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TWU Rolls from Occupy to Business as Usual

In 1966, when a judge enjoined New York City transit workers from striking, the union’s fiery leader Mike Quill, the outspoken socialist and IRA supporter, ripped up the order before the news cameras. In 2005, that same union, under the leadership of Roger Toussaint, who had come to power on a reformist slate called New Directions, brought the union out on strike at Christmas time, without regard to how much the public and the establishment painted him as the Grinch.

Then came John Samuelsen, Toussaint’s former ally turned nemesis, who takes pride in his friendship with British transit union leader Bob Crow, a communist who’s never shy about talking about the global war against capitalism. Samuelsen, a track maintenance inspector, ran in 2009 and defeated Toussaint’s hand-picked successor, arguing that Toussaint had become too soft in his stance toward MTA management after the strike. Once in power Samuelsen began to point his anger at the financial system, vilifying the agency’s bond holders as the main source of instability at the MTA.

It was thus not surprising that in the fall of 2011 the TWU (Local 100) was one of the first unions to come out in support of Occupy Wall Street, at one point even protesting the use of MTA buses to transport hundreds of anti-capitalist arrestees from the Brooklyn Bridge. At a Foley Square rally early that fall, Samuelsen declared his “thanks” to the Occupy movement for “sparking the labor movement, and showing us that the way to do it is not to have conversations with politicians…it’s to take it to the streets.”  And that December, he led his fellow TWU workers in a mic check at Zuccotti Park.

A year and a half later, Samuelsen’s union has thrown its support behind the most Wall Street-friendly candidate in the 2013 mayor’s race, Bill Thompson. After two unremarkable terms as comptroller, after losing to Bloomberg in the 2009 campaign Thompson became a key player in the municipal bond market, earning nearly $700k from the Wall Street firm Siebert Brandford Shank in 2012. As a candidate, Thompson has ruled out raising taxes on the 1%, and he’s running as a moderate, well to the right of the two progressives in the race, Bill de Blasio and John Liu.

Liu was popular with the TWU when he served as chair of the transportation committee while on the city council. But as comptroller, Liu sought to overhaul the pension placement system, in which pension officers from both Wall Street firms and unions collect hefty investment fees, in the process driving up pension costs for the city. (The TWU opposed the reforms.) In his 2009 campaign, Thompson received more than $150k from pension placement firms. Rest assured that nobody on Wall Street is worried about Bill Thompson becoming the next mayor.

By Samuelsen’s own admission, the union tapped Thompson because its executive board wasn’t interested in a candidate who stood for the 99 percent as a whole, but instead one who had the best platform for transit. And for Samuelsen, Thompson has two proposals that stand out: Reinstating the commuter tax and creating weighted fees for vehicle registration, which in both cases would create more money for the MTA.

Samuelsen also believes that Thompson is also the candidate most likely to win. As he views it, “We will have a strong transit advocate in City Hall and we all have an ally to battle the MTA.” But he does add that “The endorsement of any mayoral candidate would not mean that Local 100 would march lock step with every policy position the candidate makes. Certainly in areas where Thompson would need to be pushed to the left, we would push him in that direction.”

Undoubtedly influencing the union’s choice is also Thompson’s closeness to Governor Andrew Cuomo, which could help smooth out the relationship between the union and the MTA down the road. Thus, if the calculation is based simply on “What’s in the best interest of the TWU?” then the choice of Thompson may make sense. But that would also mean that the TWU is acting just any other union, and not serving as a spark for progressive change. 

While it may seem incongruous that a militant union like the TWU would align with a moderate candidate like Thompson, Samuelsen said, “We endorsed Thompson in the last mayoral run. If more people had endorsed Thompson, Bloomberg would not have been able to wreak this much havoc on the public sector. Were people questioning us when we endorsed Thompson the last time?” The answer is no—but in 2009, there weren’t viable progressive candidates in the mix.

In the early planning stages of OWS, organized labor was considered a possible corrupting influence rather than potential ally. But when TWU members marched into Zuccotti Park with drums and union flags, there was a bit of hope that at least this union, with the power to shut down the nation’s largest public transit system, was thinking not in terms of its next contract but about how to create actual meaningful change in our economy. In the heyday of Occupy many inspiring and innovative proposals at promoting economic equality were bandied about. Bringing back the commuter tax and creating a new vehicle registration fee were not among them.


Ari Paul


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2013

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