John Samuelsen, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, said March 29 he was “not in any way critical” of the illegal actions of Occupy Wall Street members and dissidents in his own union who, without his knowledge, chained open gates at numerous subway stations a day earlier during the morning rush hour, giving straphangers a free ride.
By April 2, however, the union leader added, “They could’ve taken more precautions to make sure [Subway Station Agents] weren’t put in harm’s way.”
The protesters, who said anonymous Local 100 and Amalgamated Transit Union members calling themselves the “Rank and File Initiative” told them which stations to target and tipped off their co-workers so they didn’t interfere, said they were angry at the lack of funding for transit.
‘Money into Bankers’ Pockets’
“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 activists said in a press release. “The MTA must resort to bonds (loans from Wall Street) to pay for projects and costs,” they added, calling the agency “a virtual ATM for the super-rich.”
They pointed out that the MTA spends more than $2 billion a year to pay off its debt.
“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,” they concluded.
Local 100 was the first New York local to officially endorse Occupy Wall Street last fall, and has held several rallies with the movement; Mr. Samuelsen spoke at Zuccotti Park when his members marched there after a November contract rally.
When asked if last Wednesday’s actions made him think twice about working with Occupy Wall Street, he initially said not at all.
“If these types of actions…bring attention to the injustices that have been doled out to New York State working families, then so be it,” he said.
‘On the Same Page’
While union officials had no prior knowledge of the protests, “we are on the same page with the Occupy movement when it comes to recognizing the facts that the banks are getting rich off of New York’s transit system,” he said, adding that “if it’s true that members of my union are participating in the protests, that’s their business; this is America. They’re not doing it as a member of Local 100.”
MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz declined to comment on Mr. Samuelsen’s response, but said, “We take Wednesday’s theft-of-service activity very seriously and we are working with the NYPD on ways to prevent it from happening again. If and when an employee is implicated, we will respond appropriately.”
A One-Time Stunt?
The protesters, who created realistic-looking MTA-style fliers that read, “Free Entry—No Fares Collected” told a Village Voice reporter the events had been planned months in advance, and that they were unlikely to repeat the same tactic in the future, though they’d hold other actions.
Ken Margolies, a labor specialist on the extension faculty at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said that although the protests took place during contract negotiations, it was unlikely the union would be punished under the Taylor Law for the actions of a few anonymous members.
“They’d have to show that this was being done with the union’s knowledge and that the union could stop it and didn’t,” he said. “It would be hard to enforce. They’d have to show that this was really a ruse.”
Mr. Margolies said these kinds of wildcat actions were often “unnerving” for management during negotiations.
“It could be a form of pressure on the MTA to settle because to the extent that they think this might spread, they will be looking for ways to prevent it,” he said. “If you know the union is doing this, you can get them to stop. But if there’s an elusive group that you can’t identify…it’s a real wildcard for them.”
A California Precedent?
He pointed to a December Occupy protest that shut down the port of Oakland, California during International Longshore Workers Union contract negotiations; the union said the action, which it didn’t back, was a ‘critical element’ in getting a favorable pact settled.
But conditions in Oakland were much different than they are for a public-sector union in New York right now, where a strong Governor successfully pressured two state-employee unions into accepting three years of wage freezes last year and is now pushing the MTA to follow suit. Local 100 is also bound by the Taylor Law, which limits its options by imposing hefty fines on public-sector unions and their members that strike.