Strike Leaves New York City Transit Union Weaker
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The man responsible for the transit strike that brought New York City to a screeching halt at the height of the Christmas season has gone to jail for leading the walk-out. Union boss Roger Toussaint turned himself in for a ten-day sentence for violating a New York State law banning strikes by public employee. As NPR's Robert Smith reports, the jail time comes when the transit union is still without a contract and struggling to survive.
ROGER SMITH reporting:
The head of the Transport Worker's Union decided not to go quietly to jail.
(Soundbite of crowd chanting)
In his last hours as a free man, Roger Toussaint led a boisterous union rally outside the Brooklyn courthouse where he was sentenced.
Mr. ROGER TOUSSAINT (New York City Transit Union Leader): Even if the judge had given me 30 years, I would gladly walk to the prison, gladly stand up for the dignity of working men and women.
SMITH: Going to jail for going on strike has made Toussaint a verifiable union hero in New York. At the rally, he was compared to Rosa Parks and Lech Valenza, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Never mind that Toussaint will be in the slammer for a little more than a week.
The Reverend Al Sharpton said the union boss dared to challenge the powerful.
Rev. AL SHARPTON (Activist): We know why you're punishing Toussaint, because he interfered with the fourth-quarter Christmas earnings of the big boys.
SMITH: Conspiracy theories aside, Toussaint's union did violate the Taylor Law, which makes it illegal for public employees in New York to strike. Along with sending the boss to jail, a judge in recent months has fined the union $2.5 million and removed the automatic dues collection mechanism where the union gets most of its money.
And even though it's been four months since they've gone back to work, the union and the transit authority still haven't signed a contract. In a strange way, the rockiest trip to jail for Toussaint is the best thing that's happened to the union since the strike.
Mr. TOUSSAINT: Heading off to the jail.
(Soundbite of crowd repeating)
SMITH: After the rally, Toussaint and hundreds of transit workers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge toward the jailhouse. I couldn't help but be reminded of those cold days in December when thousands of New Yorkers were forced to do the same trek.
At the base of the bridge, Peter Pintak(ph) sat in his car waiting for the marchers to pass. He said he was glad Toussaint was going to jail after all the trouble last year's strike caused him.
Mr. PETER PINTAK: I got stuck in all that traffic one night out there, so I know it was brutal. I had people coming in car.
SMITH: And now here you are stuck in traffic again because of the Transit Worker's Union.
Mr. PINTAK: What else is new, you know what I'm saying?
SMITH: Shauna Dermer(ph), trying to get through all the commotion on the bridge, agreed that Toussaint should go to jail. But she had more sympathy for the union.
Ms. SHAUNA DERMER: I mean, it was done knowingly that it was against the law, but maybe the law should be re-looked at, because how are they going to get ahead if they are not able to strike?
(Soundbite of crowd yelling)
SMITH: The march ended in lower Manhattan at the jail complex known as The Tombs. Toussaint stepped in front of the union crowd one last time.
(Soundbite of drums)
Mr. TOUSSAINT: I take no shame in being jailed for standing up for what I believe and for the dignity of members of Local 100.
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
Jail has no terror for me compared to the shame I would have felt if we had simply swallowed the authority's miserable pre-strike offer.
SMITH: If the whole thing smacks of theatrics, well, that's just a new phase of this labor dispute. The MTA Board, which runs the subway system, will meet tomorrow and the union hopes it will consider the contract that the membership recently approved. Transit workers say that it doesn't hurt to have a sympathetic martyr in jail to turn up the pressure.
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.