Tim Schermerhorn

"Eventually in Hunts Point we are going to have an awning over us. And that awning is the trees." —Tim Schermerhorn, 1999

Tim Schermerhorn is a founder of New Directions, a multiracial rank-and-file reform group in the Transport Workers Union Local 100 of the New York metropolitan area. Under his guidance, this movement has dramatically increased democratic participation in union affairs and helped to improve the working conditions of public employees who have been sold out by their union’s leadership.

Founded in the 1930s, a time of severe wage cutbacks and unsafe working conditions, the Transport Workers Union was dominated for over thirty years by the militant and confrontational Michael J. Quill. After his death, the TWU came to be controlled by a leadership seen as more responsive to municipal officials than the union membership. By the time the 1982 contract was signed, which adversely affected working conditions, the union’s internal political life was moribund.

In 1984, Tim, a subway motorman and the son of a TWU opposition activist, helped found Hell on Wheels, a newsletter to educate and mobilize new recruits from diverse backgrounds who were entering the union.

Seizing the opportunity in 1988 to raise unaddressed issues in union elections, Tim, running on a New Directions slate, contested the presidency of the local. By his third run in 1994, what had begun as a consciousness-raising effort became a real threat to the old guard, who reacted to Tim’s fourth try for the presidency with blatantly unfair tactics. Tim lost the rerun of the 1997 election by just 3% of the vote, but New Directions gained many official TWU positions as well as fairer, more open elections.

Working at the grass-roots level, New Directions has brought many African-American and Latino men and women into TWU debates from which they had traditionally been excluded. Financed by small contributions from the pockets of union brothers and sisters, New Directions has struggled against vast odds and the substantial resources of an entrenched union machine to give voice to the workplace concerns of the rank and file. It has also reached outside the public employee unions to forge alliances with other labor action groups and progressive organizations concerned with the welfare and democratic rights of all citizens.

Lawsuits brought by New Directions in the early 1990’s further contributed to union democracy. By suing the Transit Authority on First Amendment grounds for dismissing workers who wore buttons urging a “no” vote on a contract settlement and by suing the TWU over rules prohibiting the distribution of literature and forbidding members of one division from attending the meetings of another division, New Directions succeeded in getting all charges against dissenting members dropped and winning changes in the union rules.

Tim and his colleagues in New Directions are playing a pivotal role in the debate over employing welfare recipients in the transit system. In 1995, New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani launched the nation’s largest workfare program, the Work Experience Program, designed to move 100,000 adults on welfare into low-skilled jobs. When the leadership of TWU Local 100 accepted WEP workers without further guarantees, Tim and New Directions stepped in to advocate for the right of welfare workers to be unionized civil servants.

Tim’s tireless organizing, his conviction that workers must raise their voices and shape their own destiny, and his success in building an multiracial rank-and-file reform group are a model of the best hope for reviving the union movement. The Petra Foundation honors Tim Schermerhorn for persevering in the struggle for union democracy and for social justice for all Americans.

Tim Schermerhorn Photo by Dorothea von Haeften