Friday, September 20, 2013

BART Unions offer concessions: "Not enough" say the bosses.

by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

Readers of this blog are well aware of the situation that has existed here in the San Francisco Bay Area with regards to the transit workers and the attacks on their wages, benefits and working conditions.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) workers, members of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) local 1555 and SEIU 1021 struck the transit agency in early July but went back to work after 41/2 days after Union officials appealed to the state to intervene and both sides agreed to a 30 day cooling off period. One should recognize the folly at this Union strategy, as there is no such thing as a “cooling off period” in boxing. A smaller, but no less important group of BART workers, members of Afscme Local 2923 honored SEIU and ATU’s picket lines.

The situation didn’t improve for the workers as is normally the case and as the 30-day cooling off period came to an end making another strike a legal option, former left demagogue and organic farming advocate, California governor Jerry Brown, intervened to prevent one by imposing a 7-day break and appointing a three member board of inquiry to find out what the issues were (really an attempt to force the Union leadership to concede as anyone following this issue knows what they are).

This didn’t work either which shows the anger that must exist among the Union’s rank and file as the leadership had publicly announced through the media that if they were just left with what they have, after giving up hundreds of millions in concessions already mind you, they would go away: “What we want is to Bargain” Antonette Bryant, the President of ATU 1555 announced publicly in late June, “We’re not interested in talking about a strike.”

But before another strike could occur, Jerry Brown stepped in again and asked the courts to give him the authority to impose a 60-day cooling off period.  The law allows Brown to do this once from what I understand.  The courts found that if BART workers struck, it would, “significantly disrupt public transportation services and will endanger the public’s health, safety and welfare.”.  so had BART workers struck, it would have been an illegal strike.

The 60-day cooling off period will be officially over at 11.59 on October 10th. Today’s San Francisco Chronicle reports that little headway is being made.  The union leadership has offered $10 million in further concessions but the bosses want more. Why wouldn’t they? They are confident the leadership of the Unions involved and organized Labor in general, will not organize a counteroffensive, a mobilization of Union members and the communities that BART serves as well as the unemployed.

Tapping in to the anger that exists in society and organizing it, drawing millions of workers and our communities in to such a struggle, can only lead to chaos from the Union hierarchy’s point of view which is the same as the bosses, capitalism is the only form of social organization and the market is the answer to all things. The attack on these workers is not only an attack on all workers it is part of the process of privatizing all public services. We should remember what was pointed out in an article in July, that corporate property skyrocketed in value after BART was built as a public project, yet property taxes account for less than 5% of BART’s budget.  The corporations have made billions off a public project.

“Their counteroffer is not significant enough.” a spokesperson for the management told the Chronicle in response to the Union leadership’s offer of concessions, “It needs to show the kind of movement that we’ve made in order to get back and forth going again.” It’s hard to tolerate such a cocky attitude when we know the potential power of organized, and unorganized Labor.  It’s the sort of thing we hear a bully tell his or her victim. You wanna smack em!

And all this talk about “these colors don’t run” when it comes to getting the sons and daughters of these same workers to fight wars on behalf of US corporation’s and the 1% don’t apply when we are faced with such an assault on our livelihoods at home. And the refusal of the heads of organized Labor to organize an offensive of our own leads to all sorts of other failed methods of getting back at the boss, sabotage the Luddite approach etc.

I cannot see how the bosses will allow another BART strike.  If such a strike was deemed illegal for the reasons the courts gave 60 days ago, why would the courts not find it so in October?   And let’s not forget that the FBI’s vague definition of domestic terrorism states: “Domestic terrorism is the unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or Puerto Rico without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.” I am sure the “T” word is being thrown around loud enough for the Union hierarchy to hear.

The bus drivers here, members of ATU local 192 recently voted down a concessionary contract.  At the time of the first BART strike, the leadership of ATU 192 kept their members on the job though they could have struck legally as well.  There has been no real effort by these two union leaderships to wage a joint strike or call mass meetings of the two locals or make serious attempts to win the public to the workers side amid a massive propaganda campaign waged against them in the media.

Behind the scenes there will be all sorts of pressure placed on the Union officials not so much at the local level, but the heads of the SEIU and ATU international bodies. It is likely the pressure will come down on the local leaders to make further concessions. If the pressure from the others side, from the ranks, is too great for even the most conciliatory labor officials to sell out, they may well take folks out on yet another losing strike or another option might be an imposed receivership. It’s hard to say exactly what might happen especially not knowing exactly what the mood is among the folks that pay the dues.

This is why the rank and file have to step up.  There was a rally here in Oakland last month that was attended by a considerable number of ATU 1555 members although it seemed SEIU 1021 did almost no organizing for it. Every member must become a leader, an activist.  With public transit we have easy access to those we serve, they ride the buses, ride the trains. This is a huge army of activists that can reach out to the working public and draw them in to this major dispute between the 1% and the rest of us.

But to do that some steps have to be taken.  The Unions are presently negotiating behind closed doors.  This is a mistake that benefits the boss. Members of the locals should demand negotiations be made public so workers and riders can attend and aired publicly like council meetings are. Also, union members should demand lawyers are banned from representing them in negotiations as well as full time staff; these people can assist but not control negotiations. Lawyers can ensure what is written in the final result, expresses what we meant at the table but they shouldn’t negotiate for workers.

Mass meetings of the members of the locals involved should be called and a strike committee formed that would bring transit users, the unorganized and community members on to it. This committee can also build the community/labor alliance that can win gains rather than accept further losses.

Rather than concessions we must demand and build a union/community alliance around:

No to austerity or cuts in services
Increased mass transit and more jobs through a shorter workweek with no loss in pay. 
Expand public sector benefits and pensions to all workers.
Health care for all
For a $20 an hour minimum wage
End all wars and occupations
Organize the unorganized.
No taxes on workers or the middle class
Make the rich pay

The propaganda from the 1% and their media is that society cannot afford this. This propaganda goes unanswered by the Labor hierarchy so it gets an echo among many workers although we know in our gut it’s not true. But we don’t have to accept spending $3 trillion dollars on wars that have nothing to do whatsoever with defending our way of life. Our way of life is being eroded and the plans for that venture are worked out in Washington, Jackson Hole Wyoming, and other places where the 1% works out how best to govern society and make us pay for their crises.

Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison, the 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.

I have had the privilege to stand alongside autoworkers from Kokomo to Detroit and Flint. The same forces attacking BART workers and public sector workers in general are responsible (along with the union hierarchy) for cutting auto workers pay in half and destroying what was once a job that was hard work but produced a certain amount of security and a relatively decent income.  Many of us sat idly by as all this has happened thinking we were secure; well we are not.

The public sector is around 35% unionized and has had more humane and relatively better conditions, and benefits than the private sector. The 1% are committed to crushing this last remnant of trade union organization and taking back all we have won over the last 100 years.

There’s an opportunity to change course in the Bay Area transit dispute and change the balance of class relations in the US.  But the rank and file Union member and all workers have to recognize that we have to do it and that we have to demand and fight for what we need not what the 1% says is realistic; we can’t just pay our dues and hope we stay afloat, those days are over.

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