By Train Operator K. Harrington
AFTER SOME TWENTY-THREE years of work at the MTA I though that I had
some job security. But May 27,I received a phone call from the Deputy
Superintendent of the Lexington Ave. line a Mr. John Morrow. He began to
ask me questions about my faith, the Sikh religion. He did not know what
a Sikh was, he thought I was a Muslim. He then asked about my turban
which I have worn every working day for the last twenty-three years and
was wearing when I was hired. He called again on June 2 with more
questions and an order to report the next day to the offices of the
Number four line Superintendent for further questioning. The inquisition
After the phone call I phoned the Union and made arrangements for the
United Motormans Division chairman Brother David Tut to be there at the
meeting. We met the next day at the crew quarters of the Grand Central
shuttle. We then proceeded to Superintendent T. Bohanans office for the
hearing. The three of us began to discuss the case, my turban that is,
but Mr. Bohanan decided to wait for Ms. Roach from Employee compliance
to arrive. Then we began to discuss my right to wear a turban.
It all came down to the Authority alleging that I did not have a right
to wear my turban as it violated the bulletins on the wearing of the
uniform. The union and I noted that the said bulletin was published some
decades after I became a Train operator. In fact when I was hired there
were no uniforms. David Tut and I tried to rationalize with Mr. Bohanan
but he had his orders from above and he insisted that I agree to
continue my employment under the same conditions as the Muslim Women bus
drivers in Brooklyn. He strongly wanted me to agree to that. I refused
and said that this being summarily deprived of my seniority and rights
without a hearing. This I stated was a gross violation of my rights. He
began to sweeten the offer with suggestions that I would lose nothing
and that they would try to maintain my overtime pay. I refused. I
told him he was not asking me to take a deal but making me a second
class employee and that he had already summarily taken away my job and
that I would work the yards only under the duress of having no other
employment. Mr. Bohanan was upset when I told him I took his offer only
under duress. Brother Tut repeated what I said. We left soon thereafter.
Fellow Transit Worker Chairman Tut then said that I should call Arthur
Schwartz the union lawyer who was planning an injunction to stop what
was happening to me. The union began to mobilize on my behalf. David Tut
explained that President Roger Toussaint was very keen on making this
fight and insisted on being kept current on all developments.
The next day David Tut faxed Mr. Bohanan a summary of our meeting so as
to preclude any later misunderstanding on the part of the Authority. As
my Sikh lawyer later advised me this documented my refusal to be boxed
into their agreement, which was managements goal of the meeting. This
was very important the Sikh attorney elaborated. David Tut and I won the
first round. We had frustrated their legal strategy.
I was then ordered by the Line superintendent to go back to my work
location without doing anything further as I was restricted from
passenger service. I went back to Woodlawn Crew room and began to call
At the Daily News I was put in contact with a staff writer Peter
Donohue. He took my story down and was very interested to my surprise.
He arranged a News photographer to meet me the very next day for a
picture session. The next day my photograph was taken on the way to
testify at the Federal Court in a work related case. After giving
evidence I went to visit the civil servants newspaper The Chief.
There I gave my story to Mike Daly.
That weekend I began to email and call my local politicians as well as
politicians in areas with large populations of Sikhs, Indians and
Muslims. I then notified all the Sikh civil rights groups of my
When my story did not appear in the Saturday News I became concerned, so
I phoned Newsday with my story remembering they had printed some
informative stories on the Sikh religion earlier in the year. There
Joshua Robin interviewed me and a very nice photographer was sent to my
home to take my picture.
Monday, things sure began to happen. As I picked up some sodas in the
early morning the storekeeper said hey, youre in the Daily News. I
brought the paper and then purchased Newsweek as well and there too was
a big article. Later in the day my wife phoned me at work and said that
several TV stations had called. It seems Newsday owns channel 11 and
somehow channel five got my number and a fellow worker Marty Goodman
called NY1 on my behalf and put them in contact with my home.
I told my wife to have the reporters meet me as I left work. When I was
leaving work the TV stations began to arrive and I was interviewed by
three stations channel 5, channel 11, and NY1. That night I was on three
news shows and congressman Anthony Weiner wrote a letter that afternoon
to Peter Kalikow demanding my re-instatement. Good Morning America also
called. Things were really hopping
Friends in India and Britain emailed me telling me the story was
appearing in their local papers. British Sikh transit employees were
considering appearing on my behalf. The story was traveling. Later that
day I was faxed a copy of the front of the Hindustan times, a leading
Indian newspaper with my story.
The next day the Daily News and Newsday continued the coverage. The
union then called me with the Media consultant Mr. Katzman asking me to
come to the union hall after work for an interview along with Roger
Toussaint by The New York Times. The New York Times, wow, more
Later in the day about 2:15 PM I was told to call my crew assignment
office. I was then told without any apology to return to my regular job
the next day, Wednesday. I then called my wife and asked her to call all
the reporters and TV stations that had given my case coverage and ask
them to meet me at the union hall.
When I got off work at about 3PM I met the UMD Chairman David Tut who
drove me to the union hall. On the way Dennis Boyd called and asked me
if I had called the other reporters who were now arriving at the union
hall, I said yes and he said Ok, lets roll with it. I though to get
as many reporters there as my case was concluding and we could use the
added publicity to advance the case of the Muslim women bus drivers
still restricted in Brooklyn.
The news conference went quite well with the NY Times writing a nice
article about the case. The NY Times reporter thought I was an Indian
and not the Irish American convert to an Indian religion, that I am.
People often think that Im an Indian, this lent shades of racism to the
case, and post 9/11 hysteria as President Roger Toussaint pointed out.
During the news conference I was told that the MTA President L. Reuter
had ordered me back to work. It seems the MTA didnt like its unfairness
and prejudice being revealed so completely and was doing some damage
control. But I was thankful to Mr. Reuter nevertheless. The MTA
spokesman Mr. Seaton said that considerations would have to be made for
religious headgear. So some change is in the wind.
This injustice was resolved in my favor as the MTA was confronted with
resistance. First I wanted to fight and the union backed me up
completely on this. Resistance is the essence. The union mobilized all
its resources to help me, and I mobilized the media and politicians on
my behalf. I would not surrender to this injustice. My union and its
offices stood with me and the community responded favorably to my case
and the injustice that was being done to me in their name by prejudiced
Transit Authority bureaucrats. By united action we won. Without the
union, without the public, without the Sikh community I would have been
alone and isolated, but that did not happen. The Union, local 100 was
The gross unfairness and bigotry of the MTA was exposed. Newsday wrote
an editorial demanding that such discrimination against the Sikh
community and myself stop. It said their actions were just plain bigotry.
So it seems that we won a victory. This I think was good for all of us
as it exposed the kind of people we work for. There has been no apology,
no remorse, and no self-examination of how MTA bureaucrats could act in
The MTA is completely oblivious to the community it serves. There are
almost a million Muslims in NYC, yet it stops them from being equal,
restricting their employment. There are hundreds of thousands of Indians
and Sikhs yet it has time and time again refused to hire Sikhs and
harasses those it hires, solely because off their religion.
People ask me how I feel about all of this, well, I reply, how do you
think Black people feel about racists? How do you think Jewish people
feel about Anti-Semites? How does anyone feel who has been the victim of
a bureaucratic hate crime?
What happened I though might be a guide for future action. The Union and
the community pressured the MTA to do the right thing, so this might be
our strategy as well.
We must work on political and community levels as well as on the job. We
must fight back. The union is doing this but the members must fight as
well. Its a job for all of us. Its a big job.
PART TWO: The Fight Continues
It seems the MTA and its executives are not true to their word. MTA
President ordered the re-assignment to the non-passenger service
rescinded and that I be returned to my regular job in passenger service.
Well just days after that order on June 15th he wrote a letter to the
President of the Transport Workers Union stating that at the next pick
or job selection by employees that I take the opportunity and pick a
non-passenger -yard job. So it seems he had not really rescinded the
order to put me in the yard as a second-class employee. Some say he
rescinded the order to stop the barrage of the media exposing the
profound unfairness of the MTA to its employees. They just couldnt
stand the fact that they are bigots being exposed to the people they
serve. So they are trying the very same thing, somewhat later, hoping
the press wont cover it.
This means that in September I am being pressured-ordered by the MTA
President to pick a job I dont want, a schedule I dont want and take a
20% pay cut I dont want. Working in the yard will mean that I accept
the second-class status the MTA is trying to paint Sikhs with, as are
other city administrations in the Bloomberg administration. Further it
will mean I will no longer have weekends off, nor will I have holidays
off and will have to in all likelihood work far from home. This is all
due to the fact that after twenty-three years the MTA has arbitrarily
sought to enforce rules every other of my Supervisors has thought a
violation of my rights.
This type of selective enforcement of the rules will result in it being
impossible for the many Sikhs in NYC to work for the Transit Authority.
This move is unacceptable, and I will not accept it. This fight has the
support of many people, the Transport Workers Union and its President
Roger Toussaint. Congressman Weiner and others in the various civil
rights organizations and of course the powerful backing the Sikh
community of the world is giving. This will prove to be an important
fight, it will determine in many respects whether Sikhs have a right to
be Sikhs with their turbans in this country as they have in many other
In the interest of the Bill of Rights I ask you all to support me by
sending letters to your City council persons, congress representatives
and the MTA President L. Reuter and the MTA chairman P. Kalikow.