Transit Union's Family Spat

As if the striking transit workers didn't already have enough enemies, bad blood between Transport Workers Union Local 100 and its national parent body spilled over into a Brooklyn courtroom today where a lawyer for the national union condemned the ongoing walkout as unreasonable and unauthorized.

Appearing before Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Theodore Jones who was considering whether or not to levy massive fines for the walkout, lawyer Peter DiChiara said that TWU national president Michael O'Brien had argued long and hard early this morning to convince the executive board of the 34,000-member local not to go on strike.

"President O'Brien did his very best to persuade the local board that striking was not a good idea. He presented a number of arguments," said DiChiara.

Under the union's constitution, DiChiara told the judge, the walkout had to be approved by the national president. But O'Brien had refused. "Mr. O'Brien told the local he was not approving the strike. It is unauthorized."

The national union went a step further, posting a statement from O'Brien on its web site, and emailing it to members, that the only road to contract victory was "not strike but continued negotiation."

By disassociating itself with the illegal walkout, the parent union managed to get itself off the hook for fines for violating Judge Jones' December 13 injunction barring a strike. Lawyers for state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who are charged with enforcing the state's Taylor law, agreed that they had no gripe with the national union, and dropped it from its lawsuit. A few hours later, the judge imposed a $1 million a day fine against the local, and then scheduled another hearing for tomorrow to consider more sanctions against individual leaders of the union as well.

But the unusual bad-mouthing of the local union by its national leader is only the latest episode in an ongoing feud between the two organizations that began with the election of Roger Toussaint in 2000.

Toussaint won election by campaigning against the old guard which was personified by former TWU Local 100 president Sonny Hall who had gone on to head the national union. Toussaint decisively beat a Hall-backed candidate, claiming that the union had squandered both its finances and its clout by playing footsy with transit managers. Once in office, he sliced his own salary by $15,000. His slate of dissidents made similar cuts in their pay. He eliminated an extra pension that local officers had awarded themselves, and also dropped an expensive health plan for officers, putting them on the same plan as members.

One year after his election to the leadership of Local 100, the largest unit in the 120,000-member union, Toussaint challenged Hall for the presidency of the national body. He was roundly defeated. But the election opened a window on the kind of bitter divisions that were wracking the union. Occurring at a union convention just a month after the 9-11 attacks, the campaign against Toussaint's candidacy included distribution of flyers that called Toussaint an ally of Osama Bin Laden.

In 2002, during the last round of contentious talks between the local and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Toussaint and his allies were haunted by the possibility that should they strike, they faced not just the legal sanctions by the state and the city, but the likelihood that Hall would place the local under trusteeship, firing the elected leaders.

In the midst of those talks, those suspicions were fueled by on-air comments by Hall's friend ex-Senator Al D'Amato that Hall would be there "to save the day" in the event of a strike.

There was no strike in 2002, but the threat of a potential takeover by the national union has continued to haunt the local, and has made Toussaint's tightrope walk even more precarious.

The division reflects more than just styles of leadership. The election of Toussaint, a native of Trinidad, represented the culmination of years of racial change among transit workers who were once largely Irish-American. Younger minority workers charged that the old ethnic leadership were more interested in preserving perks for older members than protecting them from the MTA's often draconian disciplinary system.

After his election, Toussaint further outraged Hall and his allies by challenging past local fiscal decisions, including a decision by the union to sell its old headquarters on Broadway for $13.5 million. Six weeks later, the site was resold for $29 million. Records dug up by the union indicated that the local's former attorney had collected a brokerage fee for the building's resale. Toussaint challenged the deal in court, though Hall said he knew nothing about the deal and that it should be investigated.

O'Brien, who earns $216,000 as president of the national union (Toussaint's current wage is $102,000), openly told executive board members last night that he believed that progress was being made at the talks and the union should take the reformulated MTA offer which called for 6 percent annual pension contributions for new employees. Toussaint countered that the offer was a poison pill, one that would burden new members with inferior benefits and which would quickly become a cudgel used against other municipal workers.

At the court hearing in Brooklyn, as soon as the judge dismissed the national union from the lawsuit, its lawyers quickly packed their leather legal satchels and bustled out onto Court Street.

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