawares by developments, and only managed to issue a statement on the very eve of the strike.

Let us reconstruct the actual response of the party to the transit struggle.

On December 10, 2005, ten days before the strike began, the WSWS published a lengthy statement, written by Alan Whyte, which analyzed the central issues raised in the conflict between Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). After a careful factual review of the contractual dispute, Whyte wrote:

It has been 25 years since the last transit strike, when workers shut down the system for 11 days. In that quarter of a century, workers in New York City and across the US have seen their incomes steadily eroding, along with the loss of millions of decent-paying jobs, the destruction of social benefits and an assault on basic democratic rights. These attacks have created the conditions for the staggering growth of social inequality, as vast wealth has been transferred into the bank accounts of the top 1 percent.

The unions have proven incapable of combating these attacks. Rather, under the control of an opportunist bureaucracy subservient to the Democratic Party and the profit system, they have collaborated in the imposition of an unending series of concessions.

There is no question that a transit workers’ strike, demonstrating the power of the working class to defy the dictates of Wall Street, would win powerful support in New York City and across the country. A serious struggle to defend living standards and reverse the attacks of the past 25 years, however, means more than militant strike action.

It above all requires a political struggle to mobilize working people, as a whole, in opposition to the profit system. This means a break with the Democratic Party and the building of an independent political party of the working class, fighting to reorganize society to meet human needs, rather than the accumulation of wealth by a financial elite. Only such a party will fight to provide full funding for mass transit by repudiating the bond debts and bringing the immense resources of the finance houses and banks, which have profited off these debts, under public ownership. ( “Strikebreaking threats as contract deadline nears: Transit dispute exposes New York City’s class divide.” ) [23]

This statement was published as a leaflet and circulated among transit workers. Thus, ten days before the strike actually began (after a postponement by the TWU leadership), the WSWS issued a clear political-programmatic statement. Two days later, on December 12, the WSWS published another article by Whyte reporting the authorization vote for a strike, which was originally set for midnight, December 16. The article warned of the duplicity of the union officials, and noted that the presence of the political charlatan Jesse Jackson at the strike-vote rally was a clear sign that the TWU leadership was committed to its politically bankrupt alliance with the Democratic Party. ( “New York City transit workers vote to authorize strike.” ) [24]

On December 16, the WSWS published an analysis by Bill Van Auken, entitled “The political issues confronting New York City transit workers.” It alerted transit workers to Mayor Bloomberg’s preparations for a huge legal assault against the union. It stressed that the union could not conduct a successful strike without fighting to mobilize the broadest sections of the working class. But, the statement warned: “There is no indication that the leadership of TWU Local 100 is preparing to mount such a struggle. The union bureaucracy, headed by Local 100 President Roger Toussaint, appeals strictly to the lowest common denominator of trade union militancy. At the same time, it is promoting Democratic politicians as friends of workers.” [25]

On December 17, Van Auken reported on the TWU’s decision to delay a full-scale walkout and call selective strikes. ( “After rejecting MTA’s ‘final offer’: New York City transit union calls selective strikes.”) [26]

On December 19, a statement entitled “New York City transit workers on brink of class confrontation,” by Peter Daniels, was posted on the WSWS (and printed and circulated as a leaflet). It reviewed the lessons of the major experiences through which the American working class had passed since the betrayal of the New York transit strike in April 1980 and the destruction of PATCO in 1981. The statement stressed the need for a political strategy: “The truth about this struggle must be stated from the outset. Either the transit workers’ struggle enlists the active support of other sections of workers in a political counteroffensive against all the attacks on jobs and public services, or it will be isolated and defeated.” It also warned: “Any reliance upon Toussaint to conduct this struggle would be a grievous mistake. The Local 100 president combines the occasional demagogic threat with support for the big business Democratic Party and opposition to the independent struggle of the working class.” The statement called upon workers to “organize independent strike committees to bring the message of unity and struggle to all sections of working people—to other trade unionists, to the unorganized and unemployed, the immigrants, the students, youth, professionals and small business.” [27]

Your principal criticism of this statement, from which you fail to quote a single sentence, is that the WSWS “gave no indication of how these committees should be set up, how they should function and above all what they should fight for.” No, we did not attempt to write a manual on how to form strike committees. To the extent that workers understood the need for an alternative to the TWU Local 100 leadership and its policies, they would be more than capable of working out the details of creating and running rank-and-file strike committees. But we most certainly did explain what such committees should fight for: the statement outlined the political strategy upon which the fate of the strike depended. One can only assume from this criticism that you did not agree with the emphasis placed by the WSWS on the need for transit workers to conduct a political fight—which was the only way that support could be rallied among masses of New York workers, for whom the strike created additional daily hardships.

On December 21, the WSWS posted a new statement (also printed and mass distributed throughout the city): “The New York transit strike: A new stage in the class struggle.” It examined the implications of the struggle within the context of the social polarization within the United States, and exposed the financial interests underlying the brutal legal assault directed by Mayor Bloomberg against the transit workers. The statement attacked the insidious role played by the TWU International leadership, which had denounced the strike as illegal and called for an immediate return to work. It concluded with a summation of the political issues:

More starkly than any event in the past twenty years, the present strike by New York City transit workers poses before the entire working class the need to develop a new leadership and a new political strategy to carry forward its struggle, founded on a program that upholds the interests and needs of working people against the profit drive of the financial elite....

If this strike is to be successful, transit workers must be guided by a perspective that rejects the social, economic and political assumptions of the financial oligarchy and its political parties. The unending demands for a reduction in the living standards of workers clearly demonstrate that their interests are incompatible with the requirements of the capitalist profit system. [28]

In addition to this statement, the WSWS posted on December 21 numerous interviews with striking workers. ( “New York transit workers set up picket lines: ‘Today’s strike is for all working people’” )

On December 22, the WSWS posted another major statement, also printed and mass distributed, titled “New York transit workers confront escalating attacks.” It reviewed the political strategy of Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki, and the reasons for the vicious response to the strike. The statement explained why the ruling elite viewed the strike as a major challenge that had to be defeated. The WSWS contrasted the solidarity within the ruling class to the efforts of the labor bureaucracy to isolate and sabotage the strike. It warned that a major betrayal was being prepared, and repeated its call for workers to “organize their own independent strike committees and turn out to the broadest sections of the working class to mobilize support.”

The WSWS also published more interviews with striking workers. ( “New York City transit workers defiant: ‘Bloomberg and his friends are the thugs, not us’” )

On December 23, the WSWS published a statement that offered a “preliminary assessment” of the sudden end of the strike. It offered a blunt and sober assessment of the outcome of the strike, which was isolated by the union bureaucracy. The WSWS stated that Toussaint “conducted the strike as a pure-and-simple trade union struggle, under conditions in which the transit workers were confronting the full power of the state, mobilized through the Taylor Law and the courts.” Drawing the broader lessons of this experience, the WSWS stressed that the strike had refuted all those who claimed the working class had disappeared as a social force. In shutting down the entire transit system, the working class had demonstrated its immense social weight and combativity. However, the struggle “also exposed the existing trade unions as hopelessly inadequate instruments of social struggle. To the extent that these organizations are not actively engaged in the suppression of the working class—as in the case of the TWU International and the AFL-CIO as a whole—their lack of an alternative political, social and economic perspective and program leaves them defenseless against the attacks of the state. Dominated by a politically reactionary bureaucracy allied with the Democratic Party, they are inevitably transformed into a means of imposing the demands of the ruling elite on the working class.” The WSWS called for “a new socialist movement capable of uniting the working class on the basis of an uncompromising anti-capitalist line.” ( “The sudden end of the New York transit strike: A preliminary assessment.” ) [29]

On December 24, another major statement (also printed and mass distributed) was published by the WSWS, providing further details on the way the unions sabotaged the Local 100 strike. ( “New York City transit strike was quashed by the unions.” )

Your attack on the intervention of the party in the transit strike is without substance. You take it for granted that your readers will not have access to the written record. However, if we review the response of the WSWS to the struggle of the transit workers, we find that, during the two week period between December 10 and December 24, it published six major policy statements and another eight articles, which were either extensive news reports, interviews with transit workers, or commentary on various social issues related to the class divide in New York City. Of these fourteen items, eight were printed and mass distributed. During this same period, the WSWS maintained its rigorous coverage of other major national and international events.

This is the record that supposedly epitomizes the “abstentionism” of the SEP! Our response to the transit strike demonstrated the critical role played by the WSWS in the fight to develop a new political strategy in the struggles of the working class. It should also be noted that, during this entire period, the union itself did not publish or distribute a single statement for mass distribution, let alone provide daily analysis of the ongoing struggle. The WSWS was not able to single-handedly overcome the sabotage of the bureaucracy. However, it significantly contributed toward raising the class consciousness of the workers, and laying the foundations for future victories.

I will not be so impolite as to ask for a detailed account of Comrade Steiner’s practical contributions to the struggle, but it is rather noticeable that you fail to tell us what your activities consisted of during the strike. What, if anything, did you do? What did you write? Did you draft a statement, perhaps with the title “The Transit Strike and Utopia”? Perhaps difficulties of one sort or another compelled you to forgo direct involvement in the strike. If so, there is no need to offer apologies. It is disappointing, however, that you have not taken the opportunity afforded by your critique to explain, at least theoretically, how utopianism would have looked in action. We are entitled to conclude that your utopian schemes are largely intended for discussions within petty-bourgeois radical circles. When it comes to the workers, you have nothing for them except the thin gruel of trade unionism.