Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A no vote by AC Transit workers has the potential to usher in a new era for the labor movement.

BART and AC Transit workers show unity at board meeting
by Richard Mellor
Afscme local 444, retired

For the last few months here in the San Francisco Bay Area we have been subjected a barrage of anti-worker, anti-union propaganda in the 1%’s media.  The reason their media has been paying so much attention to worker and labor issues rather than which Hollywood star has abandoned Scientology or the child of those royal wasters in Britain, is the ongoing back and forth between transit workers and the state.

There in no doubt in my mind that there is a bit of a shift in the mood here and this is being manifested in increased strike activity or the threat of it.  Bay Area Rapid Transit workers (BART), members of ATU 1555, Afscme 3993 and SEIU 1021 struck for four and a half days in early July and have been in a back and forth struggle to stave off concessions with the state intervening to keep them on the job. 

City of Oakland workers, also members of SEIU 1021 struck for one day about the same time and have since settled (I do not know if the members have voted) and Alameda County bus drivers, members of ATU 192 have also been in negotiations.  Unfortunately, despite the tremendous unity and desire to fight together the ranks of ATU 1555 and 192 displayed at a Transit Board meeting some weeks ago, the leadership of 192 refused to make joint strike action a priority.  They had their members work in the first BART strike.
AC Transit drivers will be voting on a concessionary contract this coming Saturday that their executive board is recommending they accept.  The vote by the leadership to recommend the contract was not unanimous; it passed by a vote of 8 for and 5 against according to reports I’ve heard. It is at times like these that mass consciousness can be broadened as the real nature of our relationship with the boss becomes more apparent. 

Part of the reason we are seeing this increased activity in my opinion is due to the nature of the period. The bosses are feeling very confident after years of successful attacks on wages, benefits and conditions in the private sector in particular. The victory over the autoworkers cannot be underestimated, as these workers were a benchmark for the entry of what many workers here in the US refer to as the middle class, basically, decent paying union jobs with good benefits, pensions and lifetime employment. 

We should not underestimate the level of the decline either.  Caterpillar shut a plant down in London Ontario and moved to the US Midwest where wages are 50% lower. Even the head of Fiat threatened his workers he would move production perhaps to the US if they didn’t accept concessions. Who would have dreamed it 40 years ago?

This war on workers has produced results. “Manufacturing in the US is more and more attractive,” an economist for the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation tells the Wall Street Journal, by attractive he means wages have been driven significantly lower. Bloomberg Business Week.  pointed out that US bosses get almost 25% more goods and services out of us than they did in 1999 with the same number of workers and as wages have declined.  “It’s as if $2.5 trillion worth of stuff---the equivalent of the entire U.S. economy circa 1958—materialized out of thin air” this sober magazine of the 1% adds.Did we get any of that?

The shift now is to the public sector with its much higher union density. Some 35% of public sector workers are unionized compared to around 7% in the private sector. We have seen savage attacks on teachers, and municipal workers and the reduced services that go along with them. Public expenditure crowds private capital from the marketplace and reduces opportunities for profit. 

Social Security, transport, utilities like water, are all in their sights as there is money to be made here and there is less public control if these vital industries are privatized.  Education is a billion dollar industry which is why the teachers unions have to be crushed.  This is a war on the public sector which is why the negotiations with the BART workers are so contentious. They are not going along with it

ATU 192 and the bus drivers vote Saturday and these brothers and sisters are faced with a decision. I had a similar decision some years ago in 1997 when I was a rank and file negotiator for my local, AFSCME local 444 at EBMUD, the water district. We had been in negotiations for months.  The bosses were determined to eliminate our COLA clause and we went round and round about that. 

We had formed a solidarity committee that went to other locals in the area as well as the welfare and unemployed offices as we had demands for 50 union jobs on the table and other issues. We worked in areas of high unemployment and felt it crucial that we fight for jobs for the communities in which we worked. We urged the community to join our solidarity committee and help fight for more jobs for the community.

At one point we realized we could win no more at the table, as in the last analysis it is the potential power and intervention of the rank and file and our allies that gets results.  Three of us on the negotiating team believed we could get more and we planned to recommend against the contract. But we realized we could not recommend a no vote without putting forward a plan.  We had to make it clear that simply sending us back in to negotiate was pointless as nothing more could be won through bargaining, the members themselves had to become active.

We recommended the no vote when it was our turn to speak to our members at the contract ratification meeting.  We made it clear though that if they vote no, they can’t go fishing.  We can win more we told them but you have to join the solidarity committee and build it.  You have to become an activist yourself, help coordinate visits to others union's rank and file, workplaces and where workers congregate.  They had to start with our sister local the white-collar union and its members who were our co-workers.

In short, we said that we have a plan, that we rely on our own strength as opposed to mediators or Democratic politicians who are often brought in by the heads of organized Labor in these instances but are worthless. And we become involved in mobilizing the rest of the labor movement and the community.

As it was, they chose the contract as the line of least resistance and voted it up. It was a good contract by most standards but they have, like all workers, been sliding down the concessionary road leaving an uncertain future for the younger workers. The bosses won't let up.

If I were a member of the ATU going to vote on Saturday I would vote against the contract which is concessionary; we have to put a stop to this at some point. But I would have to explain to my co-workers that we cannot vote no and hope more is forthcoming at the table.  The employers mean business here. A no vote would give a boost to BART workers who are under a major assault and give AC Transit workers an opportunity to reach out to them and return to the mood of unity in action that was likely derailed by the leadership during BART’s strike in July. I would argue for a rank and file strike and solidarity committee to be formed that would do this and that could leaflet BART work areas and wherever BART workers congregate including their union hall.

Rank and file committees like these could be set up in each workplace and unions under any name that explains they are serious about winning, ATU 192 for a stronger Union, SEIU 1021 for a stronger union etc.

The leadership will likely oppose such developments as so far, every step that could have strengthened the workers and win a victory has been avoided.  These committees can call for demands to be put on the table that take workers forward, absolutely no concessions, more jobs, free transportation for seniors, increased bus routes, half fare for people on state assistance or welfare and the unemployed. 

The demand for a $15 an hour minimum wage linked to more jobs will have a tremendous affect on the low waged and youth.  Rally’s can be organized to help build the intra union unity and solidarity with the community so that a successful strike can be won in 60 days and further attempts by the state to deny the right to strike can be challenged through  sheer numbers.

There is also a solidarity committee that has been formed to assist transit and any workers in this major struggle going on in the Bay Area and rank and file union/workplace committees should link and integrate with this group.  We can win here but it means every worker must become an activist and we must reject the idea that we can only demand what the bosses, the Democrats, the media and most of the Union officialdom deems is realistic. We must demand what people need to lead a decent and fruitful life, society can afford it, it’s just a matter of priorities; money for wars and bankers instead of for social need. We cannot continue to operate in the old way as union members, pay our dues and leave it to someone else.

I hope the brothers and sisters of ATU 192 vote against their contract and take some of the steps I think could deflect this attempt to drive us further backwards. We owe it to our youth, those who fought before us and whose sacrifice gave us the benefits we have today, and we owe it to ourselves.

We have the power; we have the numbers.  Society has the money.  The move to coordinate action between AC Transit workers and BART workers would send a message to management that they’re faced with a fight and send shock waves through the corporate boardrooms and shake their friends in Congress. Motions could be made at both unions for their leaderships to call a press conference to announce the introduction of new demands at the table due to management's intransigence and union busting and to announce that the 1%'s austerity agenda is going to be halted here in the Bay Area with this dispute. The present leadership will no doubt oppose such a motion but the struggle for it will clarify what needs to be done and rank and file committees can take these steps.

There is much anger out there and many unions are involved in contract disputes at the moment.  With the right approach, we can make some history here in the Bay Area.

But to vote no on a contract that a leadership recommends is a serious decision with serious consequences. We can’t vote no and go fishin’.

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