On Friday evening, February 15, leaders of the Amalgamated Transport Union (ATU) told striking school bus workers to return to work, seconded by all the contenders for Democratic Party mayoral candidate. Billionaire Mayor Bloomberg and his puppet Education Commissioner Walcott gave up nothing. The strikers only got empty promises from the mayoral hopefuls that they would “revisit” union job security clauses after the election – almost a year away. Meanwhile, the bus companies retain some of the scabs they hired rather than putting all the returning strikers back to work. Jofaz Transportation Company actually fired 109 bus aides!
The workers’ loss was no fault of their own. They stood solid, picketing bus depots for a month in the freezing cold. But the union leaders, particularly Local 1181 President Cordiello and ATU International President Hanley had no perspective of winning or even fighting to a draw. They hinted that they were ready to make concessions. This show of weakness encouraged the city government and the capitalist media to stand firm.
The government and media attacks on the school bus workers were particularly infuriating. Poor workers performing highly demanding jobs for an average of $36,000/year heard themselves denounced as greedy, selfish parasites on students and parents – a typical capitalist strategy of dividing-and-conquering the working class. This from a government which shuts down and moves schools seemingly on a whim. It’s Bloomberg and Co. who disrupt the lives of millions of working class parents and students. It’s the doing of the U.S. capitalist class, the most greedy and parasitic in history!
The leaders of the ATU and other unions left the school bus strikers in the lurch. The United Federation of Teachers (UFT, NYC schoolteachers and aides) and Transport Workers Union Local 100 (TWU, NYC subway and bus) organize large numbers of potentially powerful workers. They have obvious affinities with school bus workers. Further, both are working under expired contracts, as are the majority of NYC municipal workers who belong to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers, District Council 37 (DC37).
These unions could have mobilized thousands of public workers to join pickets at major school bus depots and shut them down tight. They could have built mass marches on City Hall, showing real unity and forcing Bloomberg and Co. to back down.
Such a show of strength and unity would have won support from working class parents, shredding the bosses’ moves to divide and conquer. Bringing out masses of workers in militant action may not be easy. But the unions have vast resources for publicity and organization. It's not logistical problems which prevented a united workers’ fightback, but political program.
The union leaders all have pro-capitalist politics. They accept the system and ask only for what they think the capitalists can “afford.” In this ongoing economic crisis, the capitalists and their politicians only take from the workers and will concede nothing – unless the workers mount a formidable mass defense. The union leaders’ social position – brokers between workers and capitalists – gives them a cushy lifestyle and some power. This position depends on having a stable capitalist society. Workers’ mass struggle would upset that stability and endanger the union leaders’ position.
Workers should make demands on the government – demand, not beg. We have the numbers and the potential to stop production. But the union leaders’ participation in the “political process” is limited to lobbying and voting, mostly for the capitalist Democratic Party. The Democrats supposedly favor workers and oppressed people, as opposed to the Republican Party which doesn't bother to conceal their anti-working class program. For all the money and campaign help which the unions give to the Democrats, they give us vague words of support and occasional, grudging benefits. But their function is to cut back on us, invade other countries and carry out other attacks on workers here and abroad.
About the same time that the ATU leadership ended the bus strike, TWU Local 100 members got a mailing from the union, including a membership card and solicitations from credit card and insurance companies. As well, there was a letter from Local 100 President Samuelsen. The letter talked about pride in being a member, which most members feel, but President Samuelsen also wrote about acting “as a cohesive unit for the betterment of all.” Coming from him, this is only empty rhetoric.
Samuelsen has long been connected to ATU International President Larry Hanley. The latter apparently played a key role in getting the Democratic mayoral candidates’ letter urging the workers to end the strike. Even if one of these candidates wins and takes some kind of action to protect bus workers’ jobs, the workers could already have lost thousands of union jobs to bids. Until now these jobs have been protected by a provision won by the hard-fought strike of 1979 – not by begging capitalist politicians. Ending the strike based on empty promises from the Democrats is to spit on the sacrifices made by workers for these hard-won gains.