Articles by Angela Pidduck
At about the same time late last year that the people of Trinidad and Tobago went to the polls to elect a new government, and a group of Supreme Court Justices in Florida tried to untangle America's presidential election, a forty-four year old Trinidadian, Roger Toussaint, was embroiled in a three-way electoral battle for the post of President of New York City's Transport Workers' Union Local 100. A 36,000 strong organisation whose bus and subway workers, mostly employed by the Transit Authority to run the city's vital mass transit system, move more than seven million people on an average week-day in the city.
Named in the New Year's Day issue of The Daily News as one of fifty New Yorkers to watch in 2001 by Dave Saltonstall, Toussaint's election as President was marked by as much turbulence as the local and American General Elections. Referred to in the New York Post of December 5 ten days before the final vote count, as "unknown and unemployed", Toussaint's union position was head of a track division. It was only on December 13 that he was elevated to head of the union's New Directions party. The other two candidates whom he whipped by 60% of the votes cast were former bus drivers, Willie James, 64, the incumbent, and Eddie Melendez, 44.
Saltonstall is of the opinion that Toussaint "may be the most fiery of the insurgents overtaking city unions. He's fought British control at home and now hopes to stand and fight management on issues of public safety, schedules and even fare increases".
Referred to as a soft-spoken man with a simmering intensity, Toussaint, who grew up in Belmont, is reported to have embraced comparisons to the legendary Michael Quill, an Irish firebrand who had served in the Irish Republican Army before coming to America where he found work building the subway system, became founder and president of the Transport Workers Union, and led the city's transit workers out on strike 34 years ago. Says Pete Donohue, a Daily News Staff Writer "Toussaint notes that they both struggled against violent oppression in their homelands....In 1970, eight years after Trinidad gaied formal independence from England, Toussaint was a student activist who led protests against discrimination and a government viewed as a tool of the former colonial power structure.
He was arrested and expelled from high school and left for Brooklyn in 1974 to escape a violent atmosphere of harassment and retaliation." A former St Mary's College schoolmate remembers and speaks about Toussaint : "He was expelled for spray painting socialist slogans on the College walls...The talk in school was that the police caught him doing it, arrested him and took him down to jail where Father Lai Fook went to get him out. No charges were laid because the College was not pressing any. He eventually sat his O level exams at Queen's Royal College."
"I remember him as a lovely guy, I don't know what he is like as a man, because I haven't seen him from the child to the man. But he was immensely popular in school, very funny, very charming, good at sports, a good footballer with a natural right foot, everybody liked him. As a boy, he was easily one of the standout boys. I reckon if you ask anyone he would be remembered as one of the social stars of form one. And I would say the only one who learned enough to think for himself. He didn't swallow whatever line we were given and it appears that what he learned at CIC has guided his life so that he is one of the true people who has lived according to his ideals. At sixteen we are all full of ideals but the world teaches us quickly to forget that idealism and get the dollar."
Toussaint, it would appear, definitely took his ideals into his future life, as after 14 years as first a cleaner and then track worker with the Transport Authority, he was fired in 1998 when he failed to contest a disciplinary charge within the required five days.
Newspaper reports give details that in July 1998 while on duty, a car in which Toussaint was riding, was rear-ended. Because it was a car used by union staffers, NYC Transit charged him with failing to notify the transit agency about a car accident that he said another employee in the vehicle should have reported, and brought disciplinary charges with an eye toward firing him. While recuperating from the injuries he suffered in the car accident, Toussaint continued performing his union duties, during which time it is reported New York City Transit hired a private investigative service to shadow him. Management wound up charging him with leaving his home without notifying supervisors, a claim he calls specious because he was often headed to meet with transit officials on behalf of Track Workers. The surveillance of Toussaint was not mentioned during the arbitration hearing that led to his dismissal, the reason was that a report compiled by three private investigators would have cast him in "a sympathetic light" offering details of his driving his son to pre-school. Toussaint filed a lawsuit seeking damages for wrongful firing and refused an agency offer of his old job back because the offer did not include monetary damages, an action he is still challenging in court.
The father of three children who are in college and one still in day care, has been described as '"a very magnetic, charismatic guy" by one New Directions activist, and as being "extremely fair" by John Samuelson, a Local 100 safety inspector involved with New Directions, who says "white guys brought up on racism charges - the first guy they turn to is Toussaint."
Greeted by chants of "Roger! Roger!" by his supporters, after the December 2000 election, Toussaint said his campaign to bring back "respect and dignity to the membership has struck a deep chord with transit workers." And vowed that as president of the local he would stand up to the Transit Authority on issues such as allegedly heavy- handed disciplinary tactics against employees.
"The disciplinary system, the plantation mentality that says the workers are the inmates and the bosses are the wardens, is something we're going to be tackling" he said.