Feb 122017

by Bill Onasch

Unions Need to Lead’

Taking a chance that I will still be around to celebrate the 2018 New Year, I just voluntarily mailed in a check to cover my 2017 dues to Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287. Us old folks only have to pay 4.50 a month so it is affordable and simpler to pay annually for those like me who took a lump sum pension payment. By remaining a member I’m entitled to attend and speak at meetings, vote for top Local officers—and get the ATU’s magazine In Transit.

When I first became a member 27 years ago the most interesting part of that magazine was almost always the Canadian page. The Locals north of the border tended to be a lot more militant and were involved in the NDP, Canada’s labor party.

But States’ side the International and most Locals functioned like traditional AFL craft unions, a poster child for the so-called “service” model of unionism. Membership meetings often failed to meet very modest quorums. Strikes were authorized only if the employer refused arbitration. Lawyers were retained for both Interest (contract) and grievance arbitrations. Voluntary member contributions to COPE were spent to try to retain at least a friendly ear of politicians—mostly Democrats but some “good” Republicans–controlling transit funding.

Not surprisingly, this strategy and “culture” led to many take-away contracts, privatization, and cuts in transit funding. There was a scandalous situation in Chicago where separate Locals for train and bus divisions fought each other more than draconian concessions demanded by the CTA.

With a hefty boost from the Canadians, a new reform International leadership won a contested election at the 2010 ATU convention. Larry Hanley out of the Staten Island Local took over the President’s office. Hanley had earned a good reputation in the New York labor movement as a solidarity builder.

The number two spot of Executive Vice-President was won by Javier Perez who I had come to know and respect when he was president of Local 1287 in the early Nineties. Javier understood the importance of mobilizing the ranks in action and reaching out for broader support in the community, both in our struggle for a negotiated, no concession contract and fights against cuts in transit service. Some good work was done—but not so much after he was kicked upstairs to climb the long ladder of International Vice-Presidents.

Turning around a union with 190,00 members in 240 Locals in 46 states and nine provinces is a bit like steering an aircraft carrier in to a 180 turn through heavy rolls. There was active hostility from some staff and Local leaders and a great deal of apathy to overcome. This transformation is still far from complete but some important objectives have already been won and others show promise. These include:

* Setting up a new internal education department that included, among others, former leaders from the now dormant Labor Party who I know well and admire. They were dispatched to Locals to train leaders and rank-and-filers alike in proven methods of mobilizing both in the workplace and community outreach.


* Unprecedented ATU participation in the biennial Labor Notes Conferences that attract hundreds, sometimes thousands, of labor activists exchanging experiences and new ideas.

* Also Influenced by the example of the Chicago Teachers Union, the once warring bus and train Locals in the Windy City are now collaborating in high profile marches, rallies and community meetings, along side their passengers protesting the CTA attacks on both.

* Involvement in the climate change movement through the People’s Climate March in 2014, joining protests against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, and affiliating to the Labor Network for Sustainability.

* Supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson and around the country.

I now actually look forward to receiving In Transit—and not just because they once linked to a WIR Extra about transit. Its pages reflect a more activist, adversarial union with a developing social vision. And they are beginning to come to grips with the political crisis confronting the working class. This was expressed In the first post-election issue in a piece entitled “Unions Need to Lead,”

But rather than just going along and supporting candidates that simply agree with us on most issues, we need to set the agenda for the political candidates of today and tomorrow. Only then, working with our coalition partners, can we slowly start to get people talking about issues that are important to working families.

“Bernie Sanders’ campaign proved that there are millions of passionate people out there who believe in a more just America. While that campaign is now over, the ideas it hatched won’t go away any time soon, and neither will we.”

This is not a call to revolution. But the logic of this perspective can and should lead to the conclusion that the next indicated step is unions taking the lead to form a working class party to break the boss class political monopoly.

The Jefferson City Swamp

There is an outside chance that the “Right-to-Work” law recently signed by Missouri’s new Republican Governor may be blocked, or at least delayed. There was already an effort under way for a constitutional amendment to require such a law passed by the legislature to be submitted to a voter referendum.

Jerry Tucker

The last time Show Me State voters were given that chance RtW was soundly rejected. That success was due to an exemplary state wide campaign that won over unorganized workers and farmers in rural areas as well as the union strongholds in St Louis and Kansas City. It was directed by a remarkable leader who knew how to mobilize the ranks of unions and their allies—the late Jerry Tucker. I also discussed this in a WIR Extra on RtW two years ago that I believe is still relevant.

The mainstream leadership of Missouri labor praised Jerry for this upset victory. But few absorbed the lessons it offered and none followed through to utilize momentum for further gains. They soon returned to depending on Democrat “friends” for protection.

The mule is both Missouri’s State Animal and the historic logo of the Democrats. This hybrid creature, a sterile half-assed horse, is no longer any match for the GOP pachyderm—or the ALEC-backed crocs and gators lurking in the swamp of Jefferson City.

Union officials in my home state didn’t get serious about the referendum proposal until the Republicans replaced the term-limited Democrat Governor who had temporarily saved their proverbial bacon with a veto of RtW last year. I wish them well even though they are probably too late with too little.

In Brief…

* No Place Like Home–I’m sure many readers watch home improvement shows on the HGTV channel getting ideas about the relative merits of granite vs quartz countertops and the best grout for shower tiles. That’s all well and good but a Guardian article reminds us that there is an epidemic of evictions in the USA. A Harvard sociologist, Matthew Desmond, shows how the combination of soaring rents and low wages is reviving the Great Recession scenes of sheriff’s deputies setting possessions out on the curb—this time more renters than foreclosed mortgages.

* Women’s Upsurge Continues—It’s clear the four-million strong January 21 Women’s Marches on every continent was not just a one-off. In the USA Planned Parenthood has stepped up efforts to defend health clinics Christian extremists try to physically—sometimes violently—shut down. A reader in the Twin Ports reports 300 defenders turned out at a clinic in chilly Duluth. Now there is a call for an International Women’s Strike on March 8—International Women’s Day. You can find the Call, and links to related articles on the Labor Standard website.

* First Line of Defense at Standing Rock—Guardian reporter Sam Levin opens a dispatch from Cannon Ball, North Dakota “US veterans are returning to Standing Rock and pledging to shield indigenous activists from attacks by a militarized police force, another sign that the fight against the Dakota Access pipeline is far from over.”

* Double Duty Meet-Up at Hardee’s—Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr has always been a target of the 15 Dollars and a Union demand of low wage fast food workers. Trump’s nomination of Hardee’s CEO Andy Puzder for Labor Secretary has added a dimension of personal insult to injury. After weeks of protests at Hardee’s outlets around the country demonstrators will converge at corporate headquarters in St Louis, 100 North Broadway, tomorrow at Noon.

That’s all for this week.

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