Date of Degree
Labor History | United States History
Unions, Labor Movement, Workers, Neoliberalism, Class Struggle, Class, Rank and File, Labor History, Mass Transit
Take Back the Power: The Fall and Rise and Fall of Transport Workers Union Local 100, 1975-2009 tracks the history of this strategically significant union from the onset of New York City’s fiscal crisis in 1975 to the end, in 2009, of a second attempt to free transit workers from the grip of neoliberal economic austerity.
The first effort began in 1978 and culminated with the eleven-day 1980 transit strike, initiated by union dissidents over the opposition of the union president, but abruptly ended by him before a decisive victory could be won. That president, and his successors, reconciled themselves to the neoliberal consensus. The result was two decades of stagnating wages, productivity concessions that thwarted “industrial democracy” – workers’ control over the methods and pace of production – and unchecked mistreatment of workers, what they called “plantation justice.”
In 1984, leftist transit workers began to produce an oppositionist newspaper advocating more militancy, union democracy, and rank-and-file shop floor fights against management. Their periodical became the seedbed for the organization of the New Directions caucus, which launched its first Local-wide electoral campaign in 1988, and every three years thereafter, until its victory in 2000.
The new leadership, of which I was a part, at first had significant success fostering a more mobilized and tactically-proficient union. The Local’s power rose. Some of the most notorious management practices were successfully curbed and for a time the union seemed to be on the offensive. But notwithstanding New Directions’ earlier rhetoric, the new officer corps failed to establish greater participatory democracy in the institution they inherited, whose traditional culture was top-down and hierarchical. Nor was there significant pressure from the Local’s members for them to do so. It proved easier to give orders than re-accustom workers to take initiative and responsibility for their own well-being, and re-accustom union officers to support those efforts.
As member engagement ebbed, efforts at "union-building,” militancy, and workers’ control were stymied and the new leaders’ goals were mostly frustrated. The union was pushed back onto the defensive and its three-day 2005 strike, primarily an effort to stave off new concessions, exacerbated internal fractures while subjecting the Local to financial penalties that weakened it further. When New Directions activists are asked today whether their organization’s efforts made transit workers’ lives better, they generally answer “yes,” but their response invariably comes with qualifiers about missteps or missed opportunities to do so much more.
Legal and political barriers which constrain union activity, and cultural pressures for continuity in outlook and practice, push even union militants back toward traditional methods that have proved unsuccessful over fifty years. More awareness of problems and possibilities are necessary in order to avoid this path.
This look at Local 100’s recent history reveals and addresses a series dilemmas facing efforts to transform a union and its culture. In opposition, activists had to strike the right balance between “fighting the boss” and “fighting the union to fight the boss,” and evaluate the extent to which coalition-building might water-down their far-reaching ideals and goals. At the union hall, they had to choose whether to seek incremental and limited gains or chance the riskier prospect of big, transformative victories. They had to navigate the tension between organizing the union as an “army” or as a “democratic town meeting.” And underlying all these choices was the question of how much time and energy could be devoted to recognizing, analyzing, debating, and answering the other dilemmas in the face a multiplicity of urgent tasks.
Kagan, Marc, "Take Back The Power: The Fall and Rise and Fall of New York City's Transport Workers Union Local 100, 1975–2009" (2023). CUNY Academic Works.
This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Tuesday, September 30, 2025
Graduate Center users:
To read this work, log in to your GC ILL account and place a thesis request.
See the GC’s lending policies to learn more.