Photo By: 

When I marched a union leader to jail

As a young staffer in the AFL-CIO, I will never forget the NYC Transit Strike of 2005

Kris LaGrange's picture
Mar 17, 2017

I remember it like it was yesterday, it was the Bush Years, every article in every paper in the United States seemed like they were against unions, and I was part of a staff of hopefuls trying to accomplish the impossible – build a union movement after years of corruption and neglect in a very conservative corner of the country.

In New York State, our public employees gave up their right to strike under something called the Public Employees Fair Employment Act (aka the Taylor Law). This law authorizes a governor-appointed State Public Employment Relations Board to resolve contract disputes for public employees while curtailing their right to strike. Meanwhile, the Triborough Amendment comes into play. This mandates that in the event of a lack of a contract, the terms of the previous contract continue indefinitely. This has weakened public employee unions in New York, while at the same time giving them a false sense of security. Why? Well, over time they moved from an organize-the-members culture to a service-the-membership culture. This service-the-membership culture has created fat, lazy, entitled union members. Union members who vote Republican, don’t attend union meetings and vote against their own union’s interest. Remember, over 40% of public employee union members didn’t listen to their union leaders and voted Trump into the White House.  

Private sector unions have to always flex their muscle, internally organize and threaten to strike to get good wages and benefits. A good example of this is the tri-annual Communications Workers of America (CWA) strike against Verizon. They strike, they win. That’s never the case for public employee unions because they don’t have that right, so there is no threat, very little internal organizing, actions, etc. The members know, as does management, that a contract will eventually get settled and the workforce will have to accept the terms or suffer a long drawn out court battle. It seems like the union members never win when this happens, and it happens all too frequently in the Empire State. 

In New York City in 2005, Transit Workers Union Local 100 leader, Roger Toussaint made a decision to buck the system, break the Taylor Law, and stop the buses and trains during the holiday shopping season. He was arrested and sent to jail like a common criminal because work stoppages are made punishable with fines and jail time. We provided links to the news stories surrounding the strike below for background, but the following two things happened as a result of this man sacrificing his freedom on behalf of a bewildered membership.

One, they got their union contract. Awesome. Two, the greatest public show of solidarity that I have ever witnessed took place. On the day he was to turn himself into authorities, we all marched across the Brooklyn Bridge, behind Toussaint. There were thousands who marched, and every labor leader you could think of said a few words at the rally. But the 2 labor leaders that stood out most were from law enforcement.

First was Pat Lynch from the NYC PBA. I don’t remember what he said exactly but I thought it was cool to see the union leader from the cops show his support for a “criminal.” The other labor leader was the head of the corrections officers, the guards in the jail, and he said this;

We will treat Roger Toussaint with the utmost respect in our jail, we will protect him like our own.

Soon after, the white shirt cop bosses came out, handcuffed Toussaint, and sadly violence erupted. It was an emotional time for all of us.  It seemed like the world was against us. Labor leaders were being thrown in jail, Bush never met with the AFL-CIO and every letter to the editor in newspaper across the nation hated union members because they made more and worked less.

I’m telling this story now because I want us all to realize what we have ahead of us in Trump’s America and to thank Roger Toussaint and Local 100 of the TWU for making me a true believer in the righteous and organic power of the union movement.

TWU weakened anti-union Taylor Law – Workers World
Ten Years After Transit Strike, Effects Still Reverberate within TWU
2005 New York City Transit Strike – Wikimedia

Sign up for our e-Newsletter!