The latest attack on workers' rights around the world is now hitting the people who make public transportation possible in many of the world's metro areas.
Tehran and New York City are both in states that are bitterly opposed to one another but share the similarity of not allowing public transportation workers to organize and fight back against the attacks by local transportation companies. In both Tehran and New York City, local or national governments have deliberately tried to hamper the efforts of striking workers who want their unions to defend workers' rights.
In New York, workers refused to give in to concessions demanded by the MTA. The Metropolitan Transport Authority demanded workers accept reduced health care and pension benefits for future employees. Workers decided the only way was to take a courageous move and break the state's "Taylor Law," which outlaws strikes and provides for massive fines against workers and unions that even suggest strike action.
The city was thrown into a panic because of the strike, which lasted only a few days. The government threatened to fine workers for every day they were out on strike. When that failed to force the workers to accept concessions, the city government resorted to threatening them with jail time. Union officials agreed to return to work without a contract in the face of these threats, and returned to contract talks having lost the momentum of a strike that had shut down the entire transportation network.
When the Transport Workers Union went on strike, they wielded tremendous power. The state and city government found that power extremely threatening, and learned that court injunctions and million-dollar fines could not make city trains and buses run.
Transit workers in Philadelphia faced a similar attack, striking for two weeks against cuts in their health care benefits before accepting a state-mediated agreement which moderated the concessions but required workers to pay part of the cost of their health benefits for the first time. (For years, the Philadelphia transit workers accepted lower wages as part of a deal that included free health care.) In Stockholm, metro workers have waged a series of wildcat strikes in response to unsafe operating conditions and attacks on union activists.
Another place in the world where a major attack on transport workers occurred was in Iran, where the workers of the Tehran and Suburbs bus company, or Vahed, tried to form their own independent union. The government of Iran found this to be a. direct threat because the only labor groups recognized by the Iranian theocracy are the state-run House of Labor, and the government-mediated Islamic Labor Councils or Islamic Shoras. As a result, the members of the Workers Syndicate were not only sacked but also arrested and put in detention camps. There is nowan international campaign to help free the Iranian workers from prison and also to get their jobs back. (As we go to press, most have been freed from jail but still face charges; union president Mansoor Ossanlou is still in prison.)Transportation unions must have the courage to fight these global attacks. The NYC unions gave up far too fast, by caving in to what were most likely empty threats. Iranian workers were actually jailed for forming an independent union. In France transport workers went on strike during the middle of the recent riots.
If U.S. workers want to resist these most recent attacks, they must have the courage of the French and Iranian workers who are not afraid of their national, provincial or city governments. The governments of the world are trying to force transport workers into passive submission and take away the possibility of the strike or any other form of direct action by these workers.
The reason for this attack is because transport workers have the power to bring cities to a halt through industrial direct action, and both the transport companies and local governments are very aware of this. As a result, the state uses a carrot and stick approach to eliminating the opposition to their neo-liberal policies to public transportation policies, which include service cutbacks, layoffs, fare hikes and benefit cuts. Both the state and private media are waging a propaganda war to turn the public against these workers because they know if the public realizes that the transport companies also intend to cut services and raise fares as well, it would mean that the public might actively support and ally with the strikers and that would interfere with their plans.
In Chicago, many riders and drivers participated in a fare strike last year. A fare strike consists of riders not paying and drivers not collecting. The TWU union leadership there bitterly opposed this tactic. As a result, the fare strike was not as widespread as predicted. However, in spite of this many riders did not pay and many drivers did not collect, making the fare strike a partial success and putting the transport system on notice. The fare hikes were put on hiatus. Imagine if the union had supported the fare strikes, even if it was back room support; the fare strikes could have been rolled back for good. A similar campaign in San Francisco saw thousands of riders refuse to pay to protest a fare hike for several days earlier this year, but unfortunately was unable to build much support from drivers and fizzled out.
The American, French and Iranian transport workers had great courage and went on strike in spite of great odds. They did this in spite of the fact that the U.S. union leadership and the state-controlled unions in Iran and other countries do not always have the courage of their rank-and-file members. My own experience dealing with unions in Philadelphia has taught me both how the government wants to avoid transport strikes at all costs and how unequipped U.S. transport unions such as the TWU are at dealing with tyrannical state mechanisms.The result of the state's demand for concessions and the union leadership's lack of courage to do anything about it is that now the transport workers of Philadelphia are forced to pay for part of their health insurance, which they did not have to do before. This is solely because the state of Pennsylvania did not want the transport strike to continue and forced the parties "back to the table."
If the union leadership supported creative solutions like a fare strike or other means, the riders and the workers would not be giving in to concessions. Instead, the company would be the one giving concessions. Instead of fare hikes and service cuts there would be lower fares and improved service for the public, as well as wage and benefit increases for the workers.
By John Kalwaic - Anarcho-Syndicalist Review #42-3, Winter 2006
* 'No Contract, No Work' - The 2005 New York City transit strike:
* Tehran bus workers released from jail:
* European dockers - victory in EU Parliament
* Interview with an RMT member: the New Year tube strikes