Tuesday, August 13, 2013

BART Strike: It can be won if the Unions change course.

Tom Hock, the 1%'s man at BART.  Reason enough to support BART workers
by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

At the request of California Governor Jerry Brown, a judge has stepped in and prevented Bay Area Rapid Transit workers from walking off the job. 

There is now another cooling off period, a 60 day one this time in the hope that the two sides can come to some agreement.  The judge, Curtis karnow, issued the injunction he said because the law said that he "shall" do so if he found that a strike would "significantly disrupt public transportation services and endanger the public's health, safety or welfare."   He added, "I read the word 'shall' as direction from the Legislature that I have to issue the order if the conditions are true, and I understand the parties all agree that those conditions are true."

In 60 days the unions can legally strike although as each day goes by the chance of winning one decreases.  Why the 1%’s courts wouldn’t claim a strike would,  endanger the public's health, safety or welfare.” 60 days from now one can only wonder.

This dispute can be won but BART workers alone cannot win it and by that I mean make gains rather than slightly less aggressive concessions which has been the policy of the strategists atop organized Labor for decades. It cannot be won without the involvement of the communities in which we work and live. The power is not at the negotiating table; it is in the ranks of the trade union movement acting in unity with all workers and our communities.  As one of the prominent leaders of the 1%, George Schulz pointed out: “Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table.”   He is right about that.

The power of a united movement and direct action tactics must be brought to bear on the force behind this dispute and that’s the 1% whose intention it is to crush public sector unions and privatize public services. This comes after their victories over the autoworkers with the help of the UAW leadership at the highest levels. It is part of their plan to put the US working class on rations.

Unfortunately, the strategy and tactics that the leadership of the unions involved have applied so far, along with those in the International and regional bodies to which these unions are affiliated, have actually isolated BART workers further and made victory more difficult.

My view as I explained in previous commentaries, is that the unions involved, ATU 1555, AFSCME 3993 and SEIU 1021 which represent BART, and ATU 192 which represents AC Transit workers, the bus operators, should have been meeting way prior to the deadlines.  There should have been mass meetings of the members of these locals and out of this, a strike committee formed that would not just direct picket lines but also reach out to the rest of the trade union movement and our communities and develop a program that meets our needs rather than one that is acceptable to the 1% and the Democratic Party.  City of Oakland workers who were also in contract talks at the time should have also been approached. Other public sector unions were, and some still are in contract talks.  What good is a national organization of working people if local unions are left to fight what amounts to the forces of global capitalism alone? The best way to avoid a strike is to be fully prepared to win one beforehand and bring our natural allies on board.

Instead, when BART workers struck last month for four and a half days, bus drivers at AC Transit represented by ATU 192 could have legally struck but the union leaders refused to bring them out and they worked through it. This weakened both BART workers and AC Transit workers in their struggle for a better contract after years of concessions. City of Oakland workers in SEIU 1021 that also represents BART workers were also in contract talks and went on a one-day strike at the time but all these struggles were disconnected.  SEIU 1021 settled with the City of Oakland and ATU 192 has settled with AC Transit leaving BART workers out there on their own.  You don’t have to be a labor “expert” or an academic to see the flaws in this strategy. The mood at the Transit board meeting I went to before the strike was one of unity and cooperation between the members of both ATU 192 and 1555.

I have been in a couple of meetings of a solidarity committee that union officials also attend and they actually made the point that the public has to be included, that “an attack on BART workers is an attack on all workers “ which it is. The BART workers’ message, according to Chris Finn, Recording Secretary for ATU 1555 must get out to the public. Unfortunately, that message isn’t clear other than the quote above, and even that is somewhat muted. I saw Pete Castelli, the Executive Director of SEIU 1021 representing 52,000 workers at the solidarity meeting and heard him on TV later where he pointed out that a major problem was that BART was not negotiating in good faith.  Perhaps brother Castelli mentioned the solidarity committee and urged members of the working public to get involved with it bringing their issues to the table and the media censored these comments, but I doubt it.

“Negotiate in good faith” is a commonly used term used by top labor officials as to why   contract talks are stalled or strikes occur.  More often than not, union officials take workers out on strike over unfair labor practices like this not bargaining in good faith nonsense because they accept the bosses argument that concessions have to be made to make us competitive so striking for gains is pointless; they accept that society can’t afford it.

The fact that the 1% want to undermine BART workers pensions and health benefits has nothing to do with negotiating in good faith like some character flaw. It is a continuation of this process to take back from us what we have won over a century or more of struggle. Workers should not be ashamed of defending wages we can live on and a pension that is enough to keep us form working at MacDonald’s in our later years to get by. Every labor struggle should demand such retirements for all workers.

The bosses never negotiate in good faith, never have and never will. Despite gag orders or during cooling off periods, the war against the BART workers in the 1%’s media has been ferocious and has had an effect as polls indicate.  A KPIX 5 poll two weeks ago found the public supported the management by a 2-to-1, margin. Throw enough mud at someone and some of it will stick.

In today’s San Francisco Chronicle, one of their mouthpieces, the columnist Chip Johnson points out that “..few public or private blue collar workers outside California have the kinds of generous retirement plans offered by CALPERS, the state’s municipal retirement system.”  “ Well they should have.” should be organized labor’s public response. And if generosity means being able to take ones family on a vacation and not have to go work at a fast food place at 65 to make ends meet, what’s wrong with that?

He then goes on to make the point that behind the BART workers’ motivation is that they’re blue collars workers who “like their counterparts in the private sector they have watched with disbelief and disgust as other public employees…….game the system for small fortunes.”  Among others, he gives city administrators, police and firefighters as an example.

But even those public administrators who “game” the system as he calls it cannot be compared to the activities of the hedge fund and private equity crowd and the bankers and other coupon clippers who plunder the wealth of society, not to mention the trillions of taxpayer dollars spent in predatory wars fought on behalf of the global corporations.  Someone earning $200,000 a year is not the cause of the capitalist economic crisis, especially in California, the home to most of the world’s billionaires. The system is fundamentally flawed and in crisis.

A serious weakness in the way the union officials are conducting this dispute is that the war for the heart and soul of the public is a one sided one. The leaders of the Unions involved though they have made appeals to the public for support and made reference to the attacks on BART workers being an attack on all workers have nothing concretely to offer the public. There is nothing on the table for the public that can counter the bosses’ propaganda against the workers. (See previous commentaries for more on this issue under the BART label on this blog).

If the union leaders want to make gains in this dispute as opposed to accepting slightly fewer concessions than the bosses want, they have to change course.  If they are a serious about building community support they have to have concrete issues on the negotiating table that appeal to the public, that make the difficulties they face through a strike worth going through and that will bring them in to it as conscious participants. But nether Chris Finn of the ATU or SEIU’s Pete Castelli, who have influence in these unions that those of us who want to help from the outside, have indicated they are serious about winning.  They have not said anything that would appeal to the public and counter the bosses’ ferocious propaganda war, nor have they reflected on the present strategy and made any efforts to correct it.

Just last weekend Roxanne Sanchez president of SEIU 1021 stated "BART management must come to the table prepared for real negotiations to reach a fair resolution so that we don't have a situation where we are all sitting here on Day 59 with no meaningful effort by management to negotiate,"

What does this mean; ”real negotiations” and a “fair resolution”?  The forces that brought in the union buster and privatization Czar Tom Hock know exactly what they’re doing.  They are clear on their goals and their goal is to do to the public sector what they’ve done to the private.  Let us consider that that autoworkers wages were cut in half by these people. You can read sister Sanchez' election program here.  You won’t see opposition to the Team Concept, the most destructive union policy on it.

"As we've said all along, we want to get an agreement," said another SEIU spokesperson, which is a meaningless statement. The bosses’ want an agreement too, but it’s what’s in that agreement that is the issue.

Chris Finn, ATU 1555’s Recording secretary who says the public must hear the BART workers’ message, pointed out Sunday through the media that BART workers took $100 million in concessions and that BART has a $125 million surplus but then urged the public to contact their representatives and their legislators and get them to look at BART’s finances. But the vast majority of the public, those workers who would actually get involved in this dispute if there was reason to, have no faith in these, legislators. Pointing out that the money is there is correct but left alone, many less fortunate workers and the unorganized will see this as just limiting the issues to those workers involved. It would have been more fruitful to urge them to get involved in the solidarity committee and point out what such unity could bring them. George Poppyack, the chief negotiator for the AFSCME local made a similar statement that if BART put the money on the table they’d talk. This does not help undermine BART’s propaganda that their employees are just greedy.

Urging workers to appeal to Democratic legislators, Union officials are urging us to place our faith in a party their own members and most of the working class have abandoned.

“There’s no reason” there should be the threat of a strike, Brother Finn announced through the media.  But there is.  The bosses will not stop. The 1% will not be coaxed away from their goal to place US workers on rations and the Democrats cannot be relied upon to halt their patron’s agenda.  This is not complicated.  None of the so-called friends of labor, like Barbara Lees or Gavin Newsom and all the other Democrats that take our money when its time to get elected, have come out publicly in support of the BART workers.  Their silence is deafening. With friends like these, we don’t need enemies. 

We have seen strike after strike go down in defeat over the past period not because the rank and file involved have been unwilling to fight, but because the heads of organized labor refuse to mobilize the potential power of their members and workers as a whole.  They start from a position of concessions and damage control because of the Team Concept policy that workers and bosses have the same interests.  For them, to mobilize this sleeping giant can only lead to chaos; they must help the bosses out. This is what holds them back primarily, not corruption as so many workers believe, or the generally obscene salaries and perks many of them receive which are secondary issues.

It is not unlike the union hierarchy to take workers out on strike due to the anger that exists in their ranks and as a means to alleviate some of this pressure from below which is why they do so with an approach that has brought defeat time and time again; appealing to the Democrats rather than relying on our own strength and making every labor dispute a social one. The UFCW had its members out here in California for 5 months in 2003 as the officials bargained for concessions at the table.  This caused untold hardship for these workers and left many of them disillusioned and demoralized and new hires hating the union for selling them down the river, after all, new hires don’t get to vote on contracts they have to work under and resent doing the same work for less pay and fewer benefits which creates division and weakens the organization further.

Bart workers have tremendous potential power but the forces against them are also powerful, the media the state, the police and the politicians. We must use this power to halt the 1%’s austerity agenda here in the Bay Area but we cannot succeed if we do not start from a position of what workers and our communities need to live a decent life and reject the 1%’s propaganda that there is no money in society.  History teaches us that the heads of organized Labor will not wage a serious offensive of our own without the threat of a militant movement from their ranks that threatens their role.  This is the task facing activists in the ranks of organized labor.

A real victory for BART workers would inspire millions of workers tired of years of defeats and concessions and a strike at BART can still be won. But policies that have failed us time and time again have to be abandoned and a real offensive of our own built with the intention of changing the balance of forces between capital and labor in this country.


Anonymous said...

The main fight right now at BART is the negative PR from BART management that majority of riders have fallen for.

The setup and continuing propaganda throughout the last strike was designed to pit commuter against BART worker, techie against blue collar.

See how management continues to hammer away at "inconvenience" to the commuters with lies about high "salaries"? It's up to the public, like you and I, to counter those lies and win commuters back over. Criticizing the union leaders during a crisis is counter-productive.

Richard Mellor said...

I agree that countering the management lies is crucial. But isn't that something the union officialdom should be doing? They refuse to do it and you say that "you and I" should do it. I don't know who you are but my influence in the union or the public at large is very limited. The union leadership has the ability to do that but does nothing and you are saying we should not criticize them for doing nothing. They are actually doing something, they are conducting the strike and/or dispute in a way that is doomed to failure.