|Image from Flickr, by Michael Fleshman|
In one of the clearest examples of the folly and stupidity of unions’ love affair with political action, the leadership of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) called off the New York City bus workers’ strike last week, after only one month. Their justification was a letter signed by the five Democratic Party candidates for mayor calling for an end to the strike. The union never asked for a vote of the membership and got literally nothing in return for the back-to-work order aside from a nebulous promise by the mayoral hopefuls to “revisit the school bus transportation system and contracts” if elected, the WSWS reported today.
Without a solid victory, the drivers face losing their jobs entirely or being forced to reapply for a fraction of their old wages, as the Employee Protection Provisions (EPP) that once protected their seniority and wage scale, regardless of which bus company was hired by the school district, came under attack. The assault on the EPP was launched by Mayor Bloomberg in January and the ATU’s initial response was to ask him to reconsider. Even after it became clear that negotiations were going nowhere, the ATU leadership, like most unions these days, made little effort to promote and support the strike, according to the WSWS, even going so far as to interfere in the dissemination of strike information among the workers.
An obvious question is why would the union leadership acquiesce to a request from a group of wannabe mayors to end the strike without getting anything concrete in exchange? There is no way of knowing whether any of them will actually be elected or whether they would actually do anything to preserve the drivers’ wages and job security if they were elected.
Historically, the goal of strikes has been to aggravate the bosses to the extent that they were willing to compromise and make concessions. The workers remained on strike until they won concessions or were forced to give up because of the hunger and poverty that resulted from going too long without a paycheck. In the case of the New York school bus drivers, many were clearly pleased with the prospect of once again earning a paycheck, but it was premature to argue that poverty was killing their solidarity. In fact, many were angered that the one paycheck they did give up may have been for naught.
Some of the drivers speculated that the union leadership colluded with the bus companies to drive down wages. While this may have been the case, there is also another more basic reason why the ATU leadership sold out its members: Their role (like that of all unions) is to help maintain the profitability and efficiency of business by keeping workers on the job and content with their lot. To this end, capital accepts unions and the occasional concession as a cost of business, while the leaders of the large unions have an incentive to keep their members on the job and paying dues so they can maintain their high salaries (ATU leaders make $200,000 per year). Furthermore, because union leaders generally make so much more than those they represent—often for sitting in an office and wining and dining with politicians, rather than doing the same work as their members—their interests tend to align more with the bosses than with the workers.
In contrast, protracted strikes can result in jail time for union officials, while injunctions, lawsuits and loss of union dues because workers are not getting paychecks sap money from union coffers, thus jeopardizing unions leaders’ income and personal freedom. Yet, if they want to maintain their jobs and high salaries, they must also seem like they are fighting for their members’ interests. Therefore, they often make forceful public statements, pretend to be aggressive, criticize (and sometimes insult) the bosses, and occasionally even go through the motions of taking a job action in order to legitimize their positions and win their members’ support. This creates a fundamental strategic conflict in which strikes, which are workers’ most powerful weapon, are also feared and consequently avoided by their leaders.