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labor Socialist Strategies in Transit: Twenty Years in Transport Workers Union Local 100

Socialists from many organizations took jobs in NYC transit in the 1980s. A new paper examines: What were the strategies that guided them? What did they accomplish? What caused the collapse of their union reform project? What are lessons for today?

Steve Downs, Tim Schermerhorn and Corine Scott-Mack, of the New Directions caucus in TWU Local 100.,

Much as their counterparts did in the 1930s and 1940s, a few thousand socialists in the late 1960s and ’70s, from a few dozen socialist groups, got working-class jobs in order to organize workers to oppose capitalism, to build their socialist organizations, to connect anti-racist struggles in the community to rebellions in the workplace, and to build a socialist base in the working class.[1] As part of that process, regardless of which group or tendency they belonged to, they had to make a number of critical decisions, starting with — where to work.

They also had to arrive at an overarching strategy for their work in factories, mines, railroads, driving trucks, offices, etc. They had to decide whether to concentrate on work among workers who were already in unions or those not yet unionized. What should their relationship to union officials be? And what about their political work, how would they bring issues from outside the job or union into their time on the job? If they were in unions, should they run for office? Should they seek to build politically broad organizations on the job or focus on building a group in line with the politics of their own socialist group? What attitude should they take toward traditional electoral activity and most unions’ support for the Democratic Party? As you would expect, different groups answered these questions differently.

Now, some fifty years later, a new generation of socialists and activists is thinking about where they should work and how they can organize on the job to challenge bosses, strengthen unions, and build a socialist base in the working class. Much has changed in 50 years. Unions have been in decline and now represent a much smaller percentage of the workforce than they did in the 1970s. Many more of them are in the public sector. The steel mills and auto plants that attracted radicals 50 years ago employ far fewer workers, while hospitals and logistics employ many more.

There are fewer socialist groups taking on the challenge of building a working-class socialist organization. But one that is, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), is much larger, with greater resources, than any of the groups that “industrialized” in the 1960s and ’70s. While many of the groups that carried out a “turn to industry” in the ’70s no longer exist, the questions they had to answer as they organized and agitated; as they worked overtime; as they became parts of their new communities of work, have to be asked and answered anew. The strategies of those groups remain relevant and are part of the current discussion of how to answer those questions.

Hopefully, taking a deep look at the perspectives of the socialists who got jobs working on NYC’s subways and buses in the 1980s will be useful to those who are trying to organize for democracy and justice on the job, and for a socialist society, in the 2020s.

Getting Jobs In Transit

For many socialist groups in NYC, the answer to the question, “where do we want our supporters to work?” was “transit.”[2] By the mid-1980s, over a dozen different groups had supporters in NYC’s public transit system. Their work provides an unusual opportunity to compare the choices they made while doing that work and the impact their supporters had. This article will examine the decisions made during three critical periods: 1) the mid1980s, in the wake of the 1980 transit strike; 2) a pivotal contract fight beginning in 1990; and 3) the few years beginning in 1999 that included another key contract fight and the victory of a reform slate in the union’s election.

In the 1980s, NYC’s public transportation system was actually provided by several distinct entities — the NYC Transit Authority (NYCTA), the Manhattan and the Bronx Surface Operating Authority (MaBSTOA), and private bus companies that provided local bus service in Queens and express bus service into Manhattan.

Subway and bus workers are a large blue-collar workforce. The majority of the NYCTA hourly workforce in the 1980s was composed of Black and Puerto Rican workers. In MaBSTOA and the private lines, the majority were white, although that was changing. The jobs at the NYCTA were civil service, with hiring determined by taking a test. (Doing well on tests was a skill many of the former college students who “industrialized” brought with them).

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The workforces of all three were (and are) strategically important to NY’s economy. And the workers were represented by Transport Workers Union Local 100, an old-line CIO union with a history of militant actions — sometimes sanctioned by the union leadership, other times not.[3]

Transit in the early ’80s was a particular draw for many socialists because the rank-and-file upsurge that had inspired many to get jobs in industry had petered out in the face of back-to-back recessions in the 1970s. Many leftists lost their jobs as auto plants and steel mills closed. Others found that their co-workers were less willing to take chances when fighting against managements’ demands for givebacks for fear of losing their jobs. And then Reagan broke the PATCO strike — signaling open season on unions and their contracts. However, despite the decline in militancy in much of the country, it seemed that transit workers hadn’t gotten the memo.

They fought back against the cuts management tried to impose in the course of NYC’s fiscal crisis in the mid-70s. They built opposition caucuses that were especially strong among subway workers. By early 1980, a bare majority on the Local’s executive board supported the opposition.[4] When, in April 1980, the executive board narrowly rejected a proposed contract recommended by the union president, John Lawe, TWU 100 was on strike.

That strike, which lasted 11 days, was significant for many reasons. First — and most important — it happened. This was a strike against austerity in the financial and media center of the country. It took place against the wishes of the union’s president and was driven by rank and file workers angry about the cuts they had been forced to accept over the previous several years

By most measures, the strike was a success. Not only were NYC’s subways and buses shut down, but the final agreement produced a higher raise than Lawe had been willing to accept and the defeat of many of management’s demands for givebacks from the union.[5]

However, despite these gains in the contract, many transit workers felt they had lost. Strikes by public employees are illegal in New York. The union was fined for violating an injunction and it lost dues check-off. In addition, each worker who struck was fined one day’s pay for each day they were on strike. Put another way, they weren’t paid while on strike and they were fined an additional day for each day they struck. Although the extra wage increase won as a result of the strike paid for the fines within the first year, the fact the union did not succeed in eliminating the fines left many workers feeling they had been defeated.

The strike marked the high-water mark for the rank and file groups that had developed in the late70s. In the 1981 election, the opposition failed to unite around a single slate. John Lawe was easily re-elected and his slate once again controlled the Executive Board.[6]

Socialists in Transit in the mid-1980s

By my count, in the 1980s thirteen groups had supporters politically active in transit and in TWU 100. Each group saw this workforce and this union7 as important places to do political organizing to build a stronger union, a more powerful working class movement, and support for their version of socialist politics. Thus, for a few years, NYC Transit and TWU 100 served as laboratories where the political perspectives and strategies of a broad swath of the US left were tested against one another.


Steve Downs is a retired NYC subway Train Operator. He is a former officer of Transport Workers Union Local 100. Downs is the author of Hell on Wheels: The Success & Failure of Reform in Transport Workers Union Local 100.


[1] For more on the “turn to industry,” see Turn to the Working Class: The New Left, Black Liberation, and the U.S. Labor Movement (1967-1981) by Kieran Walsh Taylor. Unpublished dissertation, 2007, University of North Carolina. See Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism OnLine (EROL),
[2] For reasons dating back at least to the Red Scare of the 1940s, some socialists refer to themselves as “supporters” rather than “members” of their group. I’ll be referring to everyone who identified with and supported any of the specific left-wing organizations mentioned here (whether they called themselves members or supporters) as a supporter. With the exception of a few individuals who were very public about their connections to one or another socialist group, I will not identify the supporters of specific groups by name. One exception is myself. I was a member of Workers Power, and then Solidarity, throughout the period discussed here.
[3] The New York City Transit Authority — the TA — operates the city’s subway, bus routes in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and parts of Queens and Manhattan. TA workers are public employees covered by civil service. Buses in the Bronx and much of Manhattan are operated by the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority (MaBSTOA or the OA). Most of the hourly workers at the TA and all of them at MaBSTOA are represented by TWU 100. MaBSTOA was formed when the city took over several private bus lines following a strike in 1962. It was a key base of support for the union leadership and, prior to 2000, most of Local 100’s presidents came from MaBSTOA or the private bus lines that preceded it. Following the 2005 transit strike, the private bus lines in Queens, as well as express bus service from Westchester into Manhattan which had been contracted to a private bus company, were taken over by the state and are now operated by MTA Bus. Workers at MaBSTOA and MTA Bus are public employees but not covered by civil service. The TA also operates bus service on Staten Island. Those workers, along with those in two depots in Queens, are public employees covered by civil service, but they are represented by two locals of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), not the TWU.
[4] Two opposition slates won 19 of 45 seats on the Board in 1979. Another opponent of the leadership ran and won as an independent. Another won a vacancy election in early 1980. Then, two Board members who had run with the incumbents switched their support to the opposition. This gave the opposition a 23 to 22 edge.
[5] When the tentative agreement was presented to the Executive Board, one of the members who had been elected with Lawe’s opponents and who had voted against the earlier agreement was not at the meeting because he was on National Guard service. When the vote on accepting this new agreement was a tie, Lawe then left the meeting room, went to the press who were waiting to learn whether the strike was over, and declared that the Board was recommending that the membership accept the agreement. In the meantime, the members would return to work. This led to allegations that Lawe had voted twice — first to create the tie and then to break it. For more on the 1980 strike and its aftermath, see Joshua Freeman, Working Class New York, pgs 284 – 288; Steve Burghardt, “The New York Transit Strike of 1980,” Against the Current #1, Fall 1980; Jarvis Tyner and Bill Perelman, “What Were the Results of the 1980 NYC Transit Strike? A Communist Party USA Analysis.” This is a reprint of “Transit Battle in the Big Apple,” Political Affairs, August 1980 issue. Pamphlet in my possession.
[6] Of the over 20,000 votes cast, John Lawe received 11,732, Arnold Cherry and Mike Warren (who were each supported by a segment of Lawe’s Executive Board opponents) got 5,272 and 3,228 votes, respectively. Ed Karsten, a candidate supported by the Spartacist League had 136 votes
[7] In the 1980s, and up until 2001, TWU 100, a union local with over 35,000 members (now 41,000) who worked 24/7 at hundreds of work locations throughout NYC, did not have local-wide meetings. When workers met as a union, they did so in division and section meetings. These were defined by job title or area of work. For example, Train Operators, Conductors and Tower Operators (the subway operating crews) were in the Rapid Transit Operations department. The Train Operators division (covering over 3000 members) met in one meeting, while the Conductors/Towers divisions (another 3000+ members) met in another. Bus Operators in the public sector were split among three different divisions that never met together. Those in the private sector met in several different sections, depending on their employer. The Local did not have its own newspaper. Instead, the officers used an insert placed in the national unions’ monthly paper. In some parts of the union, stewards were elected. In others, they were appointed. There were few stewards and no stewards council.