When Arthur Goldberg, a long-time Transport Workers Union Local 100 officer, called to tell me that Arnold Cherry had died, the first thing I thought about was his decisive role in the powerful dissident movement that shook the TWU in the late 1970s, and in the transit strike that rocked New York City in 1980. That was Arnold's finest hour and a piece of work good enough for a lifetime.
Then I thought about how 20 years later, in 1999, he bargained away my seniority rights for a measly $1 an hour. In Arnold's life is captured the enigma of a whole era of New York public-employee union history: from a powerful force greatly improving the lives of working people to a far-meeker version, making concessions to, and collaborating with, management.
When I interviewed Cherry in 2016, he told me about what led him into Transit in 1970—where he worked as an Air Brake Maintainer at the 207th St. Overhaul Shop—and into the leadership of transit workers' powerful struggle against neoliberal austerity. He described his diverse influences: Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Harlem's Abyssinian Church; Malcolm X and black nationalism; the CUNY "open-admissions" struggle; and William Wimpisinger and his social-democratic International Association of Machinists. Before transit, Cherry had worked for almost 10 years in an IAM shop on Long Island where, he said, the union was in management's face all day.
Not an Ego-Tripper
One colleague described Cherry as springing from a community-activist mindset. Another called him "an intellectual, a thoughtful guy. He was not the type of guy who was interested in occupying a powerful position for its own sake or to aggrandize himself. He was a humble guy, I thought."
Working at nights, during the 1970s, he got his AA degree, then his BA, and finally an MA in Public Administration. He was second-generation transit: his father had started as a bus cleaner and worked his way up to mechanic at Manhattanville Bus Depot.
During the 1975-80 fiscal crisis, transit workers estimated that their real wages fell drastically due to pay freezes and double-digit inflation. Anger all around the system led to opposition to Local 100's 1978 contract, which was approved by only 318 votes out of over 20,000 cast. Cherry was the leader of the 207 Transit Workers Coalition, and as groups coalesced in 1979, he emerged as the obvious presidential candidate of the Unity slate.
Unfortunately, Unity and two other dissident slates were unable to merge and select common candidates. The three groups in total gained 57% of the votes in that December's election, but Cherry ran second behind the incumbent president, John Lawe. Yet the dissidents controlled a slim majority on the local's executive board, and although Cherry was still "just" a worker, he held them together around the slogan of "30%"—what workers estimated they had lost to inflation. When Lawe argued for two 7-percent increases, the dissidents voted him down, and the strike was on.
I've written about the strike elsewhere, but Cherry's role in its end is not widely known. As the strike wore on, Governor Carey asked his Secretary of State, Basil Paterson, to informally negotiate with Cherry, who told Paterson that his bottom line was two 10-percent increases and enough extra money—through some sort of bonus—to pay the Taylor Law fines. He almost got it, too, but with one of the dissident TWU board members called out of town on National Guard duty, Lawe was able to end the strike before a complete victory was won. Nevertheless, the final settlement produced a 22-percent wage package; the other municipal unions were then able to use the transit-worker pattern to win substantial raises after years of crumbs.
About the strike, Cherry said, correctly, "The one with Quill in 1966 put transit workers back on the map. 1980, in my opinion, was even greater: greater rank-and-file participation, more people involved. It wasn't only directed from the top, it was directed from the bottom and the middle. It had the effect of putting money in people's pockets and making them feel like they had some power."
Despite the gains, those Taylor Law fines—taken out in just eight weeks, while the additional raise came more slowly—stuck in the craw of many transit workers, and the dissident movement collapsed. Years later, I listened as Cherry, now the Section Chair at 207th St., tried to explain to co-workers how the strike's gains had paid for the Taylor Law fines within a year, and had put money in their pockets forever, but many were still--wrongly-- skeptical.
Staff Job Neutralized Him
So when he was invited to join Local 100's staff in 1987, Cherry went. "They knew it was better to have me downtown than on the outside," he said. "I never would have gone downtown, but the membership came to me and said, Cherry, you've been here too long; it's time for you to go and help us." He was placed in the local's Grievance Department, a job of some importance, but out of contact with members, politically neutralized.
Until... almost 10 years later, with a new dissident movement, New Directions, knocking on the door, Cherry was appointed vice president of Car Equipment by Local 100 President Willie James. He became the nemesis of a new generation of union insurgents.
In the 1997 Local 100 elections, Cherry was decisively defeated in his own department by a New Directions candidate, but at that time vice presidents were elected by the entire local membership, so he kept his job. He was now the beneficiary of the same type of anti-democratic election rules which had frustrated his movement in 1978-79.
Worse, he ignored the Division's (New Directions) elected officers. They were left in their transit jobs, while he kept on staff the candidates they had defeated. In the 1999 contract negotiations, he went behind the Division Committee's back (full disclosure: I was part of that committee), and secretly struck a bargain with the Transit Authority: in return for an extra $1 an hour, six craft titles in the Overhaul shops were broad-banded into one, and the 2,000 workers there were stripped of their historical rights to seniority shape-up of their daily work, and of their power to determine their working conditions, to have a say in the control of the shop floor.
Presumably, Cherry thought the extra money was worth it, but that decision let management use the carrot of a good job or the stick of a bad one to speed up the work. As one Car Inspector told me, "it was a seniority garage sale."
Reflecting back 20 years later, a veteran 207th St. officer said, "I would go into a meeting and the first thing out of the manager's mouth was, 'we're not here to talk about seniority.' You had to embarrass them--how you could take a job away from a man with 20 years on the job and give it to a junior man? It took a lot of power away from stewards—they couldn't fight for the senior man. That senior man has to wonder if I'm going to maintain my job. Most of the stewards wouldn't fight themselves. They would come to the committee, even though we encouraged them to fight; they felt they were undercut by the contract, which they were. I was an old-timer; I knew what was right, the way things should have been."
How should we make sense of Cherry's contradictory legacy—fighting for more worker power at one moment, and giving it away in the next? I can't really; people are complicated. Here's one suggestion, though. In 1980, even through the shell-shock of the fiscal crisis, transit workers, and New York public employees in general, still remembered the legacy of the battles of just 10 years earlier: of great victories. Arnold Cherry swam in that sea, believed in those ideals, fought for them alongside thousands of others, was thrust forward as a leader by workers with great aspirations.
Twenty years later, those ideals were distant memories. Twenty years of austerity and concessions had lowered the ambitions of union leaders. Twenty years too far from the rank-and-file, 20 years of union hall politicking, had replaced listening to members, and taking cues from them. An older notion of organic leadership rising from movements had changed into the kind where the heads of the unions know what's best for "their" members.
So let's mourn and celebrate. Let's turn back the clock to 1980 and ask Arnold Cherry about his vision then. "You can organize the fight with the workers and connect it to the community and come out winners. The culture of this system is 'I want something for myself,' instead of seeing it as, 'how can we develop enough power to reach positions in this society, to neutralize the power that is in control.' That comes out of life experience, of being a member of the movement, of King, of understanding what Malcolm was saying, of understanding how much potential power we have. You can organize the rank-and-file to fight not just for a better contract but to help them to begin to understand the broader issues of power in society."
Editor's note: Mr. Kagan, a former member of TWU Local 100 and the United Federation of Teachers, is now a member of the Professional Staff Congress and a Ph.D. candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center History Department.
We depend on the support of readers like you to help keep our publication strong and independent. Join us.