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George Clarke

Mayor O’Dwyer’s Campaign
Against the Nickel Fare

(22 March 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. XII No. 12, 22 March 1948, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

After a year of political juggling, the 5-cent fare football has landed back where it started – in the arms of Mayor O’Dwyer. Now as then, the Mayor swears on a stack of Bibles that there will be no increase in the fare as long as he remains in office.

There is an important difference, however, between the situation today and the one that existed in Feb.1947. The people of New York are today completely at the mercy of O’Dwyer’s promises, whereas one year ago the law specifically prevented O’Dwyer from acting on the fare before submitting the question to a popular referendum.

Although the Republican majority in Albany killed the referendum law, it must now be clear that O’Dwyer and the Democratic Party have a lion’s share in depriving the people of this democratic right. It was O’Dwyer who first demanded last November that the referendum be abolished and the fare be raised. But to save his political hide, he wrapped up the higher fare with demands for increased appropriations from Albany to improve hospitals and other city services.

We predicted then that, in the absence of a mass protest movement which would threaten to boot the O’Dwyer gang out of office, the Democrats would discard most of the “package” when faced with a showdown with the Republican majority in Albany.

Only one factor explains the failure of the Democrats to make this compromise: the Isaacson victory in the Bronx. It was the spectre of defeat at the polls that made the Democrats vote against the anti-referendum part of O’Dwyer’s package. The same fear made O’Dwyer pledge that he would not use the power granted him and his Board of Transportation.

The Daily Worker hailed O’Dwyer’s new promise as a “partial victory” for the fight to keep the nickel fare. Yet the truth is just the opposite. The victory goes to O’Dwyer and his scheme to raise the fare. As an experienced politician, O’Dwyer knew from the start that the fare could not be raised at one blow without committing “political suicide.” A series of maneuvers were necessary.

O’Dwyer succeeded in dragging the Social Democratic and Stalinist trade union leaders together with the ALP and Liberal Party leaders behind him in each maneuver. They applauded and cheered O’Dwyer’s grandstanding last February. The 5-cent fare, to believe them, was safe so long as O’Dwyer remained in office.

In this way, the nickel fare issue was kept off the ballot last November to permit the referendum abolishing Proportional Representation to pass and thus eliminate the threat of reprisal at the polls. No sooner was the election over than O’Dwyer announced his changed position on the fare. But by this time he had won the support of Mike Quill, who had misled the CIO Transport Workers membership into believing that an increase in their wages was tied to an increase in fare.

One of the most shameful leaflets in the history of the trade union movement, separating the interests of the transport workers from the rest of the working class, was issued by the TWU officials calling upon their membership to “Get Into the Fight” for the higher fare.

The Stalinist leaders of the CIO Council refused to change their position on the nickel fare as Quill had done. But the opposition to O’Dwyer – on the part of Stalinist CIO, ALP and CP leaders – was of the paper variety. They did not demand a referendum; no demonstrations were organized; the opposition was confined to newspaper statements.

In addition, the Stalinist and Social Democratic stand on city financing was indistinguishable from O’Dwyer’s. It still is. Thus they are succumbing to his third and final maneuver. Together with O’Dwyer, their only program of city financing was to “put the heat on Governor Dewey.” Now that this has failed, what next?

It is now almost inevitable that O’Dwyer will refuse wage increases to the transport workers and lay off personnel in other departments on the grounds that the city is broke. When the opposition to this program becomes strong enough, O’Dwyer will probably use his new powers to raise the fare.

The 5-cent fare can be saved, but it must be saved now! If the labor movement rests on its haunches until the November elections, it might as well be kissed goodbye. No politician will think of raising the fare before November. But it will be another matter after the returns arc in. The time to act is now – behind a realistic program of action:

  1. A petition campaign must be launched by the labor movement to place on the ballot next November a referendum to restore the right of the people of New York to vote on the fare.
  2. A mass movement must be set on foot to compel the legislature to grant New York the right to tax Wall Street securities, as a means of financing the city’s transportation system and other services without placing an additional tax on the poor.
  3. The city must expropriate the subways. It must stop paying the robber baron’s ransom of over 57 million dollars annually to the bankers in interest charges to sustain the crooked deal whereby the city bought back from private interests railroads built and operated primarily with tax-payers money.
  4. The transportation workers must be freed of the dictatorship of the banker-real-estate dominated Board of Transportation. The transport workers run the subways, buses and streetcars. Let them control its operation and determine working conditions.

This program can save the nickel fare. The labor movement has the strength to organize the forces to defeat the banker-real estate crowd.

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