Thursday, December 22, 2005

Undertones of Race in NY Transit Strike ...

Diane Cardwell in the New York Times touches on race in the recent New York Transit Workers strike that has put the city at a standstill:

But now, as representatives of a mostly nonwhite work force trade recriminations publicly with white leaders in government and at the transportation authority, the potentially volatile issue of race, with all its emotional consequences, is bubbling to the surface.

The examples are both blatant and subtle, some open to interpretation, some openly hostile. Regarding the latter sort, the union - representing workers who are largely minority - shut down a Web log where the public could comment on the strike after it became so clogged with messages comparing the workers to monkeys and calling them "you people." (Seventy percent of the employees of New York City Transit are black, Latino or Asian-American.)
And what may have begun inadvertently, when Mayor
Michael R. Bloomberg said on Tuesday that union leaders had "thuggishly turned their backs on New York City," took on a life of its own yesterday as minority leaders and union members attacked the mayor's conduct as objectionable, or worse. "There has been some offensive and insulting language used," said Roger Toussaint, the union leader. "This is regrettable and it is certainly unbecoming for the mayor of the city of New York to be using this type of language."

Touissant, who hails from Trinidad, gets cleverly dogmatic by comparing the strike to civil rights icons:

Mr. Toussaint, for instance, continued yesterday to cast the strike as part of a broader movement for social justice and invoked the civil rights movement, as he often does in his calls to respect the dignity of his workers. "Had Rosa Parks answered the call of the law instead of the higher call of justice, many of us who are driving buses today would instead be at the back of the bus," he said.Latinos and Asian-Americans, whose members were once mostly of European descent.

It can't be as cut and dry, Black and White as that. We're not in New York, and we can't profess to know or understand the working conditions of transit employees who are the lifeblood and foundation of the nation's largest city. Agreed: Bloomberg's choice of language was poor. It may not have been intended, but it certainly came across as what not to do when you're a White Big City Mayor faced with striking Blacks and Latinos. But, of course, Toussaint had to have expected this reaction, railing against the political establishment and giving White New Yorkers the rhetorical finger with his sharp Caribbean accent.

On some level, the TWU had to take a stand to defend the rights and paychecks of unappreciated New York Transit workers - but, we still have to frown on the exact timing of the stand and, once again, the impact it most certainly has on low income New Yorkers who don't have the luxury of telecommuting options, paid leave, fully heated cars and convenient pharmacy or grocery arrangements. Toussaint unapologetically makes reference to Parks and the movement her defiance "sparked." But - correct us if we're wrong - didn't the Birmingham boycott also trigger a collective and highly organized community response that didn't just leave everybody else out in the cold? That said, the comparison is a little shallow.

Certainly, Mr. Toussaint and the workers he represents must understand the plight of those who live in the same neighborhoods and deal with similar struggles. Knowing that you have reliable transportation in a crowded urban center where living is tough certainly eases that stress a little - especially on blistering cold winter days. Sorry - we just can't get over images of single mothers walking their kids to school through wind chills when they could have been on a warm subway car; or the image of a grandmother walking for groceries or high-priced meds when they could have hopped on a heated bus. We know what deep city living is about. It's bad enough the media doesn't tell that story while engrossed in the irritated tales and glares of Manhattan yuppies. But, it's kind of cold when Toussaint and the others who follow him didn't seem to take that into consideration.