Wednesday, July 3, 2013

BART Strike: Out of the mouths of Union consultants.

A BART/AC Transit strike could make real gains
by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

Continuing the thread about the labor disputes here in the San Francisco Bay Area with the BART (subway) workers on strike and the AC Transit (bus drivers) out of contract and still negotiating, I read an interesting couple of comments in the San Francisco Chronicle this morning.  The  (AC Transit) bus driver’s Union leadership has chosen not to strike alongside the BART workers although they can legally do so and are in the same union, the ATU. Every bus driver I spoke to at the Board Meeting last week agreed that if the two walked out together and coordinated their a strike, the chances of winning would be increased. “ Unity is strength” is a slogan every worker understands. The City of Oakland workers could also strike.

Greg Harper, the president of the Alameda County Transit Board which governs the transit agency is very happy that the drivers didn’t go on strike with the BART workers. The drivers, “Really understood the situation, and we really appreciate the fact that they came in,”  (to work), he tells the Chronicle. 

His remarks are followed by the following comments, “The thing about the bus driver is that that they are right there with the public. They even know the names of their passengers and they are deeply committed to provide service.”

Perhaps it is Harper’s underling, I thought, maybe the company lawyer. No, these remarks come from the mouth of Sharon Cornu who the Chronicle describes as a “transit union spokeswoman.”  She is happy that the BART workers fight against the bosses, a struggle over putting food on the table, is made considerably more difficult by the decision of the AC Transit drivers Union leadership to have their members stay on the job. It helps neither bus drivers nor train operators that this is the case.

To the folks who pay the dues that contribute to the obscene salaries many of the top labor officials make, and who hire so called “consultants” like Sharon Cornu.: Here is the problem with our movement today.

I saw Ms Cornu at last week’s AC Transit Board meeting. I didn’t recognize her at first and thought she was a former employee of AFSCME, my former Union.  She was slinking around trying to make connections with Union officials promoting herself as a consultant. She is quite the popular one.  She is a former staffer to Jean Quan the Mayor of Oakland that had the cops brutalize Occupy Oakland.  She has been the Governor’s Minority Business of the Year person and she was the head of the Alameda Labor Council, the state arm of the AFL-CIO and the AFL-CIO’s National Field Director

Ms Cornu is very well educated like many of those in the lower rungs of the right wing trade union bureaucracy graduating magna cum laude from Brown University, a famous US liberal college. 

This is nothing new. Labor’s full time apparatus consists of many former and sometimes present leftists and highly educated folks like Ms Cornu.  The trade union bureaucracy, not too well up on labor history and economics, find them very useful as advisors on such affairs and spokespersons at times like these. The folks atop organized labor do not like too much publicity either, in fact, its preferable that the members they represent and who’s hard earned dues money lubricates the wheels of the organization and pays their salaries don’t know who they are which is sadly the case.

The answer to this criticism from above will be that the members decide or the “members have spoken”.  This is the officialdom’s example of how democratic they are.  The same line is dragged out when they bring the bosses message to their members at contract time, you can strike though we haven’t prepared for one and don’t believe we can win one or you can accept 20% wage cuts.   “And by the way, we are in difficult times and shared sacrifice is needed to save the country from collapse.” The members choose the cuts and democracy has run its course.

I have been accused, including by some socialists, of having a principle of denouncing the trade union bureaucracy. But this is not the case. If any union leader or group of our leaders take steps forward, abandons the Team Concept and labor/management partnerships and really fight for gains for their members and the working class as a whole, then I support that and would gladly use my time helping in that regard. What myself, and others like me refuse to do is ignore the extremely negative and class collaborationist role the trade union hierarchy plays. A role supported by academics and liberal intellectuals and folks like Ms Cornu who are looking to make a nice career off of the backs of working people. The strikes we have lost over the last 40 years from the P9 Hormel strike to Eastern Airlines, Teamsters Newspaper strike in Detroit, the Staley war, and the California grocery workers strike in 2003 were all due to the role of the trade union leadership at the highest levels.  Added to this to be honest, is the role that so many leftists also play by refusing to openly challenge these policies and campaign for an alternative among the ranks. By doing this they consciously or unconsciously act as a left cover for them.

If we do not make this clear, that these decisions like the AC Transit unions decision to help out while their brothers and sisters are on strike, comes from the top down, then we have to blame the members which is what happens.   But leadership has responsibilities and in times of heightened class struggle leadership is crucial. I was at the AC transit board meeting last week and there was a tremendous mood for unity there.  Workers are clearly angry.  Sometimes the anger can and will overcome the obstacle of their own leadership and the leadership lose control for a while.  But a powerful combination of the bosses and our own leaders is not an easy one to confront But confront it we must if we are to halt the bosses efforts to take back what has taken the US working class 150 years to win.

It’s the same with demands in times like these; the strategy of the trade union hierarchy and its academic advisers is damage control. The union leadership echoes the 1%’s claims that we are in hard times and that we are weak and them strong, that we need shared sacrifice (us and Warren Buffet together) and that we can’t win. They are good at telling us what we “can’t” do. The average member looks at this scenario, correctly sees to challenge it would mean a huge struggle yet there’s no real opposition out there (the left really has no significant impact on workers lives) so they bury their heads and slip further back hoping for better times. But better times are not coming; we cannot avoid a fight. Also, our health care is connected to our employment, this is another trick.

I would bet my house on it that in the present situation and with the anger that exists not just among union members but in society as a whole, were there serious and established fighting caucuses in the unions offering an alternative to the concessionary stance of the leadership we would see a more widespread strike and also organizing and involvement of the unorganized and our communities, even if such a caucus wasn’t represented in the leadership. The anger in society is suppressed by the union leadership and their allies in academia and directed in to electoral politics and their friends in the Democratic Party.  It has yet no organizational form. Most of these people like Ms. Cornu whose comments provoked me to write this commentary, (my opponents call it a rant) are agents of the Democratic Party in the workers’ movement.

I am not condemning education or all academics.  Many people from privileged backgrounds have sacrificed their time and their lives for workers and our movement.  But they did it abandoning their own class position. But those who have power and influence in our movement use their privileged status also to bully workers intellectually.  I know from personal experience that this can be a difficult thing to overcome. Race and gender oppression holds us back; but class oppression cannot be underestimated---class consciousness and recognizing who are our best allies can give us a powerful advantage.

Read more about this dispute by scrolling down or checking the "popular posts" to the right.

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