Updates on the Strike

The school bus drivers strike by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 continues, now in its 18th day, with less than a third of its routes running last week, and attendance of special needs students down 20%. Of those eighteen days, sixteen have featured temperatures below freezing, with picketers ostensibly still called to be present for shifts 24 hours a day, receiving their $30 a day from the strike fund only upon signing in at the picket locations (the rate went up to $60 a day after the first week, which still works out to be less than minimum wage for an 8-hour picket shift. The strikers are only eligible for unemployment insurance after 49 days of striking).

The official sites of contestation have now thankfully expanded to include the Department of Education, which is near City Hall, as well as the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge which was famously blockaded in October 2011 as part of the Occupy movement. We have heard reports that the union initially balked at the DOE pickets, which were apparently an autonomous rank-and-file initiative only later officially accepted by the leadership.

This shift in tactics better confronts the opponent, which after careful analysis is undoubtedly not the bus companies but the city government itself, and also better engages the possibility of solidarity from the public, as the bus depot and garage sites themselves are generally in remote, industrialized areas of the city with little foot traffic, and quite distant from the city’s residential areas (ATU’s “Strike Bulletin 2”, from January 24th, urged for “more leafleting in places where parents of small children gather, such as schools, Toys R Us, Babies R Us… as well as shopping malls, movie theaters…”).

But this also reveals some of the impotence in the union’s misguided picketing strategy which reeks of simply going-through-the-motions, typical in bureaucratic processes. There are not enough drivers and matrons with proper certification to make the threat of scabbing viable city-wide, so what is the purpose of the union calling its members to stand outside in desolate areas of the city during freezing temperatures? At worst, such symbolic gestures only fetishize the work-place, while also serving to humiliate, almost punish the workers, already precarious and threatened with losing their jobs if the Mayor gets his way.

Contemporary pickets are generally not meant to be blockades or disruptions, as reminded to us by none other than the union itself in its “Picketing Do’s and Don’ts” leaflet, which instructs its members not to picket on private property, “block entrances and exits; prevent buses from entering or leaving the yard; cause any damage to any vehicles entering or exiting the Company’s premises; cause damage to the Company’s property…” But as we wrote January 17th, “it doesn’t take much to realize we are at war. We will have to decide which tactics will contribute to our winning it.”

There have been reports of tires being slashed and deflated in some of the yards, and as of last Tuesday scab workers from United Service Workers Union Local 355 are being used in Staten Island, and the United Craft and Industrial Workers Union Local 91 has reportedly sent workers out in the Bronx and Brooklyn as well. The potential for direct confrontation only increases. Even Bloomberg, who has been emphatically against the strike, and has refused to directly participate in negotiations, was forced to backtrack a little following the increased militancy of the strikers, “You have the right to strike, but you don’t have a right to damage somebody else’s property.” Such an escalation in tactics has revealed that only the threat of further property destruction, the threat of blocking circulation, serves to legitimize the strike itself.

On Friday the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of the union, confirming that the strike is legal, and denying a complaint by the New York City School Bus Contractors Coalition, which could have led to a federal injunction to stop the strike. The bus companies themselves allege the dispute is between the workers and the city, and that they as a secondary employer were suffering from the strike (secondary strike actions have been illegal in the United States since the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act).

President Michael Cordiello responded to the ruling, “today’s NLRB decision not only supports the legality of the strike, but validates 1181’s longstanding position that the New York City Department of Education, in addition to the bus companies, is a primary employer associated with this work stoppage. I hope that Mayor Bloomberg recognizes the impact of today’s decision, and decides to come to the table with the union and bus companies to resolve the strike.”

Before the ruling the Mayor said, “The strike is not against the city… It is against the bus companies, and they should be negotiating with them.” Bloomberg continues his full-out campaign to break the union and its strike, not only by refusing to negotiate, but refusing to even acknowledge the city government’s responsibility in the dispute. He has even refused a 60-90 day “cooling-off” period, as suggested by the New York City Central Labor Council, and proposed Monday the 28th by Justice Milton Mollen, the 93-year-old judge who was involved in ending the 1979 strike. The union agreed to the proposal, provided the city postpone the bidding scheduled for February 12th.

Such a refusal is part of the Mayor’s tactic of postponing and ignoring the realities of the crisis facing the city’s workers. As we wrote previously, “The MTA’s last contract with 38,000 TWU workers expired January 15th, 2012. New York’s contract with District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, with 121,000 members, expired in March of 2010. The city’s contract with the United Federation of Teachers, representing 75,000, expired in October 2009.” What possible resolution is there for these workers under the current system?

As John Podhoretz wrote in the New York Post on January 17th, “You should watch this one closely, whether you have kids who’ve been kicked off a bus or not, because it’s a sneak preview of what is likely to be coming over the next decade in municipalities across the country… Over the next decade, cities and states across America will be compelled to tighten their belts as the really big bills—the pension bills they cannot afford—come due. They’ll have to go after existing contracts with current workers… And what recourse will those workers have, if the situation turns so dire that they can no longer depend on the ministrations of politicians who crave their votes? They will disrupt. They will impede. They will seek to create civil chaos. Welcome to the future.”

(Please take note: disrupt! impede! create civil chaos!)

The ATU includes on its site letters of support from the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union Local 1500, with nearly 23,000 members; the New York State Nurses Association, representing hundreds of thousands; and Communities and Postal Workers United, which draws from the National Association of Letter Carriers, the American Postal Workers Union, and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union, and is active in fighting against the Postmaster General and Congress’ attempts to further privatize public services.

The letter of support from United Steelworkers Local 8751, which is the 800-member Boston School Bus Union, included a $500 contribution to the ATU Strike Defense Fund. They write, “The government’s arrogance in this case is a blatant signal to corporations in New York City and nationwide to push forward with their relentless campaign to impose drastic austerity measures on all of us, to turn back decades of hard fought union gains, and to increase their own profits at the expense of the health and well being of the drivers, matrons, mechanics and the children and parents we serve.”

They go on to remind the ATU of their own 5-and-a-half week strike in 1991, which was also directed against its city’s mayor and School Department, and around a similar issue to the the Employee Protection Provision at stake in the current strike, “the companies and the city disregarded and disrespected the bus drivers, giving more attention to the tires, equipment, and shareholders’ demands than the human beings driving and riding the buses.” Perhaps this is why the destruction of property, as a part of the contract negotiations around the labor required to operate that property, remains so sensitive, so off-limits, for all parties involved in the management of this dispute.

In a text distributed by the Fire This Time Network, “Flashpoint 1979: Wildcats, Workers’ Power and Lessons for Today”, they emphasize that the 1979 strike was in many ways a wildcat strike, with workers taking self-directed actions on their own initiative, blocking bus depots, confronting the mayor at speaking events, and defying a court order to return to work. They took physical direct actions, used their bodies, lied down in front of buses to block their paths, wielded baseball bats and not just signs, poured sugar and sand into gas tanks, all of this in defiance of not just the city government, and another unsympathetic news media, but often its own union as well.

On January 25th the World Socialist Web Site published a letter from a school bus driver, Laura Angelo, writing in frustration in how the strike has been represented in the media. Particularly egregious was a pro-Bloomberg editorial run in the New York Times January 23rd, “The School Bus Mess”, which praised “competitive bidding” and “the mayor’s reform efforts”, writing “the city says it is willing to endure the strike for as long as it takes in order to break with a costly and archaic contract system… to explain loud and clear that the current system is fiscally unsustainable.” We can all agree that things as they stand are indeed “unsustainable,” we just have different analyses towards what a break with this archaic system might look like.

In her letter of response, Angelo writes, “We don’t get paid 52 weeks a year. We only work 40 weeks out of the year and the other 12 weeks we receive unemployment, the summer is already hard on all of us but this is what we signed up for. But knowing we had job protection! We do not receive personal days or sick days. So if we do get sick and are not able to go to work we do not get paid.”

At the beginning of the strike union president Cordiello distributed a “Strike Hardship Letter”, declaring “To Whom It May Concern” that its members were entering “a state of financial emergency” and “will have great difficulty in meeting their financial obligations”. Everywhere we hear of unemployment, sickness, resignation, punishment, precarity, humiliation, hardship, frustration, emergency, disrespect, disregard, competition, bureaucracy, austerity. Everywhere we hear of depression, misery, war. If you type in “work makes me” into Google, its auto-complete function suggests the following terms to complete the search: “depressed, nervous, suicidal, anxious, sad, want to cry, feel sick, miserable.”

As Bill Van Auken of the WSWS wrote on January 24th, “Nothing has exposed the immense chasm of social inequality that pervades life in New York City and the entire country more starkly than the school bus struggle. It pits a mayor said to be worth $25 billion against a group of workers who scrape by on an average salary of $34,000 in one of the most expensive cities in the world… This is a political struggle. Its victory requires the broadest mobilization of working people in New York City and nationally to challenge the stranglehold exercised by Wall Street over the resources of society. The official unions, from ATU Local 1181 to the AFL-CIO, reject such a struggle, instead working to subordinate the interests of the workers to the Democratic Party and the capitalist system.”

Finally, he ends with a call “for the formation of rank-and-file committees of bus workers, parents and students to take over the direction of the strike. These committees must serve as a means of drawing New York City transit workers, who have been without a contract for a year, teachers and every other section of workers and youth in New York and nationally into a united struggle in defense of the bus workers and the common interests of the working class as a whole.”

In Cordiello’s “Strike Bulletin 1”, released January 22nd, he states “The Mayor says the contracts cost too much money and he blames it on labor. The truth is that our labor costs have risen no more than any other labor costs of city workers or transit workers in New York City. Labor costs absolutely are not the reasons for the high cost of school bus transportation. We are Right! Stay Strong! In Unity there is Strength!” (When adjusted for inflation, the drivers’ salaries have actually decreased in the last 30 years.)

The strike of the school bus drivers is not about an increase in wages or benefits, it is merely the protection of its current state. The most popular chant from at least one picket was a call-and-response tinged with regret: “Do We Want to Strike?” (Answer: “No!”) “Do We Want a Contract?” (“Yes!”). Striking bus driver Joe Balducci was quoted in The Militant, “They’d like to pay us minimum wage. They want to get rid of the matrons. They want to bust the union. If we don’t strike we’ll go backwards.” Again, the proletariat is reduced to not fighting for its emancipation, its liberation, but rather the maintenance of its very existence. The worker is fighting to remain a worker, the proletariat to maintain the levels of exploitation which it had thus far figured out how to live with. As we previously wrote, “The lesson of this strike… is to become a class against capital, against its race to the bottom… The class against the logic of capital is to become, in the end, a class against the recovery of capitalism, a class against classes.”

The strikes to come will be fought over not just our wages, but our misery; not just our benefits, but our boredom; not just our unemployment, but our depression; not just against austerity, but against our anxiety as well. The strikes to come will need to be strikes against work itself; strikes against the slavery of the wage; strikes against not just our employers but against ourselves as workers. The strikes to come will need to be strikes against a society of classes.

The men hove into view, a raging mob 2000 strong, pit boys, hewers and wastemen, a compact mass tumbling forward like a single body, whose discolored breechers and ragged wollen jerseys merged forward into a single, mud-colored mass. Only their burning eyes and the dark holes of their gaping mouths could be seen as they sang the “Marseillaise”, and the verses tailed off into a vague bellowing, echoing to the beat of their clogs clattering over the hard ground. (Emile Zola, Germinal, 1885)

This does not yet describe the state of our current strikes. The state we are in is a sad, lonely state, made sadder by the spirit of resignation that hangs in the air like the persistent cold mist. Yet the specter of the crowd never lurks far from the picket line. Every picket summons a crowd-like apparition. But the union officialdom, in collusion with the police, the companies, the city governments, exorcises the phantom, purging the picket of its demonic aspirations.

3 February 2013