Sunday, July 28, 2013

A BART Strike can be won with other unions and the communities and usher in a new era.

The power of labor. Let's put it to good use
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

I went to a meeting at the ATU hall a couple of nights ago.  It was a meeting called by ATU local 1555 for the purpose of building solidarity between unions and the community as the 30- day cooling off period that halted the 4 and a half day strike of BART workers will be up in a week or so.

An official from ATU 1555 spoke of the $100 million in concessions workers have already given but as is usually the case, the more willingly we make concessions the more aggressively the bosses come back for more originally demanding a 12% pay cut and the elimination of important work rules after years of a hiring freeze and no raises.

An attack on BART workers is an attack on all workers was the message which is true. The bosses are attacking a unionized section of the working class with relatively decent wages and benefits compared to many of our class brothers and sisters, as defeating BART workers is but a stepping stone to further attacks on the less organized sections of the class, the youth, the poor, the disabled. BART, or transit workers in general occupy an important position as workers in that stoppages in mass transit have a serious impact on economic activity and therefore profits. The bosses don’t care about disrupting the travel plans of the public going to visit friends, relatives, or to do a little shopping, if they did they wouldn’t savage public services including mass transit, they would expand on it and make it affordable. Profits are made through the labor process, in the workplace. Getting workers (Labor power) to work is crucial if profit is to be made.

We must “Let the public hear our message” the ATU official said to those of us present before moving on to the logistics of organizing the solidarity rally. Fortunately, someone from the floor asked what the union’s message to the public was and shouldn’t we discuss this before logistical questions.  Moist of us in attendance were there to help get the public to the rally, surely, what we are offering the public is the meat of the matter.

The official was a bit reluctant as it would open up a “philosophical” discussion he said could take a long time, but those in attendance clearly thought this was important and 20 minutes was allotted for us to hear what the actual message to the public was, a message that is designed to counter the massive propaganda against the Transit workers in the mass media and win the public to our side.

Unfortunately there was very little coming from the Union leadership that anyone could tell the public that would encourage them to become active in and drawn to the BART workers struggle as their own.  Appealing to someone in a $10 an hour job with no benefits to actively support BART workers meaning supporting a strike with all the disruption and sacrifice that entails, merely on the basis that it’s an attack on all of us is too abstract.  Let’s say the community gets involved and the Union leadership manages on the basis of this support to halt some of the most damaging concessions at the table and decides to settle; what is there for the community?  The community would feel betrayed.

Union approach
The strike deadline is approaching but there is still time to build something through this solidarity rally that could have a real affect on the balance of class forces and open up an offensive of our own. I do not think that the BART workers and ATU 1555 can defeat the bosses alone, no union can. I would like to share my thoughts on this:

I think the first thing the leadership of ATU 1555 should do is call for a mass meeting between all the BART locals, AFSCME and SEIU to prepare for a strike at the end of the cooling off period and for the purpose of forming a joint strike committee.  Included in this call should be ATU’s sister local ATU 192 that represents AC transit workers, the drivers that operate the bus system. This local could have legally struck with the BART workers but the leadership chose not to.  I have already stated that I think this was a mistake and hurt both parties. City of Oakland workers should also be invited to participate in joint strike committee; they are also represented by SEIU 1021 that represents BART station Agents and janitorial staff. The workers that operate the buses that transport severely disabled people are paid less with fewer benefits than operators at AC Transit and San Francisco's MUNI. Their outfit is owned by the firm that the union buster brought in to negotiate BART's contract works for.  They are Teamsters and should be brought in to this campaign in order to bring their wages and benefits in to line with ATU and SEIU members or all will be driven to the lower level. We can defeat this offensive but not alone.

Local 1555 should make sure that this call is made public through press releases regardless of the reaction of the leadership of the other unions. Let the public and the members of other unions, especially those included in the call read about this in the media. There are also other public sector unions in contract talks and a serious approach like this will get an echo among many rank and file members tired of years of concessions.

We are negotiating in the working public’s interest.
I was a rank and file negotiator for my local, AFSCME 444 EBMUD blue collar workers in 1997 (read an assessment of that negotiations we wrote at the time here) We formed a solidarity committee and at the table one of our demands was for 50 union jobs as opposed to the company’s phony community training ventures, part-time work with no benefits and lower wages to make board members look good. This program undermined union pay and benefits and rarely led to full time jobs.  In addition we had as a proposal a demand for a shorter workweek, we never dropped that demand but I think we left on the table a proposal to reduce the workweek 2 and a half hours. 

In the first meeting the company’s negotiators told us that we couldn’t demand jobs, that hiring was management’s business. We told them in no uncertain terms that they don’t tell us what to demand; we demand what we need as workers and what the communities we serve need as communities of workers. In our rallies and public events we always made jobs for the community an issue.  The solidarity committee leafleted the welfare offices, the unemployment office, and other public sector workplaces like the Berkeley city workers yard and the city of Oakland corporation yard on Enterprise Way.  We got a good contract that year although the solidarity committee was unable to bring in huge numbers of members of other locals and members of the community.  This was due to resources and not a failed approach.  The heads of the Bay Area labor movement through the labor councils should be doing this in every dispute rather than spending members’ hard earned money getting Democrats elected to boards and political office who immediately turn on us in the interests of “shared sacrifice”.

In every dispute, especially involving public sector unions, the proposals at the table cannot be limited only to issues that affect the members of that local. We have an obligation to negotiate for the public as well. 

Coming out of a mass meeting and formation of a joint strike committee the transit unions should go on the offensive and place new demands on the table demands that relate to their own members, but also that affect the public. A solidarity campaign can then leaflet areas and institutions where these potential allies can be found, Here are some examples I think would draw the public in to this struggle, not just as passive supporters but as activists with representatives on the joint strike committee.

·      Free transportation for all senior citizens

·      Half fare for the unemployed and all those on public assistance, welfare etc.

·      Increased and free transportation for the disabled.

·      A massive increase in bus routes and in areas where seniors live shorter distance between stops.

·      Job training programs in conjunction with the unions to be set up in each community

These are just a couple of simple examples. We have numerous articles on this blog about the need for jobs and a massive infrastructure spending project to be paid for by ending all wars and occupations, $10 billion year incomes for those people who clip coupons for a living like hedge fund managers and other speculators and directing capital in to social needs.

There is no shortage of money in society; it is not our job to nickel and dime one section of the working class in order to give a few minor concessions to another. This is the bosses’ strategy that divides us and weakens us.  We do not believe it is our job to scramble around finding ways to divvy up an ever-dwindling pie they offer us. We have the money and we know where we need to put it. The Berkeley Express had a very good article about the massive increase in corporate property values since the BART rail system, a public project, was installed. It points out that BART’s 2013 budget shows that 57% of the agency’s funding comes from fares, and 30% of it from sales tax in Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties. Property taxes account for less than 5%.  Taxes funding BART are regressive. These billions of dollars of increased property values are not taxed appropriately.  We published the Express piece here

A strong, committed and united working class can make some gains and transform the national mood a process that can lead to further victories and increased political awareness.   One of the greatest obstacles we have to overcome is the view in US society that we can’t win, that we can’t change what is. This is the bosses’ message and it is one that is unfortunately adopted by the heads or organized labor from the top down.

I am not raising these issues simply to point fingers.  But to raise what I genuinely believe is a way forward, a way to throw back the capitalist offensive and begin one of our own.  The concession will not stop as the crisis of their system and global competition is forcing the US capitalist class to drive us back to conditions that existed before the great uprising that led to the CIO in the 1930’s and the Civil Rights movement that followed it.

To make appeals to the public for support against the lies and propaganda of the bosses, we have to have something concrete to offer as opposed to generalities and abstract slogans about unity and how we are all under attack etc.  A call for solidarity is a good thing but solidarity around what?  Some of us are under attack more severely than others and would think they’d died and gone to heaven to get a job at a public utility. If we don’t want to have the bosses’ give them our jobs, we need to be in the forefront of the battle for jobs for all, a $20 an hour minimum wage, health care, education etc. 

Finally and of extreme importance is the responsibility of the union leaderships in this struggle. These leaderships control the unions and structures through which we, the union members have to function. They control the apparatus that has considerable resources; twelve million members, a full time apparatus and financial and other resources. Presidents of the United States do not attend National Union Conventions because there is no power there; they attend to ensure that this potential power is kept subdued. These union leaderships have to lead. It is up to them to organize in the unions at all levels, in the workplaces, in the communities, in the schools and colleges to build a movement to fight for the demands we outline above. While making sure that these leaderships are pressed to take this action all union activists and members should simultaneously be building activist and fighting caucuses where they work and study. Experience shows that the union leaderships do not take militant action unless they are forced to from below in a way that threatens their positions, power and privileges.

The union leadership at the highest levels should be speaking out most emphatically against racism and the ongoing murder of black youth by the police and racist thugs like Zimmerman.  A defender of Zimmerman threw in my face the black on black crime in the urban ghettos (a good piece on that here) which is in itself an issue.  But what is the cause of this?  It is poverty, police brutality, lack of opportunity and generations on unemployment and welfare, not enough to die on and not enough to live on. It is the disgraceful incarceration of black males disenfranchising them permanently from society even when they get out. It is the product of a racist war on a whole section of our society, a divide and rule strategy to weaken us all. It is not a black thing. If the conditions that existed in this community exited in society as a whole the experts would declare a national state of emergency and we are moving closer to that scenario.  The economic war against all of us is the cause of the crisis in society and the intensified crisis among the poor and racially oppressed.

"Brethren we conjure you...not to believe a word of what is being said about your interests and those of your employers being the same. Your interests and theirs are in a nature of things, hostile and irreconcilable.  Then do not look to them for relief...Our salvation must, through the blessing of God, come from ourselves.  It is useless to expect it from those whom our labors enrich." * 

* 1840's appeal from New England laborers to their fellows to abandon the idea that the employers/capitalists would solve working people's problems.  Philip Foner History of the Labor Movement Vol. 1 p192

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