Late last night, the leaders of SEIU 1021 and ATU 155 – the two unions on strike at BART – announced a tentative agreement and called the strike off. The strike was forced on the workers by BART’s insistence on changes in work rules that evidently would have enabled them to force workers to go anywhere or do anything management liked. The death of two strike breakers, who were run over by a train, shows how safety conscious BART management is. This is to say nothing of the attacks on station agents and others working in the stations late at night. These attacks include assaults and rape. But management refused to agree to spend a dime on safety measures like installing bullet-proof glass.
The bottom line was management’s determination to force workers to participate in the race to the bottom – granting a pay increase that likely won’t keep up with inflation and adding to workers’ payments into their own health and pension plans. (It should be noted that although management cried poor mouth, they refuse to move to tax the real estate interests that profit handsomely from nearby BART stations.)
It was these issues that forced the workers out on strike.
The strike was “organized” (if one wants to call it that) like a driver driving with one foot on the gas and one on the brake. For instance, the picketing at the Port of Oakland (where BART has a facility) was one of the most effective pickets. It was called off after a day, and one worker reported that his union official called it off because they didn’t want to make BART angry.
Here, Chris Finn, Recording Secretary of ATU 1555 tries to get members to stop picketing at the Port. He threatened members with expulsion from the union.
Then there was the total lack of any serious attempt to reach out to workers at the bus company – AC Transit. A few workers picketed there on their own the first day, but that was it. Meanwhile, AC Transit workers had twice rejected a concessionary contract and were facing a 60-day strike ban by Governor Brown.
This was one of the most attacked strikes in recent Bay Area history, with the corporate-controlled media mounting a tremendous campaign against BART workers. These workers were portrayed as selfish, spoiled brats who simply wanted to hold on to some privileges that nobody else has, such as employer-paid health and pension benefits. It’s true that few other workers have such benefits… anymore. And that’s the key word – “anymore”. These used to be common in union contracts and even among non-union workers, such as workers at IBM. However, with the mounting economic crisis of the capitalist system itself, these have tended to be taken away. (It is tempting to say they have gone the way of the dodo bird, but an extinct species cannot be brought back into existence; lost wages of workers can, although it’s difficult.)
This anti-union publicity campaign could have been countered by the union leadership by turning this struggle into one for a real wage increase for all and to defend and improve public services for all. This would have meant linking the strike with:
- A campaign for a $20 per hour minimum wage or an immediate $5/hour wage increase – whichever is greater – and employer paid health and pension benefits for all.
- A campaign to restore all cuts in AC Transit services and for affordable bus and BART fares.
In this way, this strike would have been directly linked to a broader struggle for all workers and young people. However, the union leadership could not do this because they feel linked at the hip to the Democratic politicians. And these politicians are just as much locked into the program that workers have to pay for the economic crisis as are the Republicans.
BART workers will now have to beware of the terms of the settlement. Ominously, SEIU 1021 has this comment on their web site: “The agreement provides for reasonable wage increases, a compromise on pension and healthcare costs, in addition to work rule changes that allow for innovation and input from workers.” Typically, such “reasonable” means it won’t keep up with inflation and “work rule changes that allow for innovation” means that new technology will be used to reduce jobs and worker rights.
George Figueroa, organizer of the very successful BART strike in July, was fired on bogus charges. The unions should never have settled without full amnesty for George.
It is not clear how the ratification vote will go. Many members on the picket lines were saying they would vote “no” on any concessionary contract. However, the extremely weak strike strategy may have discouraged some members. Whichever way the vote goes, like in other unions, many BART workers are dissatisfied with the direction their unions have taken. However, even an overwhelming majority is insufficient if that majority is not organized. It is becoming increasingly clear to more and more union members that they need a union that really fights for the members. They need a union whose leadership isn’t always looking out for the interests of the employers at the work place and isn’t always following around behind the employer-controlled politicians in society as a whole.
We are coming closer to the day when those union members start to organize within their unions by forming opposition caucuses to fight for that sort of union.
Pickets at Port of Oakland and at AC Transit
NOTE: The editor of this web site, John Reimann, was on KPFA’s “Morning Mix” with Davey D this morning (Tuesday morning) discussing this strike and the state of the labor movement. This interview can be heard here, about 40 minutes into the show.