During Wednesday morning rush hour, signs hung in at least eight New York subway stations, inviting straphangers to ride for free. In Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan, service gates were chained open and turnstiles taped up “in a coordinated response,” according to a press release from the Rank and File Initiative, which took credit for the action, “to escalating service cuts, fare hikes, racist policing, assaults on transit workers’ working conditions and livelihoods – and the profiteering of the super-rich by way of a system they’ve rigged in their favor.”
Truthout spoke with an organizer of the Rank and File Initiative with intimate knowledge of the planning and a desire to remain anonymous. “Dave” told Truthout that the Rank and File Initiative was a loose group of “working class people, many rank and file union members, some who work for unions, some marginal or precariously employed workers and some students” that came together through Occupy Wall Street. The action took place with cooperation from a number of rank-and-file members of Transit Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 without the approbation of the union’s executive leadership. Since January 15, TWU members have been working without a contract.
In addition to contract negotiations, the action was intended to draw attention to what the press release called “the real cause of the problem” – the fact that the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) maintains its operating budget with heavy Wall Street borrowing, with the associated debt passed on to subway riders in the form of fare hikes – up 50 percent over the last decade. According to the press release, “This means Wall Street bondholders receive a huge share of what we put into the system through the MetroCards we buy and the taxes we pay: more than $2 billion a year goes to debt service, and this number is expected to rise every year. If trends continue, by 2018, more than one out of every five dollars of MTA revenue will head to a banker’s pockets.”
Dave indicated that TWU’s “very militant rank and file” was initially “optimistic that the executive leadership of the union would like this tactic of a fare strike, but they were very swiftly disabused of that notion.” A fare strike, being an industrial action, would violate the Taylor Law, which governs public-sector unions in New York State. The idea received “a lot of support from the workers, but they had little confidence that the union would have their backs.” And so the decision was made: “We’re going to have to force the issue ourselves.” TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen denied knowledge of the action to The Daily News.
Some TWU workers are still being docked pay for penalties incurred under the Taylor Law’s provisions during the union’s 2005 strike. In addition to providing “a great opportunity for the press to pillory the workers and make them look horrible and greedy,” Dave says that strike also “did very damaging things for the morale in the union.” Determined not to repeat that course, the TWU members organizing the fare strike looked for common cause with the public. Where a strike like 2005’s was a good excuse for the rich to pit working-class people against one another, a fare strike “united the interest of the working class that rides the subway with the working class within the union.”
Teams of activists totaling about 60 coordinated with transit workers who, says Dave, “have tons of logistical and informational assets” to create Wednesday’s clandestine action “which was basically to force a fare strike.” The Rank and File Initiative wanted to make it so that “tens of thousands of New Yorkers could get in for free, see the propaganda about the contract, and also see propaganda about the May Day General Strike that’s coming up.” Working together “with people on the inside, we planned this, made teams, set up a whole logistical and communications structure with info security, and then we got the go-ahead from the rank and file last night, and we completed it with their support, and now we are in a holding pattern.”
Since the 2008 Wall Street crash, attacks on public unions have accelerated in scope and frequency, most dramatically in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker’s austerity budget last year provoked a massive occupation of the state capital. For labor militants like Dave, the occupation “was a beautiful moment,” but also a lost opportunity for “self-organization among rank and file militants to push something like a general strike.” Like the TWU strike, general strikes are illegal. However, as Dave notes, “the ultimate power of the working class is to withhold our labor.”
Rank-and-file militants seem to have become more willing to withhold labor, however, since the start of Occupy Wall Street. In December, occupiers worked with militant dockworkers on the West Coast, without the approbation of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), creating what Dave calls a “complex and sometimes iffy relationship” between the union and occupiers. Twice, Occupy Oakland was successful in shutting down the port there. Dave thinks this “scared the shit out of the West Coast dock owners and states.” It certainly isn’t the type of labor action Americans are used to seeing. “They’re defending themselves,” insists Dave, but he acknowledges it’s a “kind of movement toward the offensive,” which he “[hopes] that this action” – the fare strike – “can in some way contribute to.”
It takes some gumption to take the welfare state’s disparaging synecdoche – a “free ride” – and literally provide one to tens of thousands, but Dave isn’t satisfied. “I don’t even like these clandestine actions,” he admits. “Nothing amazing is going to happen in this country, nothing beautiful is going to come out of Occupy, if it’s a series of small affinity groups of working class activists doing clandestine actions at night. That’s just not how things pop off.”
For Dave and other Rank and File Initiative contributors, the subway action goes slightly deeper than the surface conflicts. It was about calling into question the idea of transportation as a privilege. “It’s really not about this action, per se, but the tens of thousands of people that actually experienced a free ride, who saw what it was like to have public transportation, at least for one morning. We hope that was a powerful experience.” Some people might not feel entitled to a free ride. “In a real way,” counters Dave, “that subway system is already ours. It was built by the sweat of workers and other tax-payers.”
There is another way in which people should feel entitled to the subway, contends Dave. “This city couldn’t run the way it runs right now,” he says. “You couldn’t have the low wages that you have right now in the service industry, you could have the shitty dilapidated apartments in the outer boroughs, you couldn’t have people living on the edge of subsistence,” without the relatively inexpensive public transportation system. “It basically subsidizes business,” Dave says of the MTA, “because in a way it allows workers to live more cheaply and allows the actual cost of labor to be lower than it otherwise would be in the city.”
When on St. Patrick’s Day, the New York Police Department raided, beat and battered Occupy Wall Street and carted a busload off to jail, it had the MTA send over one of its buses – and driving it, one of TWU’s bus drivers. The transit workers were not happy about this.
Dave assures Truthout we can expect to hear more from the Rank and File Initiative in the future.