In its standoff with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Transport Workers Union has highlighted once again its ability to upset millions of the city's subway and bus riders. It is an enduring tradition of militancy that dates to the union's creation during the Great Depression.
Indeed, in New York, a city that has weathered major strikes by sanitation workers, drawbridge operators, teachers and social workers, no union seems able to unsettle residents quite like the one that moves the subways and buses.
Members of T.W.U. Local 100, which represents the 33,700 transit workers whose three-year contract expired on Friday, often invoke two mottoes: "We Move New York" and "United, Invincible." Both speak to the union's confidence in its ability to shut down the city, as it has done twice before, in 1966 and 1980.
"The police officers and firefighters have such an ability to do damage that it's very difficult to conceive of a strike," said Robert W. Linn, who was the city's director of labor relations from 1983 to 1989. "A transit strike, from the point of view of union power, is almost perfect. It is not absolutely devastating in a life-or-death way, but on the other hand is incredibly potent as a weapon."
Transit workers are more militant because they are conscious of that power, but the very conditions of their job also grind them down and generate resentment, said Marian Swerdlow, a sociologist and the author of "Underground Woman," a memoir of her four years as a subway conductor.
"The working conditions are more physically onerous, the treatment by managers more disrespectful, and the abuse from the public more hurtful, than any other group of public workers in the city experiences," Dr. Swerdlow said.
Those conditions, some say, also explain how even as the face of the union has changed - from that of the Irish and other European workers who once dominated the workforce to that of the blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans who now fill its ranks - its militant posture has endured.
"Whoever it is that works as a transit worker - be it Irish- Italian- or African-Americans - they do a hard and dirty job, which is often quite dangerous and becomes visible to the public only when something goes wrong," said Robert W. Snyder, author of "Transit Talk," an oral history of subway and bus workers.
The transit union is something of a throwback to the era of industrial unions. The looks, sounds and smells of subway car barns and bus depots have changed little in a century. And unlike many in the service and clerical industries, transit workers know that their jobs cannot be easily outsourced, although technological innovations have begun to threaten the security of some workers, like subway conductors.
"Transit workers, because of the schedules they work and the conditions they work in, are often in industrial environments that most New Yorkers have left behind a long time ago," said Dr. Snyder, an associate professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University in Newark. "The idea that a motorman has to scramble to find a place to urinate on a busy day is not something most of us face on the job."
Michael J. Quill, who helped found the union in 1934 and led it until his death in 1966, helped set a pattern for militancy that looked beyond day-to-day concerns. Served with a court order barring the 1966 strike, Mr. Quill seemed to embody the union's swagger when he roared, "The judge can drop dead in his black robes."
Joshua B. Freeman, a labor historian at the City University of New York Graduate Center, said, "Mike Quill was part of a left-wing group that really rejected capitalism, as it was at that time, and many T.W.U. leaders shared those views, and that generation remained in place until the 1960's." Dr. Freeman, author of "Working-Class New York," a history of city unions since World War II, also noted that Mr. Quill worked closely with the Communist Party until the late 1940's.
Internal dissent has also fueled the union's militancy, said Vincent J. Cannato, author of a 2001 biography of Mayor John V. Lindsay, whose new administration was thrown into turmoil by the 12-day transit strike of January 1966. "Minorities were becoming restless under Irish leadership, and Quill needed to step up the militancy to persuade African-Americans that he was fighting for them," said Dr. Cannato, a historian at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Roger Toussaint, the Trinidadian native who has led Local 100 since 2000, echoed the views of aggrieved transit workers, past and present, during a rally yesterday afternoon outside Gov. George E. Pataki's office in Midtown. "When it comes to dignity and respect, transit workers are tired, tired, tired," he said.