New York City transit workers' ongoing labor dispute may turn out to be the strangest in recent history or a turning point for the nation's beleaguered labor movement.
Almost four months after the transit workers walked off the job for three days, crippling city traffic at the height of the holiday shopping season, they still don't have a contract. Negotiations are in limbo, and Transport Workers Union President Roger Toussaint has begun serving a 10-day jail term for contempt of court - but not before holding a defiant rally, then marching across the Brooklyn Bridge with hundreds of union activists and labor leaders flanking him in a show of solidarity.
To these workers, Mr. Toussaint's jailing transforms him from an embattled union leader threatened by internal dissension to a martyr who is galvanizing unions across New York and the country to hold the line against eroding pensions and health benefits for working people.
"This is a bittersweet moment," Norman Seabrook, head of the correctional guards union, told the placard-waving crowd. "It's bitter because some judge thought sending him to jail was going to stop us. It's a sweet moment because he has awakened the entire labor movement."
To New York Gov. George Pataki (R) and officials of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city's transit system, Toussaint is simply a lawbreaker responsible for disrupting the city, costing its businesses millions of dollars and inconveniencing 7 million daily subway and bus riders during one of the most frigid cold snaps of the year.
To the MTA, the issue is whether transit workers asked for too much, and now must suffer the consequences. The judge who sent Toussaint to jail also fined the union $2.5 million and forbade it from automatically taking union dues out of workers' paychecks.
The standoff could end Wednesday when the MTA board meets. The board has the authority to approve the contract that was negotiated to end the strike.
But its spokesman has said the contract is not on the agenda. The MTA wants the contract to go now to binding arbitration, which, it says, will allow it to get an even better deal. That's because transit workers at first rejected the contract by a slim margin over a concession that required them to pay 1.5 percent of their salaries toward health benefits. That trade-off was made to save the current pension system, according to Toussaint and other TWU leaders. So in a second vote last week, workers overwhelmingly approved the deal they didn't like at first.
"This has been a long, strange journey with many unexpected twists, and the final outcome is still far from clear," says Joshua Freeman, a labor historian from the City University of New York Graduate Center.
Another surprising thing, says Professor Freeman, was the sympathy the bundled up walking, biking, and cab-riding New Yorkers showed for transit workers during the strike. Polls found that the majority supported the walkout, even though it inconvenienced them.
"The fact that this seemed to be a general effort to defend social benefits resonated with a lot of people," says Freeman.
As healthcare costs have spiraled upward, private-sector employers have increasingly cut benefits and required workers to pay more for them. Firms are also shifting from providing traditional defined pension benefits provided by the companies to 401(K) and other cash programs to which workers contribute. Many municipalities, like New York and its MTA, are now asking their unionized workers to make similar concessions.
"This has become an increasingly major issue because it's difficult to protect these benefits in the private sector and the public sector without increasing contributions and co-pays, and that's an underlying issue in this fight," says Stanley Aronowitz, a sociologist at the CUNY Graduate Center.
But the MTA argues that the benefits issue is a far larger societal problem that has to be dealt with by unions, whether they like it or not.
"To be able to get a handle on the pension and hospitalization [costs] is vital because at the rate [they're] going in a very short period of time, it could cost $5 or $10 a ride," says MTA spokesman Tom Kelly. "This is something that needs to be addressed and we're trying to do it the best way we can without presenting a hardship to our passengers or our employees."