NYC Transit Strike!

I got a note in the mail with the following question – before the strike started:

In NYC there almost was a transit strike. The city government went to court to impose large fines on the union if it did a strike.

There are good reasons to protect the whole city from the harmful effects of a strike of workers that do essential jobs. However, simply prohibiting the strike solves that problem in a way that hurts only the workers. So I have an idea for offering the workers an alternative way to strike.

The idea is a money strike.

When workers declare a money strike, they work unpaid, but the employer has to pay twice their wages to the Red Cross. Thus, both sides feel the pain.

To create this option would require laws, but it might be possible to win public support for these laws in a place like New York. What I don’t know is whether this would do any good, or whether changing some details could make it workable. Do you know people to ask?

So I asked some friends – a labor researcher, a union activist, and a NYC journalist, what they thought. Because their answers were so interesting, I asked if I could share them with you. They said yes, so they are below. It goes without saying that I wish the workers well and hope they win a total victory.

[I figured that discussing the idea of donating to Red Cross, as opposed to other organizations, would be irrelevant.]

First, my reply:

Actually the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation employees, when they were locked out, did something similar – essentially doing their jobs and more except broadcasting only on the internet. I’m sure that contributed to their victory.

In order for transit workers to do what you propose though, there would
have to be:

1. A combative union in a very good legal position to fight and, yes, as
you say
2. A legal situation that’s conducive.

Both are very difficult. Legally, labor has been hit hard by the Bush people and wasn’t exactly in a strong position even before that. The psychological barrier to taking such action for union workers seems to me to be just as big. It’s a very repressive context for labor, and I think the only reason that isn’t obvious is because labor isn’t even in a position to fight.

BUT, the kind of strike action you are talking about – striking in a way that benefits the public but hurts the authorities – would be politically far stronger than just trying to shut down the transit system in New York. The public sector union in Cali, Colombia, in an even more repressive context, managed to prevent privatization precisely by making providing affordable access to public services a high priority as a UNION issue.

In the US, on this specific idea, agitation for a ballot initiative – drawing on right-to-strike legislation – could be interesting.

Sam wrote:

A middle-of-the-night response:

Some time ago, in British Columbia – Victoria I think – the bus drivers continued to work but turned a blind eye to people paying for the ride. This improved the public service and set an example for the future that would have increased riders and therefore jobs – the basis for a powerful alliance. And it forced the government’s hand re turning this into a lockout rather than a strike, making it easier to blame the employer, not the workers.

In LA, the Bus Riders Union was formed to mobilize access to decent public transit as a basic civil right for poor people having to get to work. The organizing space was on the bus itself as well as in the communities, but for various reasons, its support from the bus drivers’ themselves was mixed and rather limited.

Some variation of such strategies are absolutely crucial because in their absence, a strike simply leads to a back-to-work order with heavy threats of fines. That is, the basic right to withdraw your labour is denied and that ends the story. Unfortunately, some labour leaders implicitly accept this: they can posture as militantly as they like then blame the municipal government. The crucial point therefore is to mobilize public support as THE strategy and this means getting ready long in advance and basing your strategy on the importance of expanding/improving the service, the working conditions of those providing the service (e.g avoiding long hours, safety, limiting overcrowding), and on insisting that those providing the service are adequately compensated. This must happen long in advance of any strike and must be a main activity of the union and not just a supplement to strikes. Moreover, if it is to be successful, it must raise broader class issues re municipal services (Why are they under funded? Who is affected?) and worker rights (What is happening to other workers in the city?). I also presume that you cannot address such issues in the city of NY without recognizing that race place an important role.

All this suggests a different kind of unionism. As far as I know the NY bus drivers have not done any such preparations. They should be supported, but if the strike fails, it is crucial that a discussion is initiated, and bus drivers included, as to why it failed and how it might be successful next time so the drivers don’t sink into fatalism and cynicism. Out of such discussions must come both creative tactics locally as well as deeper analyses of what is going on in society and what kinds of alliances and institutional forums might be built to give people hope. Such questions obviously apply to all unions in various ways, but starting such a discussion here might actually stimulate that wider debate (why not invite responses from across the continent?).

The Delphi workers (auto component workers) are currently trying to figure out what to do in a confrontation that will affect standards and expectations across the country and much of what I raise above would not apply. So what do we do there? The Delphi workers are currently mobilizing around this and any larger discussion should include what they are doing (I’ve also tried to address this from both a Canadian and solidaristic perspective – including a critique of responses from the Canadian autoworkers in a series of short article in the Bullet, available on the Socialist Project’s home page).

Kevin wrote:

First of all, you’re touching on what may be the single most sensitive and
challenging aspect of being a trade unionist within the public sector – we
are cultivating a collective identity as workers, but workers working for
the public at large. When our collective anger is expressed in militant
job action, this tends to mean simple withdrawal of labour – strike action –
from that same public, and this generates intense popular opposition to
our action (often understandably, though these reactions are inflamed by
the usual propaganda and an anti-union, anti-worker competitive climate).

The other major challenge is that when private sector workers strike, their
employers are helpless unless they can quickly deploy scabs. In the public
sector, employers are – or are related to – governments, often having the
power to simply suspend the collective bargaining rights that had theoretically
empowered the workers to choose to strike. In practice, this has (increasingly)
meant that the “right” to strike is heavily circumscribed. When we add to
this the increasingly popular practice of declaring more and more sections of
the public sector workforce (initially emergency hospital personnel, now its
moving to teachers and school board workers, postal workers, etc.) to be
“essential” – and therefore stripping them of their right to strike. This
simply describes what’s now happening in Canada and, as far as I can tell, in
the U.S. and elsewhere where public sector workers had fought for and won
these rights. We are in the process of returning to the time when only private
sector workers had these rights.

Your question, or suggestion for an alternative direction for job action, is
a good one. How might we creatively come up with different means of exerting
pressure on our employers, in a way that achieves our goals but does not punish or hurt other workers or the general public?

Justin’s reference to the CBC lockout this past summer is one such. Another one that I’ve heard of from a friend at our postal workers’ union was an effort
(back in the 70s) to establish an alternative postal service during a legal
strike by postal workers. Apparently, it was incredibly difficult, and it
fizzled. Another is the initiative that some newspaper workers have launched
while on strike – publishing their own alternative newspaper. I believe there
are several examples of this. These are all worthy efforts, and there are probably many more out there.

The thing is, the viability of such ideas greatly depends on the sector and nature
of the workplace. A transit system seems relatively straightforward – try to provide at least some basic bus service. It may be daunting volume-wise – most unions would be unable to launch hundreds of buses out to the general public. But an urgent needs service might be developed that would at least show some good faith efforts.

This is a lot more difficult for, for example, hydro workers, school custodians,
hospital lab techs, or flight attendants, none of whom can realistically set up their own alternative service provision arrangements during a strike. In this sense, it all depends on the work, and a lot involves the composition of the workforce as well (i.e. are other unionized or non-unionized workers also needed to provide the service – as in hospitals, schools – sometimes)?

One other direction to move which gets around some of these problems and keeps within the conventional legal framework of collective bargaining is to foster bargaining strategies that put forward demands that will immediately benefit the users of the service involved, and/or the broader community. When teachers demand smaller class sizes as part of their bargaining, this is popular in the community, as most parents want their children in smaller classes – and it lightens workloads for teachers. Bus drivers could, theoretically, foster relationships with riders by demanding increased frequencies of route runs (creating jobs and benefiting riders), or service to under-serviced neighbourhoods. Even more radically, demands could be put to freeze or even lower fares – if alternative sources of bus-system revenues could be shown to viably make up for the losses and still pay for fair wage increases. This sort of thinking could be extended many places – though again there are limits, depending on the sector and the work. The idea is to try to make demands that will generate popular support – not just irritate. CUPE, the union I work for, sometimes tries to negotiate protections for workers against privatization and contracting-out – and we make arguments (often persuasive!) that what we are attempting to block is not only to protect workers’ livelihoods and rights but also affordable, quality public services. Fighting privatization is one of the struggles that many public sector unions engage in, but is often viewed (and portrayed) as narrowly self-interested.

Sam might point out that this thinking and these strategies are not limited to the
public sector. Among many innovative bargaining strategies the Canadian Auto Workers have explored, one is to actually negotiate commitments from the major auto makers operating in Canada to publicly stand up in support of the Canadian public health system, and even to communicate with the Canadian government in opposition to their plans to privatize or undermine that system. Such experiments move way beyond the traditional realm of collective bargaining, and show that unions have a whole lot of potential for building social alliances and generating a public profile that is very different from the inward-looking and money- focused image that many people have. Personally, I would argue that the most progressive unions are already experimenting with or thinking about these sorts of strategies, and the least progressive are not – one of the issues that allows us to distinguish one union to another.

Last point – unions in both the public and private sector also argue – I think correctly – that even without the sorts of direct strategies referred to above, union bargaining successes such as wage gains, job security gains, and gains in health insurance/benefits/pensions often “lift all boats” – or at least “many boats”. Overall wage and working conditions in the economy are – at least partly – “pushed” by what is freely negotiated by the unionized sector.

When unionized workers in a company town, for example, settle a solid wage increase in a contract, this has direct spin-offs and benefits (multiplier effects) throughout the economy of the town. The same is true, though less obvious, in larger communities. So, we often like to argue that we “lead” through tough bargaining, and non-unionized and unemployed workers gain from our victories indirectly. Of course, having said that, we do also see unions sometimes work the reverse of the “social” strategies I referred to above – so, for example, when workers (in both Canada and the U.S. actually) are successful in negotiating health insurance coverage for services not properly provided for through the public health insurance system, this sometimes diminishes their drive to demand that such services be provided to the public at large (and funded through the tax system). Again, when this is explicit, this is regressive, but it’s often not explicit, sometimes not even conscious.

Chhandasi wrote:

Being based in New York, I find it interesting that this is the second time in as many years that the Queens private bus company workers have went on strike. The public employees union have always joined in the threat of action but haven’t been able to follow through. It looks like things might be different this time around. The pressure for the union to cave in must be substantial as most New Yorkers rely on the MTA to get around. Manhattan would come to a halt since most of the support staff of buildings, restaurants and shops in the borough live outside of it. The strike then would have serious ramifications for the working class, making public support for the strike rather difficult. Your idea of a money strike is interesting…I think a good organization to contact would be The New York Taxi Workers Alliance to get a firmer understanding the labor situation in New York. The alliance, while clearly a different animal tha! n the transit workers union, has been successful against Guliani and Bloomberg in the past.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.