35 Years Ago: MTA Workers Strike for 11 Days

A Transportation Alternatives volunteer directs hordes of bikers commuting to work.

A Transportation Alternatives volunteer directs hordes of inexperienced bikers commuting to work.

We all know how frustrating it is when your morning train has issues. (I’m looking at you, L line!) Now imagine eleven days without subways or buses. By 1980, the city had started to recover from the mid-70s fiscal crisis, but dealing with union contracts, many of which had been frozen or taken a hit during the crisis, presented a new challenge. In the conventional telling of the story, the Transit Workers Union Local 100 demanded a 30% raise and more days off, the MTA countered with a 3.5% raise and increased productivity requirements on March 31, and the strike began on April 1. The seeming outlandishness on both sides makes more sense with a bit of historical context.

Going into the 1980 contract negotiations, the TWU and its 35,000 subway and bus workers were looking for their first raise since 1974, a time of rampant inflation that had decimated workers’ purchasing power. Local 100 was represented by John Lawe, a former bus cleaner struggling to hold the line against a highly militant wing of the union that was itching for a strike. On the government side, newly appointed MTA Chair Richard Ravitch was trying to hash out a deal while Mayor Ed Koch, who had no formal role in the negotiations, howled against the union to ratchet up his base for upcoming battles over municipal union contracts. Governor Hugh Carey, for his part, didn’t want to raise the fare from 50 cents, which left little room for negotiation between the MTA and union.

Ravitch had a pretty good plan. Knowing Lawe’s only hope of convincing his members to avoid striking was coming out looking like a winner, he deliberately lowballed Lawe publicly. Lawe was then supposed to convince his membership to make one more final counteroffer minutes before the strike, which Ravitch would humbly accept. Everyone wins. According to Ravitch, however, the union rank and file was so riled up during the hours before the strike that Lawe couldn’t even get a vote on making a counteroffer.

Ed Koch at the Williamsburg Bridge, urging commuters to break the strike by walking to work. Koch visited bridges every morning and evening during the 11-day strike.

Ed Koch at the Williamsburg Bridge, urging commuters to break the strike by walking to work. Koch visited bridges every morning and evening during the 11-day strike.

My best moment in life. I’ll be remembered for the transit strike more than anything else…I changed the course of history for the City of New York.”

The image of Ed Koch hollering at New Yorkers crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to keep walking and working is indeed among the more memorable images of his mayoralty. I spoke with Jim Gannon, the current Director of Communications of the TWU Local 100, who does not remember Koch’s role as particularly helpful, feeling that his inflamed rhetoric (“We’re not gonna let these bastards bring us to our knees.”) only calcified union support for the strike. Ravitch concurred, recalling that Koch was so determined to break the TWU that he hadn’t even considered the consequence, which would be transit workers being taken over by the Teamsters Union.

Gannon acknowledged, however, that the public, outside of a working class enclaves, were unsympathetic to the strike given its enormous inconvenience. During the 1966 transit strike, which had lasted 12 days, the union had come out on top, but support for public unions was far lower in 1980.

Meanwhile, Manhattan, a total zoo under normal conditions, became more crowded than ever during the transit strike, with approximately 500,000 people packing into hotels, armies of inexperienced bicyclists swerving through the streets without bike lanes, and traffic cops enforcing mandatory car pools for vehicles entering the island during rush hour. Many took to wearing sneakers instead of work shoes, which I heartily approve.

Finally, on April 11, the TWU and MTA agreed to a 9% raise for the first year of the new contract, and 8% raise for the second year, and some cost of living adjustments.

Ironically, the MTA had lost so much money during the strike that it had no choice but to raise the fare to 60 cents. (Some fare-beaters ingeniously figured out that the new token was the same shape as the Russian three-kopek coin, worth five cents.) The 1966 Taylor Law, which had been enacted specifically to stop this type of public employee strike, was used to levy $750,000 of fines on the union, and cost strikers two days of pay for every day of the strike. Lawe took it in stride. “We had to get it out of our systems…It will break our treasury, but our union was not built on money but on backbone.” Lawe’s slate crushed his militant opposition during the next union election.

The TWU didn’t strike again until 2005, and that didn’t go much better for them. There are some things you just don’t mess with in this city, and the subway system is one of them.

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