International President of the TWU John Samuelsen, who will be honored as the Labor Leader of the Year at tomorrow night’s seventh annual Irish Labor Awards: “The Democrats have not learned the lesson of why they fell on their faces” in 2016. PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT
By Peter McDermott
“I couldn’t be more pleased,” said John Samuelsen, the new international president of the Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO.
He was speaking about the opportunity to lead an upcoming fight with people he sees as the 21st-century equivalents of the railroad bosses of the 1850s and ’60s.
If the MTA in New York could be a “very difficult” employer, “I’m on to a whole new set of dastardly individuals,” Samuelsen said, referring to the heads of Southwest Airlines and of American Airlines, which is intent on outsourcing jobs to South America.
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Back at the beginning, the battles weren’t sought; they were forced upon him and his colleagues, he recalled in a recent interview. In 1993, he joined a track gang based in the crew room at 45th Street and 4th Avenue in Brooklyn.
“We were working around energized third rails and live rail traffic,” he said.
In a column for the Summer 2017 edition of TWU Express, the lifelong Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn, resident said: “I became an active shop steward and began to connect to the broader fights taking place across the subway on safety issues and other management abuses.
“I moved up the union’s ranks by fighting back, issue by issue, boss by boss,” the 49-year-old Samuelsen wrote.
After he took office as president of TWU Local 100 on Jan. 1, 2010, Samuelsen set about building bridges. He approached his defeated opponent with an offer to join the leadership team. It was accepted.
“If you’re not able to hold a coalition together,” he said, “you’ve no ability to fight the company.”
Local 100 was a house divided for years – one personality-led faction vs. another, subway vs. buses, industrial- vs. craft-union mindsets, militant vs. less militant strategies and so on.
Now, taking over as the 10th and the youngest international president since County Kerry immigrant Mike Quill assumed the job 80 years ago, he is leaving Local 100 bigger than it’s been in its history.
“We fought fights over contracting out of work and we won them,” explained Samuelsen, who is married to Lisa and is the father of three children. “We brought the work back in-house and we’ve established that we do it better than anyone else.”
MAKING THE CONNECTION
In general, though, the broader labor movement isn’t in ideal shape in other ways.
“I think there’s definitely a change in the culture, even in New York, where there’s still a very high union density,” he said. “Certainly the workers that are entering into the labor movement don’t have the level of trade union education that folks did when I was 18 years old, just from having trade-union talk around the dinner table.
“All of the guys I grew up with, our parents were all in a union, all of us,” he said.
“That’s something we’re addressing,” he said of the TWU’s efforts to help younger people make the connection between the benefits they receive and union membership.
Samuelsen’s recently-deceased father was a lugger and a truck driver in the Meatpacking District on Manhattan’s West Side. Samuelsen senior, born to a mother from Cork and a Norwegian father, was a member of Amalgamated Meatcutters, which is now United Food and Commercial Workers.
The TWU leader’s mother retired as a plan administrator for the bakery drivers’ union. Her family, including her older sisters, came from Derry. Samuelsen, who displays a poster of Bobby Sands and other republican iconography in his Brooklyn office, retains close ties to relatives in that city. He made annual visits before his marriage, and he still travels when he can. Last year, he attended 1916 centenary celebrations in Derry.
“A whole slew of cousins come over every summer,” he said, adding they stay with another cousin in New Jersey.
In his recent TWU Express column, Samuelsen said he got a scholarship to college but lasted only a few semesters. “I didn’t get the memo that I was supposed to pursue a degree,” he said. Although he said the experiences of early adulthood made him the man he became, he regrets putting his parents through that. “I let them down terribly,” he said.
He took a number of civil services exams, and one led to a call to the academy of the NYC Department of Correction. However, he realized after a stint at Riker’s Island, it wasn’t the career for him.
It was in his first year as a track worker that Samuelsen found his true calling as a workers’ advocate and leader. It was a “tumultuous time,” he recalled. It wasn’t uncommon for police to be called and for union reps to be arrested for intervening in disputes about safety. New York’s conditions still don’t quite match up when compared to the other great subway systems of the world, he said, but thanks to Local 100 they’ve dramatically improved.
Now, Samuelsen is taking on the mistreatment of workers by very profitable airline companies. “These airline bosses are the worst of the worst,” he said. He scoffed at Southwest’s self-marketing as “The Love Airline.”
And addressing American Airlines’ efforts to offshore jet mechanic jobs from Texas and Oklahoma mostly, he said: “Shame on them.”
Going into these fights, he is inspired by the example set by Bob Crow, the late leader of the National Union of Railway, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) in London, “He was a mentor of mine and an incredible friend,” he said.
“He was a highly-skilled rep in addition to being a charismatic leader,” Samuelsen said about Crow, who died in March 2014 at the age of 52. “He was incredibly courageous and would take on massive fights, but he also had a pragmatic side to him.
“He knew when to fight and he knew when to bargain,” the TWU leader said. “I’ve tried to emulate that.”
If pragmatism is often a watchword for labor, it can be taken to counterproductive extremes in Samuelsen’s view. He moved quickly as the new international president to halt political contributions to those who weren’t fully committed to opposing “right-to-work” laws.
“How are we ever going fight back against right-to-work,” he said, “when we won’t even require a candidate to have enough backbone to stand up and say: ‘No, I’m a trade-union supporter and right to work is anti-worker by its very nature.’”
He cited the example of Tim Kaine, who switched on the issue before being nominated the vice-presidential candidate, but is back to where he started: “in Virginia as a so-called pro-growth Democrat, which is just another name for a Blue-dog Democrat, which is just another name for a pro-business Democrat, which is just another name for an anti-trade union Democrat.”
Samuelsen said: “Some of the problems with the Democrats are mirrored in organized labor to some extent. The labor movement needs to re-orientate itself on a class-based, economic-driven, organizing outlook rather than throwing itself in with the Democratic Party and the identity politics that they continually push.
“The Democrats are no longer viewed as the party that’s going to protect the interests of blue-collar Americans. They need to regain that,” he said.
While identity politics plays differently from state to state and region to region, a “solid kind of economic, class-orientated message,” Samuelsen said, “would resonate across the board with working Americans.”
He argued that Bernie Sanders’s campaign in the Democratic primaries proved that forcefully.
“Blue-collar America [in the general election] sided with a guy who through the length of the campaign spoke insanity and decided he was a better candidate than Hillary in many instances in states where it counted,” the TWU leader said. “And these are blue-collar Americans who voted for Obama.”
The insanity next time, in Samuelsen’s view, might be the Democrats’ continuing failure to hear the message.
“They’ve not learned the lesson of why they fell on their faces to begin with,” he said. “They should have been propelled into a conclave for six months looking in a mirror to figure out what was wrong with themselves.”
He is a registered Democrat, but doesn’t define himself according to party. The labor movement is the only vehicle in this country for economic security, he said, not the government and not the Democratic Party. For that reason, Samuelsen added, the only label he can fully embrace is “trade unionist.”