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Santa Claus is on Strike

photo by Matty Vaz, December 2005

“No fuckin’ give backs. No way. Not one,” explains Kevin Murphy as he drives a Manhattan-bound N train through Brooklyn on Saturday December 12th. “There’s no fuckin’ chance. They want us to sell out the next generation. They can forget about that. No fuckin’ way. Ya see what happened to the cops. No fuckin’ way. Too many guys fought for too many fuckin’ years to let somethin’ like that happen. You ever hearda Mike Quill? Michael J. Quill? He started this damn Union. Irish! He was in the fuckin’ IRA and they ran ‘im outta Ireland. He started this whole thing. He didn’t roll over. No fuckin’ way. They had a strike in ’66, and the bum judge threw him in jail. He didn’t roll over. He goes on TV. You know what he says? He says ‘the judge can drop dead in his black robes.’ That’s Mike Quill said that. He had a heart attack in jail, and he died two weeks later. But we won that strike. We still got Irish in this union. We got mostly black guys now. But we still got some Irish. The union’s the union no matter who. No give backs. That’s what I’m sayin’ here,” offers Mr. Murphy as the train pulls into Union Square station.

Emerging from his booth, wiping his eyes beneath his goggles, and sliding his headset behind his ears as many passengers get off and many more get on, he continues: “This job ain’t easy. But now they wanna raise the retirement age. Only the MTA. If the MTA could do what it wants, we would have computas runnin’ all these trains. No people, just computas. But a computa can’t evacuate a train if it’s an emergency down here. They just bombed the trains in London and Madrid. Osama bin Laden would love to blow up one of these trains. You kiddin’ me? You gotta have two men on a train. There’s no other way. That’s the only way,” he pronounces as the doors to the train close. But he does not return to his booth. Instead he looks at his crowded train, and the crowd of the train looks at their conductor.

“It’s hard work down here,” he says loudly for all to hear. The Mexicans and the Chinese of Sunset Park look at each other with confusion, hoping to figure out if there is something they need to know, or if there is some sort of emergency unfolding. The tourists from the heartland of America look at the floor and shift in discomfort. The blacks, the Puerto Ricans, and the whites of Brooklyn and Manhattan look at the conductor because they have been here so long and have never heard a conductor address his train.

“It’s not easy. It’s dark. It’s loud. It’s dangerous. This job’ll break a man’s back. Half the guys die three, four years after they get off the job. Now they’re gonna raise the retirement age. Guys are gonna die before they ever get to retire. Then the MTA saves money on pensions. We’re not computas, we’re people. And we got families. No give backs folks. Things are supposed to get better, instead they’re getting worse,” he concludes, and then returns to his booth, closes the door behind him, and begins to roll the train uptown.

Lerline Atkinson of Harlem plans to vote for a strike, as she stands on the corner of 42nd Street, smokes a cigarette and waits for a bus to take her to the strike vote at the Javits Center. “Hell yeah I’m gonna vote strike,” she explains. “Last time we didn’t get shit. That’s how it always is. We don’t get shit. I’m a checker. That’s the worst. That’s the lowest: checkers. We gotta stand outside and check to see if the bus on time. Standin’ out in the cold. You see how cold it is? It’s cold sometimes. And we standin’ out here. Please! And we can’t even get full time. You better off on public assistance. They need to start payin’ people right. This for everybody. ‘Cause everybody work for transit. Everybody got somebody. They aunt, they brother, they sister, they uncle. Somebody. If transit not gettin’ money then nobody got money in the house. Yeah, I’m scared. People scared. Fuck it. That’s alright. You just gotta be ready to do what you gotta do. I’m votin’ strike,” she finishes, as she pulls out another cigarette, lights it, and shakes her head.

The Javits Center is packed with people shouting, blowing whistles, taking pictures, and waving red and yellow union bandanas. Many thousands pour down the escalators screaming strike and throwing their arms up in the air for the many thousands who are still waiting to enter and vote. Union leader Roger Toussaint comes to the balcony overlooking the waiting crowd. There is no space or time for them to enter and vote, so a poll is taken by voice, and the thousands call “Strike!”; Toussaint speaks into a bullhorn, as the crowd strains to hear. He promises that everyone will be able to look their grandchildren in the eye.

“I hope he’s right,” says Carol Clendenon of St. Albans, Queens. “It’s not fair. They want us to leave the next generation behind. That’s not right. They’ll have to fight just to get back to where we are now. The MTA keeps tellin’ us, ‘Oh these people don’t even exist yet.’ But they do exist. That’s why I brought my daughter. Say “hi” to the man, sweetie. Well, she’s shy. At least smile. Thank you. The next generation is right here. That’s our sons and daughters. And that’s why we can’t sell them out. We just wanna do what’s right. It’s the difference between backwards and forwards. December 15th at midnight. I’m just gonna pray until then and we’ll see what happens. A deadline’s a deadline.”

On December 15th—deadline’s a deadline day in New York—at a Manhattan bar, bartender David Bellk quiets the customers and turns up the television so that everyone can hear the latest news on the strike. Roger Toussaint is on the television, and he is surrounded by the city’s major labor leaders: Randi Weingarten of the teacher’s union who had to cough up two extra work days in her last negotiations with the city. Patrick J. Lynch of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, who got stuck taking a tremendous pay cut for new hires, dropping the starting wage for a cop down to 25,000, all the while as cops attend funerals. Dennis Rivera of 1199 who has only been able to watch as Catholic Hospitals in this city’s poorest communities prepare to close. All of them have been in the give-back business as of late, and are hoping that Roger Toussaint, at the head of one of the city’s oldest, proudest, and toughest unions, may be able to put the brakes on labor’s recent slide. Hoping that Toussaint can turn the tide of letting union contracts for teachers, firemen, and policemen expire indefinitely. Wondering if Toussaint will do what they have been afraid to do, and commit the most important act of civil disobedience that this city has seen in decades, by breaking the Taylor Law.

Out in front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, union members have gathered to await the midnight deadline out in the cold. “We goin’ in at 12. No matter what,” explains a heavy-set track worker from Bed-Stuy who is wearing an orange reflector vest and a Santa Claus hat. “I’m on strike already. I been on strike since they said they had two sets a’ books. Man, c’mon. That’s when I knew these MTA guys were all straight crooks. They a buncha crooks. We do all the work, and they count the money. You can quote me. Tell ‘em I said that. Santa. Santa Motherfuckin’ Claus. Track worker from the North Pole in Brooklyn.”

Union member Elvin Daughtry of Crown Heights has snuck into the press conference. He is standing with a journalist, who has also snuck in. Mr. Daughtry offers that he is both nervous and excited. “If we gotta do it, we gotta do it. Nobody can afford to live. You got rent goin’ up everyday. Drivin’ that bus, people rude man. You got high school kids cursin’ at you. Crack heads beggin’ to get on the bus spit at you. It’s not enough. They don’t pay us enough. It’s time for some appreciation. During the blackout, we was takin’ people right to their door. The guys in Philly just did it. But they got no Taylor law in Philly. We got the Taylor law. But the law not always right. Yo, look at that guy. Is that the Chinese guy from New York 1? My wife loves that guy,” he explains, and then pulls out his cell phone and takes a picture.

His picture captures a room filled with reporters. Some are typing on laptops, some are on the phone, some are eating potato chips, and some are looking at their watches. The cameramen have taken note of the West Coast correspondent for Univision, as she adjusts her sweater and fixes her make-up. After nine minutes of sound checks, lighting adjustments, and bets being placed, midnight finally arrives. Cameras light up all over the room and on-air personalities begin to talk with precise diction. But there is nothing for them to say. Nobody has come to announce the end of Christmas. Nobody has come at all.

The cameras go off, and the cameramen begin to talk of a strike of their own. One of them demands justice. “Who am I, the Incredible Hulk? I’m getting tired. I been standin’ here all day holdin’ this thing. Let’s get a relief crew already.”

N.J. Burkett of ABC News looks at his expensive watch and then pulls out his cell-phone and begins to call many important people. On-air personalities snap at cameramen and technicians, as many eyes are rolled. Sewell Chan, of the New York Times, calls someone and instructs them to find a copy of the Union constitution. “I’m staying here all night,” he tells the telephone. “If they shut it down, I’m gonna get on the last train I can catch, and ride it all the way to the end….Hey, fuck it, this is my beat.”

But other journalists fade in their strength. At 1:30 in the morning there is a false alarm, many cameras go on, but it is only a white man who has come to say that it will be a long night. Some give up on the chance to see Roger Toussaint’s furious eyes and to listen closely to hear if his voice sounds broken: the same can be done from the nearest bar. In the hallways, the many Union members who had come in at midnight have dwindled to a smaller group. A few pose for a picture, and clench their jaws in anticipation of all the pain and heartbreak that celebration city has to offer. They nod to themselves, in hopes of dispelling the fear that all the determination and strength that they have mustered will be of no use against the many lawyers, politicians, hustlers, and money-men who clearly call the shots.

At the nearest bar, there is no sign of an announcement on the television. Bartender Veronica Mancini explains that she was hoping for Friday off. She also explains that a Budweiser and a Jameson costs $18. “Everybody should take tomorrow off anyway,” she says.

At 3:30 in the morning, once again in front of the Grand Hyatt, a white guy in a reflector vest runs out of the lobby. “Hey you still got that camera, pal? I want you to take a picture of the last four fuckin’ union guys here. We stayed man, we fuckin’ stayed,” he says as he pulls out a Newport and lights it. “We betta not get sold out. That’s all. That’s all I’m fuckin’ sayin’. This job is no joke. I been in those tracks 13 years. Unlucky 13. You got rats the size of motherfuckin’ raccoons down in those tracks. The MTA bosses want us out in the street with fuckin’ cardboard boxes and coffee cups jinglin’ change around. You know what? Fuck it. No pictures. You know when you see my picture? When I’m dead. When I’m dead in the fuckin’ tracks. Hit by a damn train. Then you see me in the papers. But no front page. A dead transit worker don’t make front page.”

At 4 a.m., as the Coney Island-bound N train rumbles into Brooklyn, the Mexicans and the Chinese of Sunset Park are asleep with their chins tucked into their collars. At the Atlantic-Pacific station, a track worker, a black man about 50 years old, gets on carrying what appears to be a bag of rocks. He shrugs his shoulder at the only person on the train who is awake. He sits down, tips his hard-hat down low over his eyes and goes to sleep. He goes to sleep not knowing if Friday will be take-back day. The day of no fuckin’ give backs. No way, not one. Too many guys fought too many fuckin’ years to let something like that happen. It’s dark, it’s loud, it’s dangerous and this job can break a man’s back, because it’s cold sometimes. You see how cold it is? That’s why this for everybody. ‘Cause everybody got somebody. They aunt, they brother, they sister, they uncle. Somebody. People scared. Fuck it. The next generation is right here. That’s our sons and daughters, and we can’t sell them out. It’s the difference between backwards and forwards. You got rent goin’ up everyday. High school kids cursin’ at you, crackheads spittin’ at you. The Incredible Hulk is gettin’ tired, and a Budweiser and a Jameson costs $18. The MTA wants guys out in the street with cardboard boxes and coffee cups jinglin’ change around, and you got rats the size of motherfuckin’ raccoons down in those tracks. It is 4 a.m. and everyone is asleep on the N train to Coney Island. Sleeping in fear of the day of no people, just computas. Wondering if they will wake up to find out that Roger stood and said the word to shut it down. Wondering if they will wake up to hear that everyone should put away their wish-list, because it is cold in New York City, and Santa Claus is on strike this Christmas.


Matthew Vaz


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2006

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