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Transport Workers Union Leader Roger Toussaint

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Beth Fertig of member station WNYC has been closely following the negotiations between the Transport Workers Union and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. And she joins us from the Hyatt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.

Beth, the union president has played a very critical role here, and I want you to tell us a bit about this man, Roger Toussaint.

BETH FERTIG reporting:

Well, Roger Toussaint is an immigrant from Trinidad. He started off as a track worker almost 20 years ago in the Transport Workers Union, and through a lot of his political organizing, he eventually became president five years ago.

SIEGEL: And as president, what sort of figure has he cut in New York City?

FERTIG: Well, he's been very militant within the union, and that was his whole history within this union and why he was elected president--was he wanted to be more aggressive in dealing with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. And he sort of took the same tactic, I guess--he felt he was living in the legacy of Mike Quill, the founder of the Transport Workers Union, who was an Irish immigrant who started the union in the 1930s. Mike Quill began the tradition of no contract, no work, which is very different from other labor unions that continue to work without a contract. And he led the 1966 transit strike and was sent to jail and then died a few weeks later. So Toussaint was sort of seen as a successor, you know, by promising to be more militant and aggressive. And yet he also had people on his left and his right who opposed him; he had a divided board. So it wasn't as though he had unanimity among this union, but they did approve the strike ultimately.

SIEGEL: But as recently as yesterday, Roger Toussaint was invoking the memory of Rosa Parks that--insisting on being able to sit down in the bus was the same principle as the retirement package for the man who drives the bus. Sounds pretty militant to me. What's happened since then?

FERTIG: Well, that's the question. There is certainly a lot of posturing that goes on in these types of labor negotiations, but then there's also the reality. Roger Toussaint was facing the possibility of jail time. He was due in court today; it's been put off till tomorrow. But the city was trying to--and the state were trying to send him to court for the strike. There was financial pressure; his union was fined a million dollars a day. There was the possibility that members could have been fined because the city had its own lawsuit. There was political pressure by the governor, who controls the MTA, and the mayor, who does not but had a pretty strong bully pulpit. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was calling the union selfish, you know, for leading this illegal strike. He compared the union leaders to thugs. There were a lot of headlines. One tabloid said, `Throw Roger from the train.'

So the union said that they had support from the public. They cited a poll that said New Yorkers did understand their issues and plus the MTA itself never looked so good. They were criticized by the union for being stingy when they had a billion-dollar surplus and kept insisting on raising pension contributions for new hires. But, in the end, I think everybody just wanted this to go away, especially before Christmastime.

SIEGEL: Well, the strike is what's gone away; there's no contract. But now they have to go back and presumably get a settlement over the same issues of retirement packages and what the starting pay is for new transport workers as opposed to those who are already on the job. That's a pretty big task facing these people.

FERTIG: It is. And one union member who voted--board member who voted against the strike to begin with and voted against returning to the negotiating table today said he didn't understand what they got out of this. But other members who voted for going back to work today said, `Well, we think that, you know, we raised our issues, and we were fighting for the middle class.' But now going back to work without a contract is unprecedented in this union's history. It's going to be unchartered waters. They're going to have to continue negotiating. If they don't work things out, there is a procedure for binding arbitration under state law. And the MTA supports binding arbitration, but the union doesn't. So right now they're going back to work. They, you know, say that they're going to keep talking. And the union is supposed to consider changes in health care to save money in exchange for, you know, the possibility that the MTA will remove pensions from the bargaining. But they haven't promised to do so.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you, Beth.

FERTIG: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's Beth Fertig of member station WNYC, talking to us from New York City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.