By Karyn Pomerantz, 9-10-2022
Anatomy of a Strike – Class Struggle or Business Unionism
During August, 2022 in Prince George’s County, MD, 170 paratransit operators of Metro Access in the Amalgamated Transportation Union (ATU 689) walked off their jobs to demand increased wages, more sick leave, and improved health and retirement benefits. Metro Access transports people living with disabilities to medical appointments, grocery stores, and social events. Most are too poor to have cars or pay for cabs or Uber and need transport that accommodates wheelchairs.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which operates the bus and subway systems, contracted out Metro Access to the billionaire French Transdev Corporation known for its anti-union activities. In 2019, WMATA bus operators working for Transdev struck for 85 days to achieve pay parity with other WMATA drivers. These contract arrangements weaken the ability of workers to organize larger strikes and forge solidarity across the work sites.
Taking Public Health to the Picket Line
Public health (PH) workers walked the line, discussing Covid and revolution:
PH: Great, your shop steward thought that about 50% of drivers have already been out with COVID and you only have two days of sick leave per year. So, I guess a lot of drivers lost money when they had COVID.
Striker: Yes, and it was hard to get workers compensation back when we had to quarantine for 10 days. Only a few got it. Lots of paperwork and Transdev would just say – you probably got it somewhere besides work.
Another striker: I started feeling sick at work and so called in to go home and not do my last pickup. I tested positive and lost several days’ pay. Not everyone gets well in 5 days. They gave me a hard time. A lot of riders do wear masks but when we must take multiple riders at a time the risk goes up. Share rides are more dangerous.
Another striker: YES, these bosses don’t care about our health or even the health of the disabled folks we drive for. They add on trips and so many of our workdays are 12 hours. A lot of us report at 4 or 5 AM so we can get folks to doctor’s appointments on time. I am happy to be out on strike against Transdev. They come over here from France and make a lot of money, but they don’t pay us S— They kept the Cinderbed workers in Virginia out for nearly 3 months. WMATA should stop contracting out the work and treat us like the rest of the union.
Metro Access on Strike: Lessons to Learn
The workers were militant and spirited, allowing few people to cross their picket lines. Many spoke on the bullhorn. Members of Jobs with Justice, Stomp Out Slumlords, DSA, Public Health Awakened, and the Progressive Labor Party joined the pickets. Workers welcomed reading revolutionary articles that assailed capitalism and racism and called for radical change. It was truly a school for organizing.
The union began negotiations at a low bar of $22.50 an hour, and asked for an insufficient number of sick days, and retirement benefits. After weeks of picketing in the heat wave, the union settled for a starting pay of $20 an hour (up from $17), no additional days of sick leave (agreeing to two days!), and no improvement in the skimpy retirement benefits, hardly enough to sustain healthy living conditions, especially as prices increase for fuel and food. It takes 7-8 years to reach the highest pay bracket. Yet, 90% of the union members approved the contract and returned to work despite the risk of inflation chewing up their gains. It is likely that the meager $650 a week in strike benefits dismayed people from staying on strike.
While Transdev is a nasty union-busting company, the union leadership made many mistakes. Only a part of the Metro Access workforce went on strike. Metro Access drivers who were covered by separate contracts, the call center staff, and Metro Bus and Rail operators continued to work, sapping the strike’s power. The union didn’t ask the other thousands of Metro workers to join the strike. Within Metro Access, the union allowed dispatchers and Metro Access drivers at other locations to continue working rather than shutting down the entire operation.
Workers’ Movement Growing
Unions have the power to shut down business and demand economic benefits for their members and political change for the entire working class. Imagine unions organizing general strikes, demanding universal health care, an end to war, real affordable housing, or asylum for migrants. We are a long way from this, but exploitation breeds rebellion.
While union membership has fallen since 1983 from 20% to 10% today (Bureau of Labor Statistics, Jan. 2022; https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/union2.pdf), workers in diverse sectors have sparked a newly activated union movement. Workers in university, retail, and service workplaces in the United States have been organizing unions and striking. The National Nurses Union (NNU) announced that 68% of US residents and 77% of young adults support unionizing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 16 major work stoppages involving 1000 or more workers in 2021. The majority (76%) of strikes occurred in the service industries, primarily in the education and health care sectors. Manufacturing and government workers accounted for the remaining stoppages.
Mental health nurses at Kaiser Permanente in Northern California have been on strike for four weeks demanding adequate staffing to serve their patients and prevent their own burn-out. This is hardly the time to reduce care! Starbucks and Amazon workers, graduate students and university faculty, and public-school teachers have gone on strike.
American University staff struck in August and won higher wages and promotions. Community and labor organizations rallied with them; at AU half of the freshman class walked out of Convocation in a dramatic demonstration of support (left).
As one young organizer reported:
“With inflation, the world is really difficult to live in right now, and we’re spiraling to impending climate apocalypse (Washington Post, Outlook, 94-2022).”
Historically, unions have won many reforms, including the 8-hour day (almost unheard of now), increased wages, health care coverage, and pensions (another relic). During the 1930s as the Depression raged, the Communist Party USA (CP) led many struggles that involved rebellions and general strikes, including the famous Flint Sit-Down strike that created the United Autoworkers Union (UAW). The CP also led anti-racist efforts to organize black and white sharecroppers in the South and to defend the Scottsboro Boys against fraudulent rape charges.
These campaigns threatened the US ruling class, leading President Roosevelt (FDR) to implement the New Deal to save capitalism and pacify the working class with jobs and welfare programs. Unfortunately, the CP did not win enough people to organize for a revolution to replace capitalism. Unions fought militantly for reforms but did not make themselves schools for communism. Militant class struggle unions can win major changes, but they don’t change the relationship between capitalists and the people making them rich.
Today, union presidents and officers, especially at the national levels, earn hundreds of thousands of dollars. The president of ATU that represents Metro earns $232,000+ in full compensation while the current average starting pay for Metro Access workers is $45,000. Transdev executive directors earn an average $236,000, roughly $112 an hour, with top earners receiving (wage theft?) $700,000. Union leaders’ salaries are closer to the bosses’ than their own union membership. These leaders don’t have the bread and butter needs or motivation to strike. Therefore, they mislead workers into voting, playing it safe, and obeying no-strike clauses. We can take a lesson from the Paris Commune when workers ran Paris and paid government representatives the same average amount as workers.
No matter how militant strikes are, we are still negotiating how much the bosses exploit us. As long as capitalism exists, the bosses never pay us the full value of our work. We create the wealth; they steal the results. They only keep us alive to reproduce, work, and fight.
Today, while we fight for reforms in the present, we face the question of how to organize against capitalism. Do we organize in the workplace for economic benefits, build community-based movements for housing and health, or engage in elections that replace one politician with another? Where can we exert the most power and prepare ourselves to threaten and overthrow the rule by a tiny wealthy elite?
How Can We Turn Unions into Anti-Capitalist Forces?
There are many ways we can strengthen the power of workers. While unions can be weak and corrupt, they provide a space to organize, hold political discussions, and build relationships. They will not solve all the problems in the workplace or eliminate exploitation, but they can improve working and living conditions. If they are strong, they can change policies. Think how health care workers could mitigate Covid by winning better staffing and vaccines for all.
Here are some ways to build militancy, strength, and commitment to overthrowing capitalism:
- Build multiracial solidarity and fight for changes that promote racial equity. Elect leaders who represent the demographics of workers by “race,” age, gender, and others. [e1] Earlier unions made anti-racism an important aspect of their work, exemplified by the meatpackers protecting black workers moving into segregated neighborhoods and appointing black members to union leadership.
- Support the leadership of women and young workers. During the 1936 Flint Sit-Down strike against General Motors, women battled the police trying to arrest the strikers. Mother Jones, Lucy Parsons, and Elizabeth Flynn led militant union and revolutionary movements in the mines and on the railroads in the late 19th Century. Other women have been instrumental building unions in the textile, garment, and agricultural industries.
- Engage the public to support worker demands as teachers did during their strikes. Jobs with Justice mobilizes the public to rally and picket with workers in many US cities. Community residents who used Metro Access joined the picket lines, and AU students and faculty supported the strike.
- Provide opportunities for base-building and socializing among workers and families. Relationships form the foundation of all political work. They break down barriers between people with different experiences and forge trust and empathy.
- Rely on collective demands that benefit the group rather than individual based grievances. Too often, unions rely on grieving individual worker problems, such as promotions or disciplinary actions, rather than safeguarding the entire labor force.
- Concentrate organizing in industries that can cause major disruption to business, such as transportation, communications, schools, health care, and information technology. Encourage younger workers to take jobs in these sectors instead of becoming NGO employees (although even NGO and union staffs are unionizing).
- Organize political actions, campaigns, and work stoppages for working class needs, such as global access to medication, affordable housing, reproductive justice, and anti-imperialism. Reach out to activists in different social movements as South American abortion rights advocates did. Mineworkers in West Virginia fought the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s; longshore workers refused to load war materials in California during the Vietnam War.
- Make unions schools for revolution. Learn about capitalism, racism, and other problems that oppress our class. Discuss how to fight for a workers’-controlled society. Metro Access workers eagerly accepted revolutionary literature and spoke out against capitalism and racism. Organize study-action clubs and social events for members to maintain the conversations and actions.
Metro Access workers and supporters rally at the union hall
In conclusion, unions and labor campaigns are fertile grounds to mobilize workers against exploitation. They provide opportunities to unite workers, learn how the system works, and who are allies and enemies. They give us a taste of the potential power the working class has. However, eliminating oppressive conditions requires mobilizing to take power and operate society based on our needs.
These autobiographies of two communist union activists offer examples of militant rebellion in the farmworkers and railroad unions:
Epifanio Camacho. The Autobiography of Epifanio Camacho.
“Anyone familiar with the 1965-1970 Delano grape strike and boycott will have heard of Cesar Chavez. Whereas Chavez insisted on nonviolent tactics during the strike and boycott, there was dissent within the National Farmworkers Association as some workers believed more militant tactics were necessary. One of these workers was Epifanio Camacho. This is Camacho’s story.”
Wally Linder. A Life of Labor and Love: A Red Memoir.
“Putting his ideals into action working as a freight handler on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Wally Linder joined the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks and Freight Handlers. He later became President and Local Chairman of his local union, and in 1961 was one of the leaders of a strike to save jobs that shut down the New York City waterfront. Wally was a founding organizer of both the Trade Union Solidarity Committee to Aid the Hazard, Kentucky Miners and the Railroad Workers Unemployment Council, and became president of each organization. He was editor of the PLP newspaper Challenge for several years and helped lead PLP’s activities in the trade union area.“ Amazon
Classic Union and Organizing Histories
Robin D.G. Kelley. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression.
Accounts of sharecroppers in Alabama organizing for unions and communism despite horrific police violence and racism. It tells the story of how, during the 1930s and 40s, Communists fought for economic justice, civil and political rights, and racial equality. Many important anti-racist leaders developed their politics in the struggle.
Boyer and Morais. Labor’s Untold Story: The Adventure Story of the Battles, Betrayals and Victories of American Working Men and Women.
An inspiring history of US working class people fighting in the factories, mines, and railroads for unions to take on the robber barons and their goons.
Sharon Smith. Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States.
Discusses the ways the Democratic Party has held back workers and the union movement.
Philip Foner. History of the Labor Movement in the United States.
A series of books tracing the labor movement from colonial times to times of imperialism. Foner also writes about black and women workers, Joe Hill, Mother Jones, and the Bolshevik Revolution. (Not to be confused with Eric Foner, his son).