Saturday, November 2, 2013

BART workers finally worn down, accept a deal.

Left: If we inconvenience other workers like this which is what a work stoppage can do, we have to have something on the table for them which means demanding what we need not what the 1% wants. We have to draw them in to the struggle, our struggle is their struggle and we can all gain from it. The labor hierarchy’s strategy is damage control, a very narrow, defensive strategy aimed at easing the pain a bit, keeping their members paying dues; we can’t win like that.  We must go on the offensive and that means using organized labor’s economic power to fight for social and community issues, issues that affect all of us.

 by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

"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 labor’s enrich." *

 Members of SEIU 1021 and ATU 1555, workers at the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) here in the Bay Area overwhelmingly ratified a new contract yesterday. After taking workers out on strike twice, calling the first one off after four and a half days without a vote of the membership and the second one after four days when scabs working on the tracks were killed by another one learning how to operate a train, the bosses got their concessionary contract.

SEIU which represents station agents voted to accept the offer by an 88% majority and ATU representing the train operators supported the contract by 85% to 15%, according to reports in the mass media. I am not aware if station agent, George Figueroa, fired for his union activity, was reinstated as part of the deal.  For those of us that have been involved in strikes, amnesty for those fired or victimized for defending our livelihoods is a life and death decision for going back to work.

The first strike revealed the tremendous power workers have when we withdraw our Labor power.  The bosses throughout the Bay Area felt this power as their employees were unable to get to work on time, or didn’t make it at all; this hurts profits.  When the class struggle breaks in to the open like this, the true nature of society is exposed.  Throughout this period, BART workers were attacked in the media, but after the first strike was called off and Jerry Brown, California’s governor intervened, first with a panel of enquiry and when that couldn’t wring concessions form the unions, with a 60 day cooling off period which was imposed by the courts; the bosses’ intensified their assault.

The mass media went on the offensive.  BART workers’ earnings were inflated and all their working conditions were held up as exemplary in one way or another.  They are greedy, lazy, selfish; you name it. BART workers are public sector workers and the assault on them is part of the generalized offensive against the public sector unions after years of decimating unionization, wages and benefits in private industry.  Auto workers, once the benchmark for entry in to what we call here in the US, the “Middle Class have seen their benefits slashed and wages cut in half.  Less than 7% of private industry workers are unionized compared to around 35% for public employees.  Our benefits are generally better and our workplaces somewhat less competitive, more secure and humane.  The capitalist class has to change this situation.

 “Everybody’s having to make some sacrifices in this economy, but BART workers refuse to do so, they’re greedy and selfish” this was the tone that was set and they pounded away at it for months, BART workers want the rest of us to sacrifice but not them.  By the time the second strike occurred, the public had been saturated with anti-BART worker and anti-union propaganda. This got an echo among the working public especially lower waged workers who often feel that unions only care about our own members, something that has merit to it although these days, the heads of organized Labor always approach negotiations with a defensive and concessionary strategy.  That many people still supported the strikers despite the bosses’ propaganda war, shows how pro-union/worker sentiment, coupled with lingering anger after years of cutbacks and concessions in our workplaces and communities as the rich get even richer is still alive and kicking. But this offensive had its intended effect. Many workers with less benefits and lower pay than BART workers were inconvenienced financially and personally and they too were worn down.

It was also successful because the union leadership had no answer to it.  From the outset, the officialdom made it clear that were willing to make a deal, that they did not want a strike, but the bosses were relentless, they were determined to force a strike and determined to have their way. Why would they not? The heads of organized Labor have refused to organize an offensive of our own, union members, the unorganized and our communities, youth and all victims of the market.  Strike after strike despite the heroism and dedication of the rank and file have gone down to defeat due to the concessionary policies of the leadership in some cases cooperating with them to fire militant local leaders.  The bosses don’t fear us. They were not going to allow these transit workers to halt the general offensive against all workers in the US.  Only the trade union hierarchy fears a victory more than the bosses.

The pressure on local union leaders from within the ranks must have been considerable for them to have gone this far. But workers cannot continue in this way.  We have to win these struggles or lose them.  There are numerous commentaries on this blog for the reader to get a general idea of its outlook.  The local officials all worked very hard I’m sure, but it is not hard work that produces results, it’s what one works hard at.  Despite making statements about the attacks on BART workers being an attack on all workers which it is as it lowers the bar further, there was no serious effort to draw all workers and our communities in to this struggle.  I mentioned to one worker that there should be demands on the table that are important to the riders that use BART, free transport for seniors, half fare for those on assistance or the unemployed for example; things like that. He said that they aren’t allowed to do that, they can’t bargain for the public an official told him.  They’re good at telling us what we can’t do. But it’s not up to anyone but us what we ask for at the table.  Even if the bosses ignore it we make an issue of it, we let them argue against it in the public arena and we organize among our class to win it.

The same with calling for a $15 or $20 an hour minimum wage more jobs, increased public services and mass transit through a massive infrastructure program.  Demanding that public sector wages, benefits and our defined benefit pension plans be expanded to include all workers these are issues that should have been brought up as well as a shorter workweek with no loss in pay for example.  People work overtime because we can’t make a living working 8 hours a day or because the bosses refuse to hire. You don’t have to look far to show where the money is for this.

There is nothing stopping the resources that organized Labor commands being used to organize mass meetings in our communities, to organize meetings on the job or at workplaces etc. The union leadership of SEIU and ATU should have called meetings of all members’ months in advance and prepared months in advance. A strike committee could have been formed that included members of our communities who could bring their issues to the table, small business that are bled dry by insurance companies, the medical industry and big landlords.  The entire labor movement should be involved in every dispute no matter what or where. The bosses use every resource at their command, the police, the courts, the media.  The only reason this didn’t occur, and it’s what has to occur if we are to stop this offensive of capital depriving our youth of a future, is that the heads of organized Labor refuse to do it. Yes, they refuse to do it because of perks and the obscene salaries some of them make along with a job for life, but the main reason is that they see no alternative to the market, they accept that concessions have to be made; they see the world through the 1%’’s glasses.

We cannot blame BART workers for accepting a deal that pushes them further backwards. They were worn down and after all, they see no way to win; that’s the main problem.  That is the lesson that the rank and file worker has to learn here, we can win, but cannot win unless we change the way we fight and we cannot change the way we fight if we don’t change the present leadership we have.  We must step up to the plate and make some history not simply be victims of it. People who read this blog must get tired of me saying it but we are in a war on two fronts, one against the bosses and one against the collaborative policies of the labor hierarchy.

The next phase in this battle which started even before the strikes took place, is to change the laws forbidding BART workers from striking. The labor tops will be looking to their Democratic Party friends to head that off, another disastrous strategy we have to abandon.

* 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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