31 October 2002 Edition

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Revolutionary links across the ocean

History came full circle when Roger Toussaint, the new President of the 36,000-strong New York City branch of the Transport Workers' Union of America, Local 100, came to visit the birthplace of the union's founder, the legendary Michael Quill, in Kilgarvan, County Kerry, earlier this month.

Roger Toussaint was on his way to address the SIPTU Regional Conference in Killarney on 12 October. The day before he had just led his members out of negotiations for a new contract for his members, who between them run six million bus and subway rides a day for New Yorkers. In doing so, Roger Toussaint was following in the footsteps of the great leader Mike Quill from Kerry.

In the steps of Mike Quill

Michael Quill had fought in 1916 and in the War of Independence. He was a union organiser who was sacked for staging a sit-in strike in a Kenmare sawmill. Michael was an IRA despatch rider, and the family home was the headquarters of Kerry No 2 Brigade of the IRA. His uncle's house in Kilgarvan was nicknamed 'Liberty Hall' by the British occupying garrison of Black and Tans.

Mike Quill was forced to leave Ireland after the Civil War. Penniless, he went to New York, found a job as a railroad clerk, and began his life of organising the transit workers, who, in those days, were mostly immigrant Irish who endured appalling working conditions.

The union's web site recalls: "Transit companies were then owned by powerful and wealthy private interests, which kept wages pitifully low and working conditions abysmal. Most transit workers laboured seven days a week anywhere from 8.5 to 11.5 hours a day. In desperation, workers tried in vain to organise unions in 1905, 1910, 1916 and 1919. Strikes in those years were brutally suppressed by management goons, anti-worker courts and government officials."

The site also cites "James Connolly, the great Irish socialist labour leader, whose writings and philosophy would eventually inspire the founders of TWU". The union held its first meeting in April 1934.

Quill built the union into a force to be reckoned with, and indeed, it brought Mayor John Lindsay to his knees when he took the union on in 1966, New York's first big transit strike, when a system sering 8 million people a day was completely halted.

Building the TWU

Michael Quill was a fiery and fearless man, who it is reported took pleasure in threatening mayors, governors and the mighty Transit Authority, and won that great strike battle in 1966. The TWU became the first union to win wages, health benefits, holiday pay and pension rights, which set a precedent for all municipal workers. During the course of the dispute, he was one of eight union leaders jailed for refusing to obey a judge's injunction to stop the strike. Mike said the judge "could drop dead in his black robes". Days after the union victory, however, Mike Quill died - the exertions of his lifelong union work had killed him.

Toussaint in Trinidad

Roger Toussaint has a similar background as a revolutionary. He spent the early years of his life in the underground fighting the British neo-colonial regime in Trinidad and Tobago.

In 1970, a rebellion started amongst the island's population of 1.2 million, half of whom are descendants of slaves and half of whom came from Indian indentured slavery. More than one tenth of the population were involved in the street fighting, the demonstrations and strikes against a military dictatorship that ruled by repression and fostering division between the two racial groups. Roger Toussaint was a member of the underground movement that finally broke the neo colonial regime on the oil rich island of Trinidad.

Born in great poverty into a family of nine, he, like Michael Quill before him, had to leave his native country, and went penniless to New York in 1974. Starting out as a cleaner and then a track worker, he progressed within the union until he ousted the old leadership of the union in 2000, on a ticket to build it back to its former strength and "to bring back respect and dignity to the membership", which they had in the days of Michael Quill.

Transit Authority tyranny

Since Michael Quill's death, the union members have suffered great hardships over the past 40 years. Its now largely black membership has been brought low by a disciplinary system which, Roger Toussaint says is reminiscent of the plantation mentality.

Today, the Transit Authority takes 16,000 disciplinary actions against its workers annually, more than ten times the disciplinary rate for other mass-transit systems. These actions arise mainly through sick leave, when members are required to report their movements. "Every time they leave their house or move from one place to another, they are required to report. "It's like house arrest," says Roger Toussaint.

The year before Roger Toussaint was elected to head the union, an injunction against union members declared it illegal to take part in, or even to discuss slowdowns, job actions or strikes. A penalty of $25,000 a day was brought in as punishment should workers break this rule. This draconian measure still hangs over transport workers but on 15 December this year, the current contract with the city expires.

That is the contract that Roger Toussaint is in the process of renegotiating. "If anyone imagines that transit workers will stand for plantation conditions any longer, they have something to learn about the human quest for dignity," says Toussaint. "Call it Justice 101."

Organising for 21st century

Toussaint left New York for his visit to Ireland to address SIPTU's regional conference and to pay respects at Mike Quill's memorial in Kilgarvan, County Kerry. He also came to Ireland to meet Gerry Adams and the new president of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union, which represents the workers in London's Underground. Though Toussaint's revolutionary heart my be with Mike Quill in the 20th century, his ideas on building the union so that its members may be respected and treated at human beings are firmly planted in the 21st.

"You don't achieve your objectives by traditional confrontational methods," he says. "We want to go back to the militant legacies of trade unionism in the context of modern trade unionism, which fights on a very sophisticated battlefield, where winning the hearts and minds of the people is crucial.

"The union needs to become a legislative machine, as well as to have support on the streets. You need a sophisticated PR machine, because you cannot ignore attempts to confuse people and isolate your fight. The union becomes part of the glue that holds families together in hard times of constant and unrelenting battle, where the bosses still think they are running a plantation.

"I understand the consequences of denying people their dignity. But in the end of the day the rules of life apply. If you don't achieve your objectives, because you are neither respected nor feared, then you must fight for them. That's life. That was Mike Quill's way."

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