Gertrude Shaw Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Gertrude Shaw

TWU Calls Rally on Transit Wage Issue

Vacillating Leaders Endanger Transit Union;
Play into Transit Commission’s Hands

(8 February 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 6, 8 February 1943, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

New York Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union has called for a public rally at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, February 9, at 8:00 p.m. Such a demonstration is excellent. Every worker should support it.

The union is also asking “The People of the City of New York” to “Please Write Now to the Mayor.”

Yes, it is indeed in order for all users of the transit systems to support the men and women who make possible safe travel from one end of the city to another, and to tell the Mayor what they think of his anti-labor policy.

But such supplementary measures are no substitute for action by the workers themselves. The “All-Star Entertainment” to be provided at the rally should not be permitted to obscure the issue. Unless the meeting produces a real ultimatum to the Mayor and Board of Transportation, with the full sympathy and support of those assembled in the Garden, it will be another fizzle.

Within TWU Local 100 itself exists the best possible proof of the efficacy of rank and file action. The 1,200 employees of the Fifth Avenue Coach Co. – members of the local – who in the recent past showed their mettle in an admirably militant strike, now get an eight per cent wage increase without having to strike for it. The Fifth Avenue Coach Co. still remembers the bus strike!

But the 32,000 employees on New York City’s subways and other transit lines – also members of the local – are still taking the insults of the city’s Mayor and Board of Transportation instead of wage increases to catch up with the runaway cost of living. The city transit workers have not engaged in united militant action to enforce their fair demands. Their officers make strike threats that they have no intention of carrying out.

What Who Holds Dear?

Messrs. La Guardia and Delaney are no dopes. They thumb their noses at a union which does not use its power, while that union – imitating big business – spends its less plentiful and precious money on full-page ads pleading with the Mayor: “For the Sake of All We Hold Dear, Let us Arbitrate!”

But what the Mayor and Board of Transportation of the city hold dear, is not what workers hold dear. Philip Murray, CIO president who conferred with Mr. Delaney, said about this absolute-ruler-by-divine-right:

“I came away with the distinct impression that he not only was hostile and antagonistic to the union and therefore incapable of negotiating with it in good faith, but also that he is utterly indifferent to the needs and welfare of the employees whose fate he holds in his hands.”

Mr. McMahon, president of Local 100, claims that the city makes a net profit of $1,000 a year on every one of its 32,000 transit workers. This profit is one of the things the Mayor and the Board of Transportation hold dear.

Some three years ago, when the Mayor negotiated the purchase of the IRT and BMT subways from the banks which owned them, the TWU protested that $315,000,000 was much too high a price because it represented water-flooded stock. However, the city fathers placed the profits of bankers above the protests of workers. They paid the exorbitant price – and the labor of the transit workers produce the handsome interest that the banks are getting on this unwarranted purchase price.

The workers themselves, however, get handouts of one cent and two cents an hour – presumably to meet the official 21 per cent rise in the cost of living.

Quill Squirms Out of a Hole

On December 23, Michael Quill, international president of the TWU, seemed to be talking turkey. He threatened that unless the case of the transit workers – kicked around from the City Hal1 to the White House and back for more than two years – was submitted to arbitration within two weeks, the 32,000 transit workers would strike. The two weeks expired, and a membership meeting was called on January 6. The newspaper PM predicted about this meeting: “... It is a foregone conclusion that the rank and file will demand a subway strike.”

But that proved to be exactly what the leadership did not want. On January 5, Mr. Murray wrote another of his famous letters to the Mayor, and then sat himself down on the lid of rank and file discontent. Mr. Quill and Mr McMahon put their posteriors to the same use, and at the membership meeting employed their combined eloquence to divert the workers from striking. Another one of those resolutions calling for arbitration was passed.

Mr Quill is an expert at squirming out of holes. He squirmed out of his strike threat of a fortnight before by implying that to strike would be to adopt an “anti-war position” and would be playing into the hands of Messrs. LaGuardia and Delaney, whom he chastised by calling them “pro-Hitler” reactionaries. This weak-kneed backing and filling, this unprincipled playing around with the rank and file, Philip Murray designated as “responsibility, statesmanship and patriotism.”

Ranks Boiling Mad

The leadership’s sitting on the lid has not, however, stopped the boiling underneath. Beginning January 25 a series of spontaneous strikes broke out on the subways. On the BMT, 800 repair shop men quit and demanded that Delaney come down and explain the so-called pay increases they had received. Some men got one cent an hour, some two cents, some ten cents, and some got nothing, with no apparent reason for the disparities, for the men are doing the same kind of work. On the IRT 2,500 men in eight shops sat down, incensed by the insults handed them in their pay envelopes. At one of the IRT power stations 320 men struck. Out in Jamaica 121 workers at the IND inspection barn protested at the employment of a Board of Transportation sto0ge. At the 207th Street repair shop of the IND 600 men laid off for 4 hours.

Quill, McMahon and available union officials hot-footed from one struck shop to another, persuading the angry men to go back to work. Quill swam so hard against the stream of rank and file strike sentiment that his appendix gave out. However, the workers are set for action. For instance, the power house men who were induced to return to work are reported to have said that unless there is a settlement in a week, they will walk out and stay out.

The mock increase, now in effect, with which the Mayor hoped to placate the transit workers – who are struggling against the overwhelming odds of high prices, high taxes and high everything else – leaves 20,000 of these workers out in the cold with no increases at all. Of the workers who received raises, many “benefited” to the extent of one or two cents an hour. Only a handful of mechanics were given anything like a substantial increase. Even at that the garage mechanics on the city lines get only 85 cents an hour while garage mechanics on the Fifth Avenue Coach Co. lines makes $1.10 for the same work. Among the workers whose wages were not increased at all there are thousands of married men earning less than $25 a week, and among those who did get a dry bone there are thousands who still make only a little more than $25 a week.

In September 1941, the New York City transit workers were big-heartedly allowed an eight percent increase in wages by their bountiful masters, whereas the Little Steel formula permitted 15 per cent increases on the basis of January 1, 1941, cost of living levels. Actually, therefore, from January to September 1941, the transit workers had taken a 15 per cent wage cut.

With the 8 per cent wage increase in September that cut was reduced to 7 per cent. But the cut has been deepening as the cost of living has continued upward, until today the wage cut amounts to around 17 per cent in terms of the purchasing power of the dollar. But their leaders tell these outrageously exploited workers that if they strike they will be aiding the “pro-Hitler” reactionaries.

The transit workers of New York have not only been the mat for the muddy feet of the city fathers, they have been stepped on by Washington as well. The WLB, whose functions are supposed to cover “all industries and all employees,” refused to take the case of the transit workers under its jurisdiction. This refusal, be it remembered, came as a result of the desire of the White House to appease the Southern democrats and other bourbons in Congress whose ambition it is to allow each bunch of reactionaries to remain supreme in its own bailiwick.

The case of the New York City transit workers has reached a climax. The vacillations of the leadership not only endanger the immediate demands of thee workers but the union itself. The rally at Madison Square Garden must mark the beginning of militant action.

Gertrude Shaw Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers’ Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 13 February 2015