A few reflections on a brief history of New Direction Caucus in NYC Transit (1980’s – 2005)




by Kiki Makandal

(January 23, 2015)

First, it’s important to note that I was not a NYC transit worker, nor was I a member of New Directions. These are mainly reflections of what I remember on observations and conversations I have had with different New Direction members over the years, coming from my interactions with them in the course of various labor solidarity actions in NYC while New Directions was in struggle and after it eventually dissolved. Please bear in mind that there may be some factual inaccuracies.

New Directions came about as a result of a confluence of factors:

  • A growing fraction of Transit workers seeing themselves as dissidents and disagreeing with the policies their union leadership in the face of NYC financial crisis and the resulting crunch on the contracts of city workers, increasing repressive measures enacted by the MTA board, collaboration between union leadership and the MTA in repressing dissidents, practices of cronyism within the union, and “behind the doors” negotiations which excluded the participation of members, leading to a series of give backs and cutbacks.
  • The active participation of a number of different groups on the left whose members became transit workers and engaged in these struggles. Many different tendencies were represented, from anarchist, anarcho-syndicalist. IWW, quite a few Trotskyite groups, including Solidarity, Socialist Action, LRP (League for a revolutionary Party), Spartacists… and some Black Rank and File Workers groups… One of the underlying reasons for Trotskyite involvement was the importance of transit workers in bringing about a general strike, as a strategic instrument in socialist revolution, as a key strategic component for many of these Trotskyite tendencies. “New Directions” caucuses were promoted as an organizing model in the struggle to reform and democratize unions in many different localities and the movement, I think, is linked to the Solidarity platform and Labor Notes.

New Directions was first established as a propaganda platform to mobilize transit workers and organize those who disagreed with union leadership. It was organized along the general lines of promoting Rank and File, Bottom-Up, democratic and broad participation of workers for the staunch defense of their interests, in opposition and as alternative to the established top down, bureaucratic, centralized collaborationist union leadership, infested with cronyism.

At first, New Direction’s platform included some of the key principles of democratic union organizing, including immediate recall of elected representatives by a general assembly of workers, votes on all negotiating stands, votes on final negotiations by a general assembly and limits on salaries of union officials to the top pay level of the workers they represent. No union official could earn a salary higher than the top paid worker he/she represented. These general principles were promoted along with specific demands concerning contract negotiations, work rules, fighting against increasing repressive disciplinary regulations and for improving general working conditions, against layoffs and elimination of positions due to automation and implementation of new technology (gradual elimination of token clerks and their replacement by automated transit card machines, one operator train crews…) standing for no give backs, no cut backs and achieving at least cost-of-living wage adjustments.

Based on this platform, New Directions began to run a slate of candidates, mainly as a propaganda tool. The active militancy on the movement forced the current union leadership to take into account some of New Direction’s demands, while the success New Directions achieved in the elections, with some becoming union reps and union board members, led to increasing collaboration between the established union leadership and the MTA in using work sanctions to repress New Direction members.

The relative success New Directions achieved in these elections also led it to change from being mainly a platform for militancy and propaganda to becoming an electoral platform with the goal of winning the election. Once winning the election became the main focus of New Directions, it lost some of its militancy by trying to appeal to more conservative workers and shedding some of its left politics. It also dropped some elements of its platform, like the limit on salaries of union officials, and it invited more centrist candidates to run on the New Directions Slate to secure a greater chance of winning the election.

Eventually, New Directions dropped the candidate it had been running for president (Tim Schemerhorn, running him instead for vice-president) and replaced him with Roger Toussaint, a populist figure who had been fired by the MTA on trumped up charges related to increasing repressive disciplinary measures. This slate of candidates won the elections and immediately, divisions began to take apart New Directions, as it had to switch from an opposition movement to running the very bureaucracy it had been criticizing all along.

Because New Directions’ platform had become so diluted by the compromises it made trying to win over more centrist votes in the elections, it was void of any elements of structural reform that could be linked to rank and file empowerment and bottom-up mobilization and organizing. The new elected members were simply the new “good guys” in the same old positions within the entrenched structures that promoted the same type of cronyism of the past. So there were no significant reforms enacted to promote rank and file participation or bottom-up organizing.

This trade union model of worker organization has already been significantly compromised and co-opted by capitalism. These union leaders are not workers, they are managers of capital. For the most part, these large unions are run as businesses; most large unions run health-care plans and retirement plans or credit card operations with sizeable investments of capital that they manage. Some unions have sizeable real-estate holdings that they manage. By and large, unions depend on dues check-off to collect union dues from their members in partnership with business management, and workers effectively come to perceive their union dues as just another salary deduction that they pay get the benefits of union protection. Functionally and structurally, these unions act as intermediaries (separating workers from their struggles) and agents of cooperation with management, always seeking agreements that ensure the continuing exploitation of labor by capital. Some of the staff who work in these union bureaucracies have to be unionized in separate unions to protect them against their union bureaucrats! And most large unions become pawns in the larger electoral contests (local, state and federal), serving as a pool of voters and a source of funding. This is at best a compromised model of worker organizing, and in reality, one that has been largely co-opted into the capitalist structure.

While there may be significant workers struggles that involve unions, and while the fight against union cronyism, bureaucracy and for greater democracy, rank and file participation and mobilization in unions is important, we should not conclude, from a proletarian standpoint, that the goal of our struggles should be to “re-conquer” or “reform” these institutions that are encrusted in capitalism. That is to say that even if New Directions had maintained its original ideological and political line, it is highly unlikely that it would have succeeded beyond the brief implementation of a few partial reforms. From a proletarian standpoint there is no such thing as an “ideal” trade union. The very concept of an “ideal” trade union is reformist (as is the concept of trade unions in general, as permanent institutions). We should always be seeking to build the organizing tools that help us build our movement at all levels, and those will take different forms in different contexts, all in the goal of defeating capitalism and taking over.

The NYC Transit Strike of 2005 was one of the key moments that led to the effective dissolution of New Directions. The Toussaint-led leadership became increasingly sectarian and autocratic, repressing dissidents and banning dissident literature in union meetings and it took on all negotiating authority. This led to fragmenting workers and weakening the union’s negotiating stand. The strike was militant even though it was badly prepared and solidarity with other unions and the general workforce (public) was badly organized. Eventually, the Taylor law was used to force workers back to work and enforce a new contract, which instituted significant concessions, including forcing workers to pay into their healthcare plans. The union was forced to pay heavy fines that until today represent a significant disincentive to labor actions by all public sector unions.

See the IWW article online for information on the transit strike: “No Contract, No Work” – The 2005 New York City transit strike.

I was struck by a common reflection by almost all the New Directions members I talked to over the years from different tendencies within New Directions: they all said that the movement had been militant as long as its focus was in fighting for its platform, not in winning an election. And that the compromises made to win the election eventually led to its demise.

Even after New Directions in NYC Transit was dissolved, I was struck by the continued militancy of some of my comrades who persisted in running for union office and trying to build progressive slates of candidates. While I don’t question their integrity, it’s hard to understand what lessons they actually learned from the history of New Directions.