Thursday, June 27, 2013

A BART and AC Transit strike can halt the bosses' offensive

by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

The Labor spokesperson for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system launched a shot across the bow in the bosses’ ideological offensive against BART workers. He was reported as saying in today’s SF Chronicle that the strike authorization by BART workers was, “a clear signal our employees are willing to shut down the Bay Area and cause commuter chaos to make their case for a 23% raise.”

Yesterday, another spokesperson said that the BART worker’s total compensation is $133,000 a year knowing that with the huge number of lower waged workers and hard times people are facing due to the attacks by the bankers and their political representatives on public services and jobs, such a figure will seem extreme.  But it is not a wage figure and BART workers have gone five years without a raise.

The propagandists for the bosses use the word willing in a way workers would never use it. They say that Indonesian women are “willing” to accept low wages or that Mexican immigrants are willing, much more willing that US workers, to work for starvation wages and no benefits, the point being that US workers are lazy. But the more desperate we are, the more willing we are to succumb to the economic terrorism and coercion of the bosses, the 1% or the capitalist class to put it more succinctly. It doesn’t matter so much what we call them; all workers know what they are. It is their strategy to keep us in a never-ending state of insecurity and fear. This is what the unemployed are used for also, to keep those of us still working on edge and afraid to speak out.

As I wrote yesterday, a BART strike will wreak havoc on the local economy especially if the AC transit drivers (the local bus company) join them which would increase the chances of a victory. AC Transit’s contract expires on Sunday, the same time as BART’s.

So it’s not that workers are “willing” to “cause commuter chaos”.  I have been on strike and it is a very difficult decision to make.  The bosses are the ones willing to cause commuter chaos forcing workers to withdraw their labor power in order to maintain (at very least as most unions don’t fight for gains these days) their living standards. We strike when our backs are against the wall. The bosses and their politicians go to wars, slaughter hundreds of thousands of people to defend and keep their profits yet workers are supposed to take the punches and thank them for it all in the name of "shared sacrifice".

If we study our own US working class history we see that they have shot, deported and imprisoned us for fighting for our rights, for a decent living standard and the right to self-organization independent of the employers. In my own lifetime these same forces terrorized and murdered black people for demanding the right to vote.

So we must reject their propaganda that blames workers for the disruption a strike causes.  The bosses don’t care about the public or they wouldn’t have a hero like JP Morgan who famously said “I owe the public nothing” after he robbed the public blind.  If they cared about the public they wouldn’t have eliminated 700,000 public sector jobs.  They wouldn’t close fire stations, shut down bus routes or close public schools forcing children to travel an hour an a half on a dwindling transit system to get to school. Most of these schools are schools in communities of color worsening an already crisis ridden situation with mass unemployment and the resulting crime that brings.  If they cared about the public they wouldn’t have shut down public parks or be trying to privatize the US Post Office and close 4000 of them.

No, what they care about is profits and their goal to make all workers low waged in order to maximize them; this is why they are prepared to create chaos for the commuter.  “The strike would damage the regions’ resurgent economy in addition to causing commuter chaos.”, the SF Chronicle points out. You see which issue comes first here.  The source of that quote is Jim Wunderman, the head of the Bay Area Council, a business group. “It would create a regional paralysis…”  he tells the Chronicle, “ would put us in a world of hurt.”

Workers must remind ourselves time and time again, including when a strike inconveniences us, that it is profits that matter for the enemies of workers and our organizations, not the welfare of the public. Shutting a fire station is putting the public at risk, sending troops to Afghanistan or Syria (not to mention our tax money) is hurting the welfare of the public as we have to pay for their profit driven wars through cuts in social services and jobs and some of us pay with their lives.

There is a golden opportunity here for the power of organized Labor to open up an offensive of our own that will drive back the assault of the 1% on American workers and the middle class.  Aside from the two transit agencies, the City of Oakland workers are facing a possible strike after years of cuts and the savaging of their wages and benefits. Three Afscme (my former union) locals that I know of are in negotiations; two at the water district and the workers at the East Bay regional park District.

The Alameda Labor Council (the county arm of the AFL-CIO) should organize and help facilitate a united public sector alliance and all these unions should strike together. The huge full time apparatus of the unions should be used in conjunction with shop stewards to coordinate regional and mass meetings of workers to run such a strike and develop the mass direct action tactics to win it, a strike after all is mass direct action if run properly.  Meetings should be organized in our communities, workplaces and where workers, organized and unorganized congregate.

As workers we should always support those workers at the higher end of the pay and benefit scale as defeats for them simply places further downward pressure on all our wages, benefits, and for people like me, our pensions. The wages and benefits of workers like those at BART should be expanded upon.  Their so-called free market cannot put 30 million of us to work because it is not profitable for them to do so, so the 1% speculate and hoard capital, wealth our labor power has created. We must support all the demands of the transit workers but demand more, a shorter workweek is needed for our own sanity and to create jobs for the public we serve. We must demand a minimum wage that doesn’t force us to take three jobs, $20 an hour is reasonable and affordable in our society. We demand health care, education etc.

In the short clip above we see the disabled man speaking at last night’s transit board meeting attended by many BART and AC transit workers. He explains how it takes him hours to travel a few miles.  If the politicians in the two Wall Street Parties cared about the public this would not exist.  After this man spoke a worker asked and the rest of us demanded, that the board read his statement to us which they reluctantly did so I include it.  It was good to be among them. Free public transportation for seniors and the disabled is another demand the union leadership should place on the table.

A strike is a sacrifice for those involved and for those workers affected.  But it is a necessary sacrifice; it is how we have come this far. To undermine the propaganda from the bosses that we don’t care about the public, a combined union effort must reject the idea that we demand what is acceptable to the bosses and the Democratic Party and demand what we need to live a secure and productive life, not just us on the job, but all workers.  Demands of the movement must include social demands, no more austerity, increased social services, no more closing of fire stations schools etc. We know there’s money in society and we want it spent not on corporate wars but on social needs and jobs, jobs that don’t threaten to destroy our environment as well. Trillions was allotted to bail out the banks; we have different uses for that money.

Opportunity knocks here. The unions can answer that door but there is an important last point that must be made.  The union leadership from the top down supports what they call the Team Concept. This is the view that workers and the bosses are on the same team and have the same economic interests. This philosophy is a disaster and leads us in to competition with other workers and a race to the bottom; we cannot build solidarity and the unity needed to win with this philosophy. It is the basis for all the defeats and betrayals that have occurred under the present leadership of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win groups. At the meeting last night the head of the Alameda Labor Council spoke saying as they always do that the 100,000 affiliated workers are behind the transit workers. But 99% of the workers affiliated to the ALC would not even know who she is because this body has no significant presence in their lives; she is speaking on their behalf and they don’t know it.  This leadership will not take steps to mobilize and activate this potentially powerful force which would make the difference.

Accepting the employers’ view of the world the Labor leadership, or what is sometimes referred to as the Labor bureaucracy will not lead a real struggle against the bosses’ certainly not willingly.  Rank and file unionists, shop stewards, militants and anti-capitalists of all stripes when in unions should participate and lead in the building of fighting opposition caucuses that can offer an alternative to the concessionary policies (and in many cases outright collaboration) on the part of the present heads of organized Labor.  An open campaign against these policies will draw in the most combative workers who see that there is a fight developing and that there is an organizational formation they can turn to and build. Continued concessions only bring more concessions; weakness breeds aggression as they say.

Regardless of what happens in the present situation, this is a general outline I believe will begin to transform the balance of class forces in society and inspire millions of workers to take action.  There is tremendous anger beneath the surface of US society that cannot yet find organizational expression which is why the Labor officialdom is afraid of mobilizing its own members or raising expectations they believe the bosses can’t fulfill, they see this anger and they saw also that despite its mistakes, the Occupy Movement with its mass action and its willingness to defy the law had widespread support.

BART and AC transit workers must be supported in their struggle for higher pay, increased benefits and more humane conditions on the job regardless of how their leaders conduct this struggle, further defeats for these brothers and sisters is a defeat for all workers.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a bunch of crap. Why support a group of people willing to hold a gun to every riders head and extort more money to use a transportation system that is already too expensive. Give these self righteous thieves an ultimatum, go back to work tomorrow or lose your job. This is a public transportation system, funded with taxpayer dollars, any strike should be illegal and subject any striker to the loss of their jobs. Go back to work or lose your job tomorrow. Nothing less.