Essential work, expendable workers? Fighting for workers' rights on the New York Subway

Posted in Tubeworker's blog on Thu, 26/11/2020 - 12:24,
Photograph of John Ferretti addressing a rally of New York Subway workers

John Ferretti is a train conductor on the New York Subway, and a member of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100. He is involved in the rank-and-file caucus "Local 100 Fightback". He spoke to Tubeworker about the struggle for workers' rights on the Subway. A second part of this interview will appear soon.

What's it been like working on the New York Subway through the Covid pandemic? In particular, how have workers like cleaners been affected?

Well quite frankly it has been terrifying, sad, and alienating. It has also made many transit workers feel angry, abandoned and extremely frustrated by the complete lack of respect for our lives shown by Governor Cuomo, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) bosses, and most outrageously by our own union leadership. There's a also real feeling among transit workers that while our work is considered "essential", our lives were being considered "expendable".

There is a sense of being abandoned and betrayed, especially by the union leadership, because over 130 of our coworkers have died and tens of thousands of us have been infected with Covid-19 unnecessarily because the MTA was allowed by the union's inaction to refuse to implement their own pandemic plan dating back to 2012.

This pandemic plan would have provided transit workers with at least six weeks of all the PPE we desperately needed in the height of the pandemic and almost certainly would have saved many lives and cut down the Covid-19 infection rates in NYC transit. They had the stockpiles of all the PPE we needed and our union members were demanding and they absolutely refused to distribute it because they didn't want to scare the riding public and admit how bad this pandemic really was. To add insult to injury, our members were threatened with discipline if the bought their own PPE and wore it at work.

And the pathetic response from our union leaders was to parrot the lies of the Trump-controlled Centre for Disease Control (CDC) that said that "healthy people did not need masks" and that, given the short supply, if transit workers got them they would be unnecessarily depleting the supplies needed by doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals. Lies, lies, and more boss-loving lies.

Any union leadership worthy of the name would have been using our existing contractual protections to shut down any and all unsafe work, demand that the MTA and Cuomo come up with a plan to provide and fund safe working conditions and a real ongoing pandemic response plan. If they refused, then the union should have told them publicly in no uncertain terms that until they do that the union's position is clear: No PPE, no work! Only when it's safe!

Further these union leaders knew from the earliest days of the pandemic outbreak that the Subway system being kept operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week was a major vector for further spreading this disease, and their demand should have been all along that it was necessary to shut the Subway and bus system down much earlier to help in bending the curve of the pandemic. But instead these pro-capitalist sellouts held hands with Cuomo and the bosses and acted as their public relations representatives within the union and in the news media.

Regarding your question about cleaners, they have long been treated with disrespect and abuse by MTA management. They are at the absolute bottom of the wage scale and do not have civil service status. It takes them longer to reach top pay, they have a vicious plantation-minded supervisory atmosphere and they work in all kinds of unsafe working conditions breathing in solvents, steel dust, silica, and God knows what else.

This is the case for a lot of transit workers throughout the system, but I would say cleaners probably have it worst of all, and not surprisingly the workforce targeted by the MTA for this treatment are overwhelmingly Black, Latino and immigrant workers with a large proportion of women workers.

These conditions I have described are all pre-Covid, so I can't imagine how much worse it has gotten for them now. It is even worse for them now because of union betrayals in the form of agreeing to subcontracted non-union cleaning work in both the Stations and Car Equipment Departments in our last contract. And predictably, the MTA and Cuomo have taken full advantage during the pandemic flooding the system with a non-union, mostly undocumented, immigrant workforce, forcing them to work in unsafe conditions that would have never been accepted by union cleaners, using solvents that have never been used before in NYC transit that may pose significant health risks.

And of course, the hiring of massive numbers of non-union cleaners throughout the Subway and bus system paves the way for the MTA and Cuomo's demands for the 9,300+ layoffs transit workers are now facing.

Our new(ish) boss, TfL commissioner Andy Byford, is your old boss: what was your experience of him?

He's acted as a PR prop for vicious privatisation and other management attacks on our unions.

Yes, he is very intelligent and competent, especially in his knowledge of the nuts and bolts of Subway operations. Yes, he probably thinks of himself as a highly moral person, and really means the praise and support he publicly showers on transit workers, calling them "his miracle workers" for example.

But there is nothing moral about pushing job killing and unsafe "One Person Train Operation" [called "Driver Only Operation", DOO, in the UK] as he did in Toronto. There's nothing moral about pushing speed up to maintain "Optimal Operation" as he did in NYC. Or being the major proponent of outsourcing Subway and bus cleaning to non-union cleaners. And there's nothing moral about running political interference for Cuomo and the MTA bosses as they starve the system for needed resources to pay off $53 billion in bond debt to bankers and other Wall Street parasites at nearly 4% interest over the next three decades.

Public transport in New York is facing a funding crisis which bosses will undoubtedly use as a pretext to attack jobs and conditions, a situation we're very familiar with in London. What's your view on how workers can resist?

The most important and effective way to resist these attacks is to build a consistent class-struggle and social justice-based political counter narrative that makes class-wide demands that represent the real needs of working class, oppressed, and poor people in this era of Covid capitalism. These demands should obviously include taxing the rich, defunding the police, demanding a fully-funded, science-led response to Covid-19 - including free testing, free vaccines when they are available, full funding for any paid leave made necessary because of Covid outbreaks, and greatly increased funding for healthcare in general.

We should also be demanding a program of public works and full employment to really rebuild the economy that capitalist greed, imperialism, and their gross incompetence destroyed. And obviously that should be a green job-led 21st century economy that doesn't destroy the planet.

But in addition to making concrete demands that address the real scale of the economic and social crises we now face, we as socialist trade unionists have never had a better opportunity to explain the true nature of capitalism as the anarchic, anti-human, and immoral system it really is. We should take every opportunity to explain who really produces all value in society. This crisis has proved more than ever before which class is really essential to everything that is needed to secure the future existence of humanity. It has also proved that the global ruling class has no solutions at all for the crisis they created except profiteering and using the crisis as a weapon to pursue their own parasitic class interests. We should expose them as exactly what they are: nothing but an existential threat to human life.

We should also tap into the widespread anger about the gross corruption that is everywhere you look in the global capitalist system. We should point to how the rich often pay no taxes at all while working-class, poor, and oppressed people are taxed heavily and despite working two and three jobs cannot make a living wage. We should expose the unfairness and extortion of the government bailouts of rich corporations and banks while working-class and poor people have been left for dead, not only during this crisis, but for decades.

This program needs to be combined with every attempt to build a class-wide fightback against the current and coming attacks. We expect that nearly all sectors of the working class will face significant attacks on our wages, benefits, healthcare and working conditions. If we allow them to attack us one sector at a time, they will divide us and defeat us. So we need to work to build protests hopefully leading to workplace action that brings many different groups of workers together: transit, healthcare, civil service, delivery, grocery, education, and warehouse are some key groups.

The socialist left should never allow right wing populists and neo-fascists to be the only forces tapping into justified working-class anger against the gross corruption of mainstream political establishment. It's a life-and-death question for our movement because the consequences for the socialist left not taking political education on this question have never been higher. I know this is something that your comrades would have recent experience with in how the Brexit movement primed the pump of nationalist, racist, and anti-immigrant sentiments within the working class.

In the UK, the BLM movement inspired many of us to renew efforts to organise around racial injustice as a workplace/class question - for example, Transport for London has a 9% ethnicity pay gap amongst directly-employed staff. How has the BLM movement affected subway workers, and how have you sought to respond to and support it via workplace activism?

We have had similar experiences in NYC. It was not hard to make the connection between the BLM protests and our union work because we are members in a union that is 77% Black, Latino, and immigrant, with a long history of fighting back against racist contempt from our bosses and showing militancy and defiance in the face of a plantation-minded supervisory atmosphere. We of course did everything possible to encourage our fellow transit workers to join us at these protests, raise and pass motions in support of this movement, and engage in a good deal of political education and discussion through our Facebook Live Stream events.

But it should be noted that often we would meet transit workers independently attending these rallies and marches without needing anyone to tell them that this was their fight. The interracial and global scale of these protest also meant that more white workers than ever before began to join these protests and identify with them in ways that would not have seemed possible even months before.

Given the make-up of our workforce, there was a lot of understanding and support for the movement against police brutality. However, we have yet to see masses of transit workers or other union workers join the movement in any organised way. We hope to connect the movement to defund the police to the movement against austerity by discussing the role of the police under capitalism and how capitalism will attack the working class but, for the most part, keep very high police funding levels so that the police can oppress people of color and the working class. Thus, we can demand that funding from the police go to other places that actually benefit workers such as education or healthcare or our budgets.

In the aftermath of the election, how can the US labour movement and the left mobilise direct action to defend democracy, to oppose racism, and to organise against the inevitably neoliberal policy of the Biden administration? Some labour movement bodies in the US have discussed political strikes to resist potential sabotage of the election by Trump. What's your view on that?

We have signed petitions calling for labour action and strikes to defeat any attempt at a coup, sabotage, or stealing of the Presidential election by Trump or Trumpists.

We also endorsed counter protests against fascist groups like the Proud Boys when they were trying to terrorise black and immigrant voters, and we raised and passed motions in our union calling for the union to use all of the resources at their disposal to build mass mobilisations to defeat any attempt at violence, intimidation at the polls, or any other attempt to steal this election.

We do think it is important to look at the reality on the ground: the working class is on the defensive, and isn't taking much strike action right now to protect itself economically. We would like to see political strikes if there is a real attempt by the right to steal the election, but we strongly believe that the first steps must be a wide working-class mass protest movement. Of course, our conservative and corrupt union leadership said very little, and built no struggle at all in response to these dangers.

Even with Trump defeated, we believe that Trump and Trumpism represented an existential threat to the future democratic and trade union rights of working class, oppressed, and immigrant people. We despise "Jim Crow" Joe Biden and have no illusions in him being anything other than the neo-liberal capitalist politician he has always been.

The number of people voting for Trump, the poor showing of the Democratic party in other federal and state races, and the ability of Trump to rally the right around the false "voter fraud" narrative shows that we need to show the working class a radical left agenda that can actually provide solutions to their problems and fears in this crisis. The only way to accomplish this is a mass working-class movement that can drive this nation to the left by pushing back the right and winning real gains that people need.

Such a movement must take on Biden and the Democrats and demand that capitalists pay first for their crisis and while at the same time fighting the right and their violent hate.

As you can see in our Facebook Live Stream discussions in the months leading up to the election, while we encouraged working class and oppressed people to vote for Biden to defeat Trump and Trumpism, we were brutally honest about the class nature of Biden and the Democratic party, and explained that the motivation behind doing so was to attempt to choose a weaker and less immediately dangerous ruling-class enemy to fight for the next four years.

If Trump had won a second term through mass racist voter suppression, after being impeached, separating immigrant children from their families, and being responsible for the unnecessary death of hundreds of thousands, there would be no limit to the danger posed by him and the toxic racist movement he rode to the heights of American political power.

Voting for Biden and the Democrats in this election was not a solution to anything, but it was being honest with ourselves that we should use any weapon in a fight and it would be insane to not understand the consequences of this election and the differences between a neo-liberal and a neo-fascist.

Biden's election spared us from an even worse attack and an administration that would use unmarked federal officers and right-wing mobs to attack any movement of workers or oppressed people. Biden's election gives us a little time to build the movement we need to fight the right and the coming austerity from both parties. The only goal of encouraging a vote for Biden and the Democrats was to defeat and demoralise our worst and most dangerous class enemy in Trump and Trumpism, and buy the the time and space for the working class and oppressed masses to build the united class struggles that we will need to survive in the years to come.

You're part of a rank-and-file caucus inside your union. What's Local 100 Fightback's perspective for radicalising and democratising the union?

This is a very important question and it is something we focused on quite a bit in building our united front, rank-and-file Coalition. We think that the only way to solve the crisis, that all of our unions face to a greater or lesser degree, is to build member-controlled, democratically functioning, and accountable leadership that roots the struggles of our particular union in the class struggle of the global working class and oppressed. Any new leadership we build must see itself as a self-defense organisation of the whole working class, and must be dedicated to social justice for all of those oppressed and exploited by capitalists all over the world.

In an effort to attempt to build the real membership-controlled union leaderships we believe are absolutely necessary to survive in this period, we publicly founded our coalition calling for the necessity to build a united opposition to the current Local 100 leadership, based on the principles of democratic accountability, workers' solidarity, and social justice.

We issued "An Open Call to Discuss a United, Democratic Opposition to Utano & Co." (Available online here) calling on all serious opponents of Utano to participate in meetings to discuss and decide on how we could build a united opposition based on clear fight-back principles. We proposed an opposition that represented a movement of the members from below and not just an election slate, and for that reason we called for meetings that would be open to all members committed to working to build such an alternative, and not just potential candidates.

The meetings we proposed would have discussed and voted on a program of basic principles that all candidates would be sworn to uphold, and then would vote on what candidates should run for what positions. This would have for the first time put the rank and file members in control of what this opposition represented and fought for before any of these officers were elected.

Throughout our history and work within the union as shop stewards and activists, we have also been at the forefront of leading fights for workplace safety and shutting down unsafe work, enforcing our current contractual and legal rights and educating our co-workers about those rights. At the same time we have also tried to show by our example the power we have as workers to collectively fight back, publicise our bosses unsafe working conditions and exploitation, build political and media pressure upon them and force them to make concessions by building united fights of transit workers with other workers and the riding public.

This is because we knew that the only way for any group of workers to really be successful in defending themselves required a fight for this kind of leadership for the working class and oppressed communities as a whole. A big part of living these principles and values is being able to show what working-class solidarity and unity really looks like in action. Our coalition has always made every effort to build the political and organisational connections between our fight for respect and fairness on the job as transit workers with the struggles of all working people and oppressed communities.

  • More: Local 100 Fightback's selected highlights from the MTA's recent online meeting about potential budget cuts and job losses, including contributions from several Local 100 Fightback activists.
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