May 1971 article by Jorge M.E. for Root & Branch #3 on the wildcat strike of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia.
The public transportation system of Philadelphia employs about 5,200 drivers, mechanics and maintenance personnel. The average wage of a worker is $148 a week, $100 after taxes: a level which gives him the “right” to apply for food stamps at the Public Assistance Ofﬁce, all for 40 hours a week of work. A few years ago, this was considered well-paid work, not only because the real wage was higher at that point (before inﬂation), but also because with overtime, now non-existent, the money-wage was itself higher (about $90 additional a week). Today, the SEPTA — South Eastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority - workers can only add to their meager wages the $15 that they can receive from Public Assistance as “individuals living in a state of poverty"! 1
The wildcat strike of the SEPTA workers, which lasted from the 12th to the 21st of April, demonstrates the increasing level of activity of the American working class within the context of American capitalism’s increasing difficulties, the changing forms of this activity (wildcats, confrontations with the State institutions) and the changing subjects of this activity (namely young workers). It is interesting to note that while workers were acting on their own against the unions, the police, the city and state administrations and the judiciary system, the so- called Left mobilized itself for the demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Only some more “workerist" groups turned their attention toward the strike, and even there, their activity never got beyond a fairly reactionary level.
One of the groups (the Labor Committee) even dared to distribute a leaﬂet calling for a United Front of the Left with the workers for “. . . for the defense of the union!” Naturally none of the workers in the WILDCAT strike responded to the call, no doubt due to a lack of class consciousness. . .
On April 8th the local union leadership of the national TWU - Transport Workers Union - presented to the rank-and-ﬁle a contract for the next two years. This included a wage raise of $.75/hour over a 21-month period and a raise in retirement pensions. In spite of the fact that the union advised acceptance of the contract, and the "public" (i. e. the press) already assumed it would be accepted, the rank-and-tile voted against the contract by a 2-to-1 majority and voted for a strike. This produced a great deal of confusion: the union and the bosses immediately agreed to continue negotiations, hoping that in the additional time the workers would calm down.
The union also published a communique, in which it warned against “all forms of wildcat activity which is illegal (sic), foolish, and can only create confusion”2 . Knowing that the workers were divided over the attitude they should have toward the union, the management of the company announced that: “. . . the strike is not only against the public but also against their own union leadership."3 In this way they tried to isolate the anti-union militants from those who were still faithful to the union. But it had no such results.
On April 12th the 5000 and some employees of the public transport system of the city went out on strike. Strong pickets were formed at the depots and a majority of the lines in the city were halted.4 The international (of the union) disavowed the strikers and called the strike “irresponsible,” thus denying the strikers access to the strike fund in order to weaken their capacity to struggle. On the local level, however, the leadership supported the strike in spite of themselves as the only means of maintaining contact with the workers and eventually regaining control. This type of scheming between the intemational and the locals is becoming more and more frequent as a means to smash the workers’ initiative.
The Strike Spreads
On April 13th there was a new development: the workers of Red Arrow, working under another contract (see note 4) joined the action and went out on strike, thereby blocking the entire public transport system for the city and suburbs. About a million people a day were affected, business suffered heavy losses, and the overuse of cars caused massive trafﬁc jams in the center of the city throughout most of the day.
It should be added here that the transportation system in American cities is characterized increasingly by total anarchy, due to both the saturation of private cars and the ﬁnancial crisis in the public transportation system. In Philadelphia, for example, the number of private vehicles has grown by 30% in the last seven years while public transportation has suffered a lowering of its proﬁtability and therefore its efﬁciency. About 70% of the public transportation vehicles in Philadelphia are more than 14 years old, and successive price hikes proved insufficient to balance costs and maintain even a constant level of proﬁtability. American capitalism’s refusal to nationalize these sectors can be explained only in terms of the fear amused for the future of private corporate capitalism by the steady growth of the state-controlled sector of the economy. However, as the current low levels of proﬁtability and of growth continue, the political weight of the anarchy of the cities (transportation, health, education) will necessarily force the State to take charge of these sectors totally or partially.
On the 13th and 14th of April it became evident that the strike was very solid. A Committee for the Refusal of the Contract was formed among rank-and-file picketers and took a public position against the union policies. Contacts were established between the SEPTA pickets and the 300 workers on strike in the other company.
The workers knew very well their power - “If we disturb things that much it’s because we're important”- and that the company and the city administration couldn’t allow this situation to continue. Events were in fact precipitated by the intervention of the State governor, the city administration and the Federal Courts which obtained an injunction against the continuation of the strike. The injunction was used immediately and two local union leaders were jailed. This measure caused much agitation amongst the workers: the picket lines were reinforced by masses of workers and the general feeling was against the administrative machine and against the system of “justice.”
As the strike continued the press threw itself against these workers who don't respect the “public.” The workers acted aggressively against the newspaper reporters, seeing them as the expression of the anti-strike campaign. Workers interviewed on the picket line refused to give their names, saying they didn’t trust the reporters. One newspaper received a threatening phone call: “if other strikers are jailed we’ll stop life in this city; we’ll ask the truckers to block it and the dockers to go out on strike."5 The imprisonment of the union leaders acted at ﬁrst to unify the workers behind their union leaders. But this effect was short-lived. After a few hours in prison the two union leaders were freed, according to the very word; of the judges, in order to convince their men to return to work. This effort completely backfired. In the eyes of the workers, these tough leaders had become sell-outs who went over to the other side to save their own skin. Against the International, against the State, and, from then on, against its own local, the wildcat strike continued over the next six days. Those who had seen the worker reaction against the judiciary system as a defense of the union were now totally confused. In reality the arrests had been taken as an attack against the workers’ movement (which many workers still identiﬁed with the union): "The labor movement is 60 years old. If we return to work under this pressure we’ll bring it back several years," one worker on the picket line said6 .
The union then took up the massive task of breaking the strike. Local bureaucrats called for a back-to-work movement on the pretext that the company would only negotiate after the strike was over. The workers answered: "No contract, no work!" The same night scabs entered the depots and got the busses in running order in preparation for a return to work, but, discovered by the strikers, they were chased and thrown out of the depots The press then stepped up its attacks on the workers, characterizing them in an editorial by an insubordination to justice that could lead to “TOTAL chaos". Under these pressures the workers of the small Red Arrow company, also under the threat of a Federal Court injunction, returned to work. But the workers quickly understood that if they passively waited for the "solution", they would be obliged to accept the Union proposals and they therefore acted on their own to get out of the impasse in which the Union had enclosed them. The picket lines were reinforced and organized by several shopstewards who had broken with the Union. On April 16th picket lines formed almost entirely by young workers moved toward the depots of the Red Arrow company and prevented the busses from leaving; right away the workers there went out on strike for a second time, and again the entire public transportation system was blocked.
The Injunction Goes Down the Toilet
Throughout this time the union leaders went to depot after depot calling for a return to work. Physically protected by union functionaries they cried: “I tell you you've got to return. What's your answer?” - “No.” answer the picketers. A poster that the workers carried on the picket lines showed the injunction being thrown into a toﬂet. The night of the 16th, on TV, the leadership called on the workers to return, but the latter continued their refusal. The picket lines in front of the Red Arrow were scattered by the police. In other depots workers fought with the police and one depot was cordoned off by the police. In order to isolate the strikers, the Union then began talking about “lots of workers" who were ready to go back to work. Nevertheless they recognized that the scabs that they supported were not strong enough to face the pickets: as one union bureaucrat said, “We told them [the scabs] not to get killed."7 In the face of this determination the Federal government announced the possibility of sending in the National Guard, On the picket lines, the workers answered: “Let them send us the National Guard. There will be at least 100 wounded or dead the ﬁrst day.” Others threatened to sabotage the machinery8 .
On April 17th SEPTA, going back on its previous position, agreed to a wage increase which would be retroactive to before the strike. Meanwhile the leaders continued to “visit” the depots, calling for a return to work but ....“they no longer hear us!" they say.9 in the three largest terminals, at which resistance to the union was the greatest, they were even physically threatened and had eggs thrown at them. Appalled, the bureaucrats blamed the wildcat on “radical dissenters."
In this strike the most active participants were the young black and white workers, and racism was, as in many previous actions, overcome by the necessity of workers' unity in confrontation with the union, the bosses. and the State. This new social composition of the American working class (youth and blacks) showed itself in this strike in the new militancy. It is obviously not a question of a generation conﬂict, but simply of the material conditions of this young part of the working class which is more strongly affected by the problems of capitalism (inﬂation, unemployment) than the older workers with years of’ seniority10 . The unions use and reinforce this differentiation between the youthful part of the working class and the "old-timers" frequently. In fact one of the demands to which the unions are giving more importance today is that of a pension fund (see the “30-and-out” during the GM strike), with the goal of assuring control over the workers with a certain seniority and thereby opposing them to the young workers who don’t give a shit about this kind of demand. ln SEPTA more than half of the workers are young: “it is the young who are less afraid of expressing themselves, less inclined to accept what is offered to them as the old workers in the past had done."11
On April 19th the wildcat strike was still solid. In the three main depots the picket lines were manned by about 200 men each. Once again the pickets blocked the Red Arrow depots (the workers there had again returned to work), and once again they succeeded in involving the rest of the workers. By their persistence in blocking the few lines of this company the workers showed how well they understood that their force depended on their unity. Towards the evening of the 20th the union decided to break the strike once and for all. Starting at 2am on the morning of April 21st, groups of scabs escorted by union bureaucrats confronted the picket lines. According to the press, the union had set up a communications network between the depots and, it seems. they had not refused technical assistance from the police! Nevertheless, even at that hour of the morning the picketers were there in greater numbers than the scabs, amongst whom there were even some who still had doubts about what they were doing and wouldn’t be the ﬁrst to cross the strikers’ picket lines. Faced with this situation, the union leadership once again tried persuasion:
"You can't do anything to me that hasn’t already been done,” the Union president said, with tears in his eyes. “You're hurting yourselves. You’ve been out nine days. You've got families. There's no way in the world we can beat them.“
“No contract, no work!" the men chanted, drowning on his words.
Another bureaucrat told them if they didn't go back to work, "Your employer will send you notice of immediate dismissal."
The men cheered.
“He's our president," the bureaucrat cried, “Are you going to follow him or not?”
“I don’t want to see the membership of the union go to jail,” the president insisted.
“I'll go to jail," a worker shouted. “Tell us what time to be there, we'll be there. The judge can have 4,200 of us brought in tomorrow."12
The Union Breaks the Strike
At 6 am the union leaders and 15 older drivers tried to cross the picket lines at one of the depots. In response to the aggressiveness of the workers who stood in front of the busses, the union once again threatened them with the intervention of the police who were waiting at a distance.
The workers cried: “Nothing can be jammed down our throats, we've proved that we're uniﬁed and this is the only thing that counts now. After seven days, they can’t stop us from going out if we’re not satisﬁed."13 When one or two busses tried to leave the depots, young workers resisted once again, physically, and fighting broke out. Someone suggested to the union leadership that they demand the intervention of the police. The leadership answered: “No, we want to do this properly."14 “Properly” seems to mean doing the police’s job themselves.
After the first busses finally managed to leave, more workers crossed the picket lines, which fell apart little by little, the workers disgusted and demoralized. A few of the workers still drove around the city in cars to urge the other workers not to return to work. But it was too late, as many workers had already followed the back-to-work order. Nonetheless, the transit lines were only in full operation by the evening the following day. A week late it was found that there were still 1,300 “radical dissenters” who voted against the new contract which was practically the same as the first one.
The combativity of the workers in this wildcat strike can be measured by the fact that it lasted 9 days against the State (the administration, the judicial system. the police) and the Union (International and local). beaten down daily by the radio, the TV, and the Press. By the crucial nature of the position that they hold in the social organization of capitalist production---transportation - these workers would necessarily run up against an enormous resistance on the part of capitalism, all the more aggressive because they had gone beyond the organization which, within capitalism. is supposed to control them: i.e. the union. But if this explains to a certain degree, the vulnerability and defeat of the strike, it was this same fact (their position in the social process of production) that allowed the development of this strike towards levels of radicality not reached by “normal” wildcat strikes in other sectors of production. Thus above and beyond the bitter resistance with which the workers opposed the union, the dynamism of the struggle brought it into clear opposition to the judicial system, thus demystifying its "neutral" role in society. "This strike is no longer that of the union against the company, but that of the rank-and-ﬁle workers against the Judicial bully.” said one worker15 . The strike was a struggle against inﬂation, which is one of the forms in which the American working class is becoming conscious of capitalism’s difficulties. Finally, the anti-union struggle took on here a character that went way beyond that of a simple wildcat strike. The gap between the rank-and-ﬁle and the local union bureaucrats was widened and reinforced here again in physical confrontation. The workers’ demonstrated their capacity to organize themselves, not only in the setting up of picket lines -- normally a characteristic of the self-isolation of the strike -- but above all in the workers’ refusal to be conﬁned to their own workplaces in their attempts to widen the strike to the other local and workers (the Red Arrow Company). However, in spite of the clearly repressive police role of the union, which went as far as organizing scabs, the workers remained surprised and paralysed; this was no doubt one of the immediate reasons for the failure of their action. In the post-war period the wildcat movements that have developed have often remained on the level of attempts to exert pressure on the unions and thus have been open to immediate cooptation by them.
Today American capitalism's efforts to reduce the paid part of the work day -- either through inflation or through an increase in productivity of labor -- thus increasing the part of unpaid labor (i. e. surplus value), are necessary to maintain proﬁts which are threatened by increasing difficulties. In this context, the role of the union is be- coming more and more limited. Obliged to fulﬁll the workers’ demands in order to get their conﬁdence and control them, the union is now faced with the fact that capitalism itself can’t fulfil these demands because of its problems. But these same problems oblige the workers to ﬁght (inﬂation, unemployment), and the workers are thus obliged to ﬁght more and more beyond the union's limits, which are the same as those of capitalism. In other words, the material basis of union reformism is disappearing with the increasing economic stagnation. The wildcat struggles tend to become not only pressure on the unions, but destruction of the union: control and development of the workers capacity to act and organize for themselves. The struggle of the Philadelphia SEPTA workers is only a small part of this process.
From Root & Branch No. 3 (1971), pp. 1-6
- 1SEPTA is a public authority with a public board of representatives from the Philadelphia area and other counties. It was created in the 60's to take over and reorganize a private enterprise that ran the transportation system. The take-over was the result of the loss of proﬁtability of the enterprise. Today the public authority gets some subsidies from the city and other counties, but not enough to offset the costs of its functioning.
- 2The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 9, 1971.
- 3TPI, April 11, 1971.
- 4The Red Arrow is another small division of SEPTA that operates a few lines in the suburban areas. The workers there have another union. In the days that followed, this line was affected as the strike widened.
- 5TPI, April 15, 1971.
- 6TPI, April 16, 1971.
- 7The Evening Bulletin, April 16, 1971.
- 8TPI APril 18, 1971.
- 9TPI APril 18, 1971.
- 10see Living Conditions in the US in Root and Branch No. 2
- 11TPI, April 16, 1971.
- 12TEB, April 21, 1971.
- 13TEB, April 21, 1971.
- 14TEB, April 21, 1971.
- 15TPI, April 21, 1971.