Sunday, June 22, 2014

SF Muni workers under attack. One by one they pick us off.

by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired.

We had a long hot summer here in the San Francisco Bay Area last year as workers that operate the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (the light rail system serving most of the Bay communities) went on strike to defend their wages, benefits and pensions. The SEIU, ATU and Afscme represent BART workers.*

Alongside this, bus drivers that operate the AC Transit system, serving the East Bay primarily, also threatened to strike. These workers also belong to the ATU but a different local to the train operators at BART.  However, both agencies were legally able to strike at the same time as their contracts were up.  Added to this potentially powerful labor grouping were the municipal workers at the City of Oakland also in SEIU.  These workers settled their contract (at their leaders recommendation) prior to the BART strike.  A poor strategy indeed.

In the first BART workers strike, the leaders of the bus drivers unions refused to take their members out as well and actually had them work, undermining the effect of the strike. Putting it bluntly, they had their members scab on the BART workers, against their better judgment. At no time did all these agencies band together and use their ability to shut down the Bay Area economy to improve conditions for their own members and to fight for jobs and improve services for the riding public.  

The union bureaucracy as it always does, refuses to go on the offensive by demanding what their members and the riding public need.  Consequently, the strategy and tactics in these situations are always defensive, constantly trying to appease the bosses.  Wedded as they are to the Team Concept in all its forms, the strategists atop organized labor are always bending over backwards to be reasonable. How can you mobilize an offensive against your own teammembers? Fortunately for them, they never have to work under the contracts they push on their members. Naturally, the bosses’ savaged BART workers in their media after the first strike and throughout the summer. This media assault had an effect on mass consciousness, portraying the BART workers as overpaid, greedy and lazy.  Another example of public sector workers and our pension costs destroying the American way of life.

Needless to say, another opportunity was lost last summer when public sector workers could have transformed the balance of class forces in the US opening up a new period of struggle and providing an outlet for some of that anger that lurks beneath the surface of US society. We can see if we follow these labor disputes that the bosses move from one group of workers to another, from one industry to another.  The public sector is the last bastion of unionism in the US with some 35% of us organized.  They have not allowed a good crisis to go to waste to paraphrase Rahm Immanuel, eliminating close to 400,000 public sector jobs.  Without the public sector, the unionization rate in the US would drop from around an already dismal 12% to less than 7% of workers.

So one doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that there is a pattern here.  There is a nationally coordinated effort to drive US workers back to conditions that existed prior to the great labor uprising of the 1930’s and the Civil Rights movement that followed. The US capitalist class is intent on placing us on rations through the carrot and the stick. The beefing up of the police state since the occupy movement is in preparation for the battles that lay ahead as the US working class is forced to fight back. The decline of US capitalism’s influence on the world stage and the costs of slowing this trend have to be paid for.

So we see there is a class offensive that is not regional but national as in each dispute all the forces at their command are brought to bear on workers; the police, the media, the courts etc.  Communities are set against each other as the owners of capital demand from municipalities and states, low wages, cheap land and no or low taxes. Why would the bosses not feel confident after years of victories against workers thanks to the concessionary, and at times outright collaborationist, policies of the labor leadership at the highest levels? The offensive is national yet each dispute is isolated as individual union locals are left fighting global corporations/capital alone. And as in the situation in the Bay Area that I describe here, locals affiliated to the same national union scab on each other. What point is it belonging to a national organization like the AFL-CIO if every struggle is not seen as a national and indeed international one. As Jack Henning, former secretary of the California Labor Federation once said, “We need global unionism to fight global capitalism”. He never used his position to make that happen but the statement is still correct. Like many of them, he had a sharp tongue and knew how to move a crowd.

I am moved to write about this (again) as the MUNI operators in San Francisco have been in the news of late.  These workers belong to the Amalgamated Transit Union 250-A and operate the bus system in SF. A week or so ago they went on a sick-out as their contract negotiations appear to have stalled.   The director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has written a letter to the union president urging him to be nice basically and return to what he calls the “Neutral mediation arbitration” process.  As the union president points out in the video I include here, the title of arbitrator/mediator is a bit of a problem.  But apart from that, arbitrators and mediators are not “neutral” parties. They are representatives of the state, of the employers.  They are a substitute for the independent organizations and power of the worker. 

For the labor officialdom, negotiations are a process that they enter in to where an already agreed upon pot of money is on the table and the idea is to divvy it up fairly. They enter negotiations seeking peace, or a draw, an agreement between “gentlemen”.  But if a boxer entered the fight with that attitude it is a recipe for defeat and that’s what happens to us. It is one thing to retreat from a battle because the balance of forces are not in your favor, because, after a struggle, your opponent has the upper hand and the retreat is a temporary one until your forces are strengthened. But to enter the fray hoping for less of a defeat than your opponent wanted is a disaster.

How can the MUNI workers win under the present conditions? They truth is that they can’t. It’s the same old story repeated time and time again. And the strategists atop organized labor are open about their views.  They don’t expect to win; workers have to be “realistic”.  The best they expect is a slower trend backwards.  In the Wisconsin event, the only demands that mattered to the heads of the unions were those that affected them as negotiators and leaders.   They needed to defend their “seat at the table” their right to negotiate away their members’ wages, benefits and rights. They had to resist ending collective bargaining rights otherwise they would be out of work.  They opposed eliminating dues check off as it cut off their source of revenue and the Democratic politicians that fled the state also recognize that this was an attack on the funding, the millions of dollars this Wall Street party receives from organized labor.  All the concessions directly affecting the members were agreed to.

I thought the president of ATU 250-A was fairly good in this video.  But the same problem exists. He makes the point that the main issue is the pensions of his own members.  But this is part of the problem.  Despite the setbacks we have faced of late, public sector pensions and conditions tend to be better than most workers and many workers have no pensions at all. This is used against us by the employers who use their media to portray us as selfish and only concerned about ourselves.  We need to improve our pensions and demand that every worker gets the same. No individual union can drive back this offensive of capital alone.  Organized labor despite our declining numbers still has tremendous potential power but organized labor also cannot win without building links in the communities in which we live and work, organizing the unorganized, fighting for jobs for all, free education, housing, health care, public transportation and adopting direct action tactics to win a better life for all.  Organized labor can make a difference.

We cannot win without generalizing every individual struggle and violating the bosses’ courts, their injunctions and threats against the finances and funding of our organizations. Working class communities will come to our defense if we campaign against the mass incarceration of youth especially youth of color and against gender discrimination in the workplace and society as a whole and for issues that affect everyone.

Along with building such a movement and caucuses in our union that can facilitate it and rid ourselves of the disastrous policies the present leadership push, it is crucial to end the association the present leadership has with the Democratic Party, the party of Goldman Sachs, Wall Street and the 1%. We must have our own party rooted in our organizations and our communities and that challenges capital rather than appeases it.

We have no choice but to fight.  The bosses won’t let up and the weaker US capitalism gets on the global stage with regards to its rivals, the more aggressive it will be towards U.S. workers and our material well-being. Their corporate wars have to be paid for by working class lives and working class living standards. 

We have a lot to be optimistic about---we have the numbers and we do the work.  But we should recall  Pericles' warning:

 "Just because you don't take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you.".

* Check the "BART" label to the right for posts about last year's transit struggles in the Bay Area.

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