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Wild Rides

By Marian Swerdlow

Marian Swerdlow worked as a New York City Subway Conductor for four years. The following is excerpted from her book on her experience, Underground Woman (Temple University Press).

One of the most traumatic things that can possibly happen to a subway worker is a 'twelve-nine,' the code for a person under the train, and hence synonymous with critical injury and often death. Consequently, there are many stories characterized by irony and gallows humor about these incidents. Any time a twelve-nine occurs, all these stories are trotted out. A common one, probably apocryphal, tells of a motorman who has a twelve-nine on his trip out. Any motorman who encounters a twelve-nine is entitled to three days off to get over the shock and become calm enough to drive again (some motorman apply for and need more time). So this fellow is offered the three days, but refuses; he's tough enough, he's fine. En route back to the terminal, he has another twelve-nine, gets on the radio, 'I want my six!'

It was my last trip before my days off, so I was in good spirits. Then, as I was opening up at 176th Street, there was an explosion. A tongue of flame shot out of the panel on the wall of my cab over the circuitry. Smoke billowed out.

I got on the P.A., 'Motorman, there's been an explosion in my cab, I'm coming up front.' I was not too dazed to forget to remove my illegal earplugs, which had probably just saved my right earÉI told Command Center I had a ringing and pain in my right ear. 'Discharge, conductor,' they told me, which was the order for me to get the riders off the train.

I waited an hour and half for a motor instructor to escort me to the hospital. He took me to Manhattan Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat, the same hospital I was taken to after my glasses had been broken by a rider. I was becoming a regular. The doctor there determined I had suffered some hearing loss, 'probably temporary.'

After my days off, I reported to the T.A. clinic. Because of the note from the doctor, they put me on 'light duty' for a week. For the first two days, they had me working platforms, where my main job was answering rider questions. Since I was (probably temporarily) partially deaf, I was perfect for the assignment.

The next week, I reported back to the clinic. I saw the same doctor. He sent me down the dark corridor they used for the eye tests. 'Turn to your right,' he directed, 'Put your left finger in your left ear.' I did so. 'Put your left finger in your left ear,' he repeated.

'My left finger is in my left ear.'

'Oh, I couldn't see it. Now repeat the numbers I say after me.'

I did. By passing this improvised test, I was off restriction.
My next paycheck was short. T.A. hadn't paid me for the day my cab blew up. I thought of the old work song about drillers building a railway tunnel, 'Drill Ye Tarriers':

Last Week a premature blast went off
And a mile in the air went big Jim Goff
Next time payday came around
Jim Goff a dollar short was found
When he asked what for, came this reply
'You were docked for the time you spent up in the sky'

How dangerous are subway operative jobs? Close to the end of the time I worked in transit, I had to see someone in the Labor Relations Office which handled all the cases of Workmen's Compensation and differential pay for leave due to on-the-job injuries suffered in Rapid Transit Operations. As I was waiting, I asked the clerk, 'How many conductors and train operators would you estimate come in here with job-related injuries?'

She thought about it a fair while before telling me that there were probably forty train operators and forty conductors there every week, 'and half again as many who report the injury, but don't take any time off, because they can't afford to wait to receive the pay.'
I reflected that, after I had been injured in February, I hadn't received my differential pay for that day until May.

I did a little fast figuring. That made 120 reported injuries a week, which meant each subway operative averaged one reported injury a year. It also meant a train or conductor had a better-than-even chance of losing time to job injury during any given year.

A smoke condition in the tube had everyone in the Pelham crew room talking about fires. 'It was on the elevated structure, on the Flushing line,' began a plump, nearly bald, white motorman. 'Bright, sunny day, spring. It was my last run before my days off, so, you know, I'm daydreaming a little. All of the sudden, I see this giant, sparkling cloud of mist. And these rainbows, all these bright and beautiful rainbows! And I said to myself, 'Well, my time has come. They said it would be spectacular, and it sure is! Then, it all disappeared. It was only the fire department, down in the street, hosing down a track fire.'

'You better be glad about that,' said a conductor, 'because you can't afford to be dead.'
'No, no way!' said the motorman, 'I got two kids with my first wife, a kid with this marriage, I got a mortgage. Death benefits wouldn't even cover my funeral.'
'Death benefit's a joke,' said the conductor, 'I told my wife, 'When I die, go to the undertaker and ask for the cheapest casket he's got. Then tell him you want the box it come in.'

It was universally understood that our employer did not care about us workers at all. The equipment first of all, the riders next (mainly because they might sue), and us lastÉA story from a yard worker illustrates this perception, 'This car cleaner, on probation, was warned about taking too much sick time. He was complaining about chest pains and he asked if he could lie down. They told him he couldn't lie down, that he could either go home. Or go back to work. They had warned him about taking too much sick time, so he went back to work. To make a long story short, he'd had a heart attack. While he was in the hospital, T.A. fired him.'

For several months I had been pestering the union officers about starting the steward training courses they had promised. First they claimed that hand-collecting the dues kept them too busy. Once the dues check-off was restored, OSHA training became the excuse. But finally, the chairman of the conductor-tower division, Ray Lacy, sat down and gave me a private tutoring in the rudiments of stewardshipÉNo formal grievance procedure existed, it turned out, merely appeals of discipline. Lacy solemnly instructed me, 'Never approach people and ask if you can help. If they want your help, let them come to you'É

The leadership of Transport Workers Local 100 treated its members with contempt. Union meetings were an exercise in futility and masochism. If you asked the officers to back you up, which presumably was what they were being paid to do, they would suddenly decide that 'you are the union.'

After an accidental death on the line, some conductors were complaining about being ordered to work on unsafe trains. Union officials replied that they should certainly oppose such orders. Dave Stone asked that successful refusals be publicized in the union newspaper, so people would know about it.

This enraged the officers. Each told how he had stood up for himself, all alone, stuck his neck out totally as an individual, without any encouragement or solidarity from union or workmates, and advocated the same for us. Strange testimonials from trade unionists. 'You are the union,' one said. 'You are out there by yourself. If you are right, the union will back you up.'

Dave Stone's thinking was free of the ideological 'should-be's' and 'have-to-be's' that interfered with the ability of most leftists I'd known to see reality.

'What keeps you going?' I asked Dave. He smiled and shook his head. The question made no sense to him. I said, 'I keep feeling there's something I should be doing.'

'I don't think there's anything you can do. Activists rarely make the issues. You have to waitÉuntil something flares up. Of course, it dies down again. But the next time, things are easier. Some activists have gotten to know each other, contacts are made, lessons are learned. Some kind of ongoing organization is left behind. Some people go into motion sooner than others do. You can't suck a movement out of your thumb, but you can work with people who are earlier in moving.'
But Dave did not merely wait until things 'flared up.' Ultimately, as he had told me the first time we'd met, he dreamed of issuing a newsletterÉThe little shop rag, Hell on Wheels, which was nothing more than a subdued light in his eyes when I met him fifteen years ago, has burgeoned into the vital rank-and-file caucus, New Directions.1 (For an account of the growth of this movement by two who led it, I recommend 'Hell on Wheels: Organizing among New York City Subway and Bus Workers,' by Steve Downs and Tim Schermerhorn in The Reformation of Amercan Unionism.)

I couldn't imagine what would be meaningful to me in life after I left transit. As we were laying out issue 9 of Hell on Wheels, I couldn't believe I was leaving this. It was the best thing I'd ever do in my life.

My final day, I'm sitting on the platform, reading Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte, and they make me do an 'amenities check.' I speak over the P.A., while another conductor walks through the cars to make sure the speakers are working. I get the brilliant notion to read the novel over the P.A., instead of just repeating 'P.A. check,' 'til death from boredom.

Then a Road Car Inspector, a young guy, maybe Hispanic, looks at me kind of funny. He makes a cal-Then he asks me my name.

I feel a pang of anxiety. But it's my last day.
A few minutes later, I hear the train dispatcher calling, 'Flag, flag.'
She makes light of it, 'Someone made a complaint, and it went all the way down to the Superintendent. Someone said that someone was reading the Bible, or something communist, on the train.'

From August, 2000