They used to call themselves "Hell on Wheels"?and while that remains the name of their newsletter, they've since opted for the less openly threatening "New Directions." New Directions, to put it bluntly, is the radical wing of the TWU.
Eladio Diaz, a New Directions executive board member, describes the group this way: "We're an organization within TWU Local 100 who believe in union democracy and are trying to give the members full control of their union through elections, education and organizing."
Diaz says New Directions currently has between 250 and 300 members, who represent about 60 percent of the total union membership. While several hold seats on the union's executive board, they still consider themselves outsiders in a never-ending war, not only with the MTA, but with the union leadership as well.
The conflict can be seen clearly enough by comparing the websites of the two organizations. While the TWU's is simple and straightforward, it's also a little short on details. For example, although there is much talk of the demands being made during these negotiations, nowhere do they outline what, exactly, the demands are.
Meanwhile, on "Hell on Wheels," not only do they list all 160-plus demands, they also?by name?list the salaries earned by union officials.
According to current New Directions leader Steve Downs, in another "Hell on Wheels" article (entitled "Dealing With the Real Enemy"), "For ten years, the top officers of Local 100 have tried to destroy New Directions. We've been ignored, ridiculed, red-baited, race-baited, harassed, and threatened. Vice-Presidents have tried to prevent us from carrying out our duties as Division officers. And, unfortunately, a few New Directions members have been bought off... If Hall, Seda and James [current leaders of the TWU] had spent half as much effort trying to defeat management as they have trying to defeat New Directions, just think how much better our jobs and contract would be... We remain committed to taking back the power from the union bureaucrats who have stolen it from the members and from the managers who mistreat us on the job."
I asked Mr. Diaz where all this trouble with union president Willie James came from?and furthermore (though I guessed it was a silly question) if he thought that James was acting in the best interests of the union in the current negotiations. It was James, after all, who got union members all riled up during a Nov. 17 rally by publicly tearing up the MTA's counteroffer.
"We cannot trust Willie James," Diaz responded, "because he is part of the problem with what's going on in unions today. Over the years the unions have become weaker and weaker and kept vital information from the members. They sat in the union hall getting fat on our dues and not taking care of business... It's time for a new type of leadership."
And one of the first actions of that new leadership, he says, should be the immediate slashing of executive board salaries. "[They need] to reflect the salaries of the members they represent?not triple and sometimes four times the salaries of the membership. We do not think that James is acting in our best interest because he's tried so hard to keep New Directions officers away from the bargaining table. As a matter of fact we had to get an injunction so that our Division chairs could be part of the negotiation process."
To this point, the TWU's negotiation strategies have included printing up and handing out a million fliers detailing the TWU's stance, and hiring an outside adviser?union strategist Ray Rogers. I asked Diaz what New Directions thought about that.
"First of all, the hiring of Ray Rogers was not done with the approval of the executive board," he said. "TWU is using Ray as a substitute because they didn't get the membership ready for what's to come. The leaflets are educating the public?which is great?but there is a big problem: the membership is being kept in the dark. Willie James did next to nothing to educate the membership and gear them up for a fight to get a good contract."
When I brought up the new contract itself, as well as the demands that were being made, Diaz seemed to have his doubts that the MTA?even in the face of a walkout?would come through with a reasonable compromise. "We can hope that we get all 160-plus demands," he said, "but after [the MTA's] response, they want us to increase our work with less people, for less money. So what do you think?"
Even though you'll be hard-pressed to find any union member openly speaking about a strike?or even using the word itself, which was never uttered during the Nov. 17 rally?another glance through "Hell on Wheels" reveals that New Directions was openly considering and discussing the possibility as long as two years ago.
"Properly organized and properly prepared," the 1997 article stated, "transit workers can win a strike, save our jobs, stop the deterioration of our working conditions and win true pension improvement. And, in the process we can break the back of the Taylor Law [which makes it illegal for transit workers to strike] and force the legislature to grant us amnesty from all penalties if we strike. No union should take striking lightly. But no union can successfully defend itself and its members if it rules out striking. If we are prepared and unified, a strike may not be necessary... We pledge to spend two years properly preparing for a possible strike... We will establish a Local 100 Strike Fund..."
While Diaz didn't comment on whether or not such a fund had ever been established, and wouldn't comment on the possibility of scabs, he did have a few suggestions for commuters.
"The riding public should start talking to their local politicians so that they can push TA to give its workers a good contract," he said. "The TA has fallen behind all the other agencies and are not competitive any more... PATH workers make, on the average, seven dollars to eight dollars per hour more than our workers. The better train operators, conductors, maintenance personnel and bus drivers would eventually leave to other companies for better pay and benefits, and we will be left with less than the best. Wouldn't you think that it will be to the advantage of the ridership to pay more money and give better benefits so that we could become competitive once again?"
Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm a pessimist. But I'm just not getting the sense that any of this is going to end well.