Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A BART strike: an opportunity to begin a workers' offensive

Good. But "united" around what?
by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

  " Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table." George Schultz

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is the main urban rail system for the San Francisco Bay Area and the Unions representing BART workers are currently in contract negotiations.  The economic impact of a BART strike would be considerable and everyone knows that as BART carries some 400,000 passengers a day. Members of BART’s two largest unions, ATU 1555 and SEIU 1021 took strike votes yesterday and in the case of ATU, 99% voted to authorize one.

This is a ritual we go through every four years.  Very few contract talks receive as much publicity as those between BART unions and the transit agency given that BART workers walking off the job would cause considerable economic disruption. “Commuters have grown wary of the routine”, the Chronicle’s Michael Cabanatuan wrote last week and the agency, as it does every contract time, is making its case in their media. 

Already, BART spokespersons are claiming in the media that the average SEIU and ATU member’s compensation when pensions, wages and benefits are included is $133,000 and point to the 23% raise the workers are asking for over four years. This may well be true as total compensation but it most certainly is not what a worker takes home in his or her paycheck. But either way, this is a paltry sum when compared to the wasteful expenditure of taxpayer money on predatory wars or the annual incomes of hedge fund managers and other coupon clippers. 

The fact is though, that as public sector and unionized workers, BART workers will have better conditions and better pay than hundreds of thousands of workers and youth in the communities they serve and instead of trying to apologize for these conditions they should be built on and expanded to all workers; we have nothing to be ashamed of. Other issues are pensions and medical costs, issues that are raised time after time as the bosses’ offensive continues to take back gains that took a century to win. Many workers who will be negatively affected by a strike are unlikely to have any benefits at all and considerably lower pay when compared to public sector workers like those at BART.

The employers’ propaganda that BART workers are being selfish and that public sector workers are paid too much and a strain on the community with their pensions and all will get an echo among many workers if their lives are disrupted through strike action. “Why should I support these guys earning three times my pay striking for more money when I can’t get to work for my $10 an hour shit job. Where has the union been for me?” one young guy said on hearing that there might be a stoppage. The bosses will encourage this mood among the public as they remind us of the difficult times we are supposedly in and the need for “shared sacrifice”.

The problem is that the Union leadership at the local and national level has no answer to the bosses’ campaign for the hearts and minds of the public; they have nothing on the table that will encourage folks like the young man quoted above to support a strike.  He is expected to be supportive because it’s the right thing to do, the moral high ground.

Fewer than 7% of workers are organized in the US and many workers feel that unions only care about their own member’s interests.  The reality is though that the Labor leadership is unwilling to do even that.  The general approach is one of damage control, at best maintain the status quo and return to the period of labor peace.  The BART bosses know that they have the upper hand; spokespersons for the unions have assured them of their peaceful intentions through the mass media. They have assured the bosses that they do not intend to bring the power of organized Labor to the table in this war. “What we want is to Bargain” Antonette Bryant, the President of ATU 1555 tells the public through the media, “We’re not interested in talking about a strike.”

The strategy is to portray the unions as fair and compromising and the bosses as unfair, greedy and intransigent. Last week, Sister Bryant made it clear that their expectations are quite low and very reasonable telling the SF Chronicle that the Union “would sign a contract today if it keeps up with the cost of living in the Bay Area and gives us health and safety protections.” This is the limit of the Union leadership’s ideological warfare, let us keep what we have and we’ll go away.  Why would the bosses do that with 30 million without a decent job and wages declining everywhere? An SEIU spokesperson makes the point that they haven’t had a raise in five years but the bosses have learned after years of collaboration that they have nothing to fear from those at the top of the organized labor movement.

The union leadership is more afraid than the bosses that the troops will get out of hand.  It is at times like these that class-consciousness is stronger as most workers recognize that if we want to win all workers must unite and they look around for class allies.  Not the same allies as the Union tops, the Democratic politician that’ll send an e mail to the governor or walk a picket line for a day but other workers. There is always a danger that the ranks will break out of the straitjacket imposed on them by their leadership, something made all the likely when there exists a genuine fighting opposition caucus of sorts within the union.

AC Transit, the local bus service whose workers are represented by the same unions as those at BART is also in negotiations and their contract expires the same time as the BART workers. If the Union leadership had the slightest intention of going on the offensive to get back what we’ve lost over the years and make gains, they would be preparing for a joint action as AC Transit normally picks up some of the slack if BART shuts down. A joint strike with joint demands could transform things here if fought properly.

Instead, as an assurance to the employers that workers will fight this war with one hand behind our backs ATU officials at AC Transit announce in the mass media that, “It is unlikely, though not impossible that drivers would strike in conjunction with BART workers” Well I’m sure the employers are pleased to hear that.

In this case, even if there is a strike it is likely the BART California’s governor, Jerry Brown will impose a 60-day “cooling off” period before workers can walk off the job despite BART management’s request that he doesn’t; they would rather face a strike now than 60 days from now.  The media, the politicians, the police, the justice system, these are the forces the workers are up against and the Union leadership has no plan for such a struggle.

A strike could be won and could galvanize the entire Bay Area and transform the local labor movement but in order to do that, workers must go on the offensive which means that labor disputes cannot be limited to the members involved alone.  Along with the two transit unions several other public sector contracts are up and being negotiated.  City of Oakland workers, EBMUD (the local water district) workers, regional park workers are all in negotiations.  A first step in transforming the balance of forces in this area would be to form a public sector alliance and put some real meat on the table. Through such a formation public sector workers could reach out to the private sector, our communities and the unorganized.

Instead of damage control and pleading with the bosses for restraint, the union leadership could demand what we need instead of what the bosses want, wage increases, more vacations, increased sick leave, a shorter workweek with no loss in pay etc.

To win the support of workers like the young man quoted above as well as our communities that would be negatively affected by a public sector work stoppage, links must be built with these sectors, not by appealing to them to do the right thing and support "our" issues, but to generalize the dispute and place the demand for more jobs on the table as well as free transportation for seniors, reduced fares and more buses etc.  It is minorities, poor people and older people who rely on what is already a poor public transit system; making this an issue would draw the public in to the struggle. There are numerous struggles around all sorts of issues going on, all labor disputes must be linked to these community battles.

Simply announcing preparations for such a strategy would shift the balance of forces, demanding a $20 an hour minimum wage using such a dispute to wage a massive organizing drive among the low waged an unorganized would tend to counter the effects of the employers propaganda that unionized workers care only about our own issues. The bosses will cry poverty but we know that is not the case.  There is plenty of money in society it is simply a matter of where we spend it.*

We know that the union leadership will not mobilize for such a fight as they are wed to the Team Concept, the view that workers and bosses have the same interests and will do what they can to prevent such activity.  We cannot rely on them. So this Fight to Win strategy must come from below and through the building of fighting caucuses within our unions that campaign openly against the failed policies of the present leadership and that sink deep roots in to working class communities.  No matter what happens in this instance it is not the first battle nor will it be the last.

Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison, two Kochs, and four Waltons made an average of $6 billion each from their stocks and other investments in 2012. A $6 billion per year person makes enough in two seconds (based on a 40-hour work-week) to pay a year's worth of benefits to the average SNAP recipient. Just 20 Americans made as much from their 2012 investments as the entire SNAP budget for 47 million people.  Check here for more examples of where the money is and why we should reject the "shared sacrifice" nonsense.


Matthew Hougey said...

I'd support this, I hope BART workers consider that they have a position to set an example for the rest of the Bay area's labor force, they can show the power of a strike and how effective it can be. I'd stand in solidarity with them, will they with the rest of the working class?

wendy said...

Thank you for this post.
Could not be better said.
The only way to dispel the divisions among lower and well paid public sector workers as well as among unionized and non unionized workers is to forge links among the rank and file and in communities. A genuine fight to win strategy has to come from the members and will not come from the top. This means creating cross union steward and member caucuses willing to link up with communities in struggle not only too resist attacks on us all and on our public services but to develop and implement strategies that go beyond just protecting what we have left and demand what we deserve.
As a well paid unionized health care worker and union steward my job is not to compete with lower paid workers to make sure I keep my place in the health care sector but to work with members of other health care unions to make sure their work is respected and to help them achieve the wages and benefits , pensions etc I have.
We have to start by rejecting the argument that there is no money and resources to fund all the public services we fought for and won over decades.
The same logic applies across the public sector. Nurses and all health care workers need to link up together not only in our sector but with teachers, transit workers,
etc and with community groups and unorganized workers to resist the divise tactics of the politicians, employers and union leaderships that are only too willing to curtail and contain a genuine fight back .
Up here in Canada I applaud the BART rank and file and genuinely support their struggle and their demands.

Jack Gerson said...

I fully agree with Richard's post, and with Wendy's comments as well. I think it is important to stress the importance of building cross-union rank and file support as well as broad support from the working class community. To build such support, public sector workers need to forcefully demand (a) rolling back all the austerity cuts (the "shared sacrifice" demanded by the bosses and politicians, and endorsed by the union bureaucrats) and (b)the kinds of programs and services that are really needed. In the San Francisco Bay Area -- BART's service area -- cuts to mass transit (especially bus service) have fallen disproportionately on low-income communities, and affect most seriously the elderly and those with disabilities. We need an expansion of mass transit -- and we need universal free health care and free education through college, decent housing, decent jobs at adequate wages,etc. Is the money there? Well, multi-trillions of dollars were made available to bail out the banks. This society's priorities are upside down. Instead of accepting austerity / "shared sacrifice", the labor leadership ought to be organizing a mass militant fight for what's needed. They won't. We need to work to build such a fight.