Labor Advocate Online

Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
July 11, 2005

Tough Times for Transit
Being a retired bus driver I keep a close eye on developments in the transit industry. With oil prices setting new records daily–and no end in sight–along with irrefutable evidence of imminent ecological disasters as consequence of fossil fuel consumption, you would think the prospects for mass transit would be soaring. But events last week remind us that’s far from the case.

First, of course, was the murderous train and bus bombings in London. The nature of high volume public transportation makes passengers and transit workers vulnerable to such attacks and attracts cut-rate terrorists who can’t damage those in power. There is little that can be done to enhance security in urban mass transit. The best we can hope for is an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a workable solution in Palestine. Peace with justice in those conflicts is the only effective way to disarm terrorism.

But terrorism is only a small part of a growing crisis for transit in the U.S., Britain, and Canada. Two major forces are at work: privatization and public sector transit employers imitating the privateers in the face of ever tightening government transit expenditures. Cuts in service, becoming increasingly common place, make life harder for riders and eliminate transit worker jobs. Fare increases have become widespread. And drastic take backs in wages, benefits, and working conditions have become an almost universal demand in bargaining with transit unions.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, BART management refused to budge from demanding 100 million dollars in concessions from either, or, or both passengers and workers. SEIU and ATU backed away from a strike threat and accepted substantial givebacks for their 2300 BART members. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "Workers will receive a $300 lump sum payment in January. There will be no pay raises in the current fiscal year, which began Friday, but the rank and file will see pay hikes of 2 percent in fiscal 2006 and 2007, followed by a 3 percent increase in fiscal 2008. But they'll also see their contributions to health care jump from $25 to $75 a month beginning in January, and rise by 3 percent annually each fiscal year beginning July 1, 2006." In addition, "The unions agreed to let BART change several job descriptions under a $40 million effort to modernize such systems as payroll and inventory. BART says the new technology will save $33 million between 2006 and 2009..." So BART workers are locked in a concessionary mode for the next four years–regardless of any gains that may be made in transit usage.

Unions also gave ground in the same region at Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District and at the principal privatized bus company in Phoenix. Pittsburgh ATU members are hot under the collar during a "cooling off" period in tough negotiations with the Port Authority of Allegheny County.

In Britain last week the RMT union carried out strikes against privatized bus operations in London, Devon, and Cornwall. Among the issues were multi-tiered wage structures and daily assignments–or lack of assignments–of work for drivers.

A fellow transit worker, Rod in Vancouver, recently wrote me about the problems CAW workers there face regarding multi-tiered wages based on size of buses. "What is going on over the last 4 years is conversion of many 40 foot conventional routes to 'Community Shuttles'. So the good work on quieter routes is been cannibalized into 'Community Shuttle'. Seniority has been turned on its head, junior Community Shuttle operators are working the old senior work. The senior work is disappearing and what's left is deteriorating rapidly. In effect company is using 'Shuttles' to free up conventional buses and operators to work the peak service hours. Welcome to 20 years on the job and full standing loads! ... the union has sought out and participated in weakening our contract language and bringing in tiered wages."

The Canadian brother’s complaint is familiar to those of us in ATU Local 1287 at the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. Prior to the 1980s all KCATA bus drivers were paid the same rate. In the Eighties arbitrators awarded the Authority a reduced wage rate for operators of small buses on a handful of lower traffic routes. The bosses also won the right to use part-time drivers who receive no benefits. Another "interest arbitration" in 1996 gave the ATA unlimited rights to convert routes to small buses, at 75 percent wage rate, and paratransit routes paying only 55 percent. Dozens of new runs were converted to these bargain basement wages.

Today the KCATA is demanding further concessions in work rules and benefits. The union leadership can think of no alternative but to go once more to "interest arbitration"–where we have always gotten our ass kicked in the past.

A tremendous expansion of mass public transit is an absolute necessity for dealing with the threats to our environment as well as rising fuel costs and shrinking supplies of oil. This can only be done as an adequately funded public service. The public deserves good transportation–and transit workers deserve good jobs.

This can happen only if our transit unions build coalitions within our communities–and a Labor Party to fight for our needed political agenda.

Hats Off to Those Fighting Back
Here and there are some encouraging struggles of unions against the bosses’ offensive.

Hundreds of shipyard workers, along with family and neighbors, rallied in Bath, Maine against a move by Bath Iron Works to outsource 24 custodial jobs.

In what is believed to be the largest single strike by registered nurses ever in the United States, some 9,000 University of California RNs have called a one day strike Thursday, July 21 at several of the state’s best known medical institutions. The two principal issues at stake in this action by the California Nurses Association are threats to pensions and patient-nurse staffing levels.

The two largest Minnesota state employee unions MAPE and AFSCME, and representatives of several other unions held a rally in the Capitol rotunda Wednesday, the sixth day of the partial state government shutdown involving over 9000 workers. Union members held signs saying: "We're All Critical," "We Want to Work," and "Shutdown = Failure."

We Could Use Some Help
This week’s column is being posted with a new computer–a Dell lap top. For the first time at KC Labor we have two computers capable of updating the site.

This became a crucial necessity because of recent problems we have had with our ABS desk top. These include a loss of sound–which has delayed our editing and posting of talks recorded at the Future Of American Labor conference–as well as occasional bouts of as yet undiagnosed frequent power shut downs.

The addition of the new lap top also means we can now post to the site while on the road. There are some important events coming up this summer that we would like to be able to cover, such as the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago in late July, the UE national convention, also in Chicago, in August, and the Jobs With Justice conference in St Louis in September.

But there’s a down side. The new lap top and software cost us 1500 dollars. More money will be required to get the desk top back in working order. And the trips mentioned would take at least a couple of grand for gas money and hotel accommodations.

That may not sound like a lot. But, please keep in mind:

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That’s all for this week.