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Workers Vanguard No. 1033

1 November 2013

Bosses Kill Own Scabs

BART Strike Ends with Blood on Tracks

The second Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) strike in the last four months ended late October 21 with the leaders of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1555 announcing that they had a deal with management. Their 2,400 members were told to take down their picket lines and return to work without even knowing the terms of the agreement, much less getting to vote on it. For her part, BART general manager Grace Crunican announced that “this offer is more than we wanted to pay.” Indeed, the aim of the BART bosses was to force the unions into total submission to their “last, best, final offer,” if not to bust them entirely.

They didn’t succeed. But no credit is due to the misleaders of the BART unions, who went far more than half way down the road to meet management’s demands for concessions. The very first day of the four-day strike, a joint statement by the ATU and SEIU tops offered to get the trains back up and running, noting their “100 percent” agreement with the bosses’ demands that union members start shelling out pension contributions from their wages and up their health care payments more than a third. They further offered to submit management’s demands for unilateral authority over crucial workplace rules on scheduling, discipline and other issues to binding arbitration, i.e., to the agents of the capitalist state. The BART bosses weren’t budging. They wanted the unions to crawl back under management’s terms. But in the end they were foiled by their own vicious arrogance and literally deadly stupidity.

It all blew up in the early afternoon of the second day of the strike when two of management’s own scabs working on the tracks were run over and killed by a BART train operated by scab trainees. It was practice for operating a skeletal strikebreaking service. Initially, the transit bosses simply lied through their teeth. Denying that this was a practice run, they said the train was simply being moved to another yard to have graffiti cleaned off and that it was being run automatically, not for training. These lies were exposed by an investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board who reported that the train was carrying six BART employees “for training and maintenance purposes.” Two of them shared time in the driver’s seat, backed by an “experienced trainer,” while the train was being run automatically, traveling at 60 to 70 miles per hour.

Before the strike, it was widely acknowledged that the BART bosses had plans to set up such a strikebreaking operation between Oakland and San Francisco. But this operation went down with the severed bodies of the two scabs killed on the tracks. Their lies exposed, the BART bosses settled for an agreement that wasn’t the total rout they were aiming for. While hardly a victory for the workers, they did not go back with their tails between their legs to be subjected to the untrammeled dictates of management. Nor do many workers think they will get much better under their current union misleaders. What is vital now is for union militants to draw the lessons from this strike to prepare for future battles.

The Partnership of Capital and Labor Is a Lie!

Writing about the 1936 West Coast Maritime strike, American Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon observed:

“A good deal is said about strike ‘strategy’—and that has its uses within certain clearly defined limits—but when you get down to cases this strike, like every other strike, is simply a bullheaded struggle between two forces whose interests are in constant and irreconcilable conflict. The partnership of capital and labor is a lie. The immediate issue in every case is decided by the relative strength of the opposing forces at the moment. The only strike strategy worth a tinker’s dam is the strategy that begins with this conception.”

—“The Maritime Strike,” 28 November 1936 from Notebook of an Agitator (1958)

No such conception guided the strategy of the BART union leaders. On the contrary, they peddle the myth of a “BART family,” the workers and the bosses all in it together to make the system work. The class line is so foreign to the bureaucrats that they organized to mourn the death of the BART track engineer and contractor who were killed doing scab duty for management.

Pointing to the $100 million in cuts to wages, benefits and working conditions that they dealt away in 2009 to bail management out of a supposed budget shortfall, the BART union leaders this time argued that it was only fair for the workers to be rewarded for their sacrifice. But it doesn’t work that way. This system is based on production for profit, and even though it is supposedly a “public service” BART works on the same principle. Increasing their profits means driving down the cost of labor. Under capitalism, this is a constant and ongoing war, in “good times” as well as bad. The only thing that alters that calculus is class struggle, i.e., when workers withdraw their labor and cut off the flow of profits, mobilizing their allies behind them.

The BART bosses came into negotiations prepared for war. A notorious union-buster, Thomas Hock of Veolia Transportation, was brought in at the price of some $400,000 to head the negotiations. Hock and Veolia have a vicious anti-union record stretching from Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Arizona to Boston and further across the globe. As an ATU leader in Arizona—where bus drivers waged a six-day strike against Veolia in Tempe and Phoenix—put it: “If Hock can bust a union, he will.” But instead of preparing the ranks for battle, as the clock ran down on the contract expiration at the end of June, the leaders of ATU Local 1555 went looking for allies in the camp of the capitalist class enemy, appealing to California’s Democratic Party governor Jerry Brown to impose a 60-day “cooling off” period.

Four days into the first strike at the beginning of July, Brown pressed the union tops to call off the strike. They happily obliged, ordering their members back to work. Returning to the negotiating table, SEIU leader Roxanne Sanchez warned that if management didn’t agree to a deal “we will be prepared for the bloodiest, longest strike since the 1970s.”

The massive labor battles in the Bay Area at that time are indeed instructive in demonstrating both the power of labor and the treachery of the trade-union bureaucrats. In San Francisco in 1974, a strike that began with SEIU city workers spread to hospitals and closed the city sewage treatment plant. At the height of these strike actions, workers in San Francisco’s MUNI system, AC Transit and BART shut down all public transit within and to the city. Two years later in 1976, MUNI workers again halted the buses for over a month in solidarity with a strike by city craft workers. The determination and militancy of the workers from the city unions and MUNI to longshore was such that the Central Labor Council voted to prepare for a general strike.

But the union bureaucrats folded under pressure from the SF Democratic Party administration of “progressive” mayor George Moscone, preferring defeat to unleashing the unions in an all-out battle against the city’s rulers. They were “rewarded” when Moscone unleashed a barrage of anti-union propositions. Today, Democratic Party politicians who were heavily bankrolled by the unions are leading the charge for legislation outlawing transit strikes. Here again is the bitter fruit of the bureaucrats’ prostration before the Democrats, promoting a party that no less than the Republicans represents the bosses’ interests.

On the other side of the coin, the 1974-76 strikes showed the power of labor that lies in its solidarity, collective organization and above all the ability to shut down production, transportation and other operations. For all Sanchez’s bluster, such a fighting unity of the workers was not to be seen during the BART strike. Far from it. Throughout the strike, the ATU and SEIU maintained separate picket lines rather than mobilizing their forces together in mass pickets to hit the bosses where it would hurt.

They had ready allies in the 1,500 overwhelmingly black East Bay bus drivers and mechanics at AC Transit, who have twice now overwhelmingly voted down sellout deals made by their union leadership. Had BART workers picketed AC Transit bus barns, this could have brought these workers out, shutting down another key lifeline in the Bay Area’s integrated transit system. That would have meant defying the bosses’ laws. There would be no unions at all in this country if workers hadn’t waged pitched battles against the bosses and their government, cops and courts. In contrast to this history, in the midst of the BART strike the AC Transit union tops in ATU Local 192 readily bowed before the imposition of a 60-day cooling off period. The AC Transit workers now face going it alone.

As we wrote after the BART union leaders called off the July strike: “The unions are elementary defense organizations of the working class against unbridled exploitation. The purpose of union leadership should be to lead their ranks in struggle. Instead, the union bureaucrats act like labor-management consultants keeping labor ‘peace’ while begging for a few crumbs” (“Union Tops Call Off BART Strike,” WV No. 1027, 12 July). Why? Because the purpose of trade-union officials, so aptly described by early American socialist leader Daniel De Leon as the “labor lieutenants of capital,” is to ensure the subordination of the workers’ interests to the interests of their exploiters. Indeed, even the notion that there is a working class in this country has been deep-sixed by the bureaucrats, who present the unions as defending the “middle class.”

The beginning of wisdom for those looking for a road forward for the working class is the understanding, as Cannon put it, that the “partnership of capital and labor is a lie.” If labor is to win some battles for a change, it must fight them out class against class, independent from and in opposition to the bosses, the government and all of the political parties of the class enemy.

The Road of the Class Struggle

During the BART strike, there certainly was no lack of raw class hatred whipped up by the bourgeois media. Alongside the well-heeled professionals employed in San Francisco’s financial district, the filthy rich high-tech moguls in Silicon Valley let loose with a union-hating barrage and barely concealed racist contempt for the highly integrated BART unions. One of these self-perceived “masters of the universe” declared: “Get ’em back to work, pay them whatever they want, and then figure out how to automate their jobs so this doesn’t happen again.” Given the outcome of BART management’s efforts to get an automated scab system going, we can only recommend the bosses of cyberspace be the first to take a ride on a totally automated BART train.

The BART bosses are a danger not just to the safety of the workers but also to the lives of the 400,000 people who ride these trains daily. To get something of an idea, consider the mangled bodies of the more than 90 people who were killed when a train being run by an untrained scab motorman ran off the tracks during a 1918 transit strike in New York City. In the decades since, the city’s transit bosses have never again tried to run such a scab operation.

Operating the BART trains is highly complex and requires a great deal of skill. There are no train conductors, so the drivers are on their own. For decades, under a BART company policy called “simple approval,” track workers have been made to do repairs while trains continued to run at full speed without being told when a train was approaching. The declared purpose was to force the workers to remain vigilant! Five years ago, BART worker James Strickland was killed on the tracks when struck from behind by a train that had been single-tracked without his knowing. According to an SEIU 1021 statement, over the past ten years BART management has authorized spending “more than $300,000 to fight state safety regulators.” Now under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, the BART bosses have announced that they are temporarily shelving “simple approval.”

When the lives of the BART track engineer and contractor were cut down, the unions were well-positioned to win allies from the riding public in the fight for safety and to put paid to the bosses’ campaign against them as “greedy” workers bilking the public purse. Instead, ATU Local 1555 pulled down its picket lines, and both unions held vigils mourning the deaths of people who at management’s behest had crossed their picket lines. As a retired longshoreman commented when she went to the picket lines to support the strike, there was no such vigil by the unions for Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old black father who was executed by BART police on New Year’s Day 2009. On the contrary, the BART cops—whose job policing the trains is not only to target black and other minority youth but also to act as the private strikebreaking force for the bosses—are welcomed as “union brothers.” A deadly danger to the unions, such an embrace of these cops can only alienate black and immigrant working people and the poor from seeing any stake in the unions’ fight.

At one time, the gains made by the unions in their struggles were seen as setting a standard for wages and living conditions for other workers. Now, as one Bay Area union official commented during the BART strike, “The situation definitely raises issues of how unions are being perceived by the public. To many we are just another special-interest group” (SF Chronicle, 19 October). This stage was set in 1981 when Republican president Ronald Reagan crushed the PATCO air traffic controllers union (which had given him electoral support), ushering in a war against the unions under the battle cry of protecting the public against overpaid workers living high on the hog at others’ expense. The aim was to further the most vicious exploitation of the workers who were to be “happy” to get any job at any wage, while slashing social programs for the growing masses of unemployed, particularly the ghetto poor.

The trade-union misleaders who have all but turned their backs on the unorganized workers, the poor, the jobless, black people and immigrants are themselves culpable in making the unions appear as little more than bastions of privilege that are only out for themselves. Moreover, in doing so little to fight even in their own defense, the unions are far from providing inspiration for others to struggle.

If the unions are to wage the battles necessary for their own defense and the defense of all the oppressed, there must be a political struggle to get rid of the sellouts sitting on top of the unions who strangle the workers’ fighting spirit. What is needed is a leadership that will arm the workers with the understanding of both their social power and their historic interests to free all of humanity from the exploitation and all-sided misery inherent to a system based on production for profit. Such a leadership will be forged in the crucible of future class battles and will be integral to the fight to build a revolutionary workers party whose aim is no less than to do away with the entire system of capitalist wage slavery through socialist revolution.

As Cannon wrote in “Who Can Save the Unions?”, which was reprinted in our last issue and sold to BART workers on the picket lines:

“Let the labor unions put aside their illusions; let them face the issue squarely and fight it out on the basis of the class struggle. Instead of seeking peace when there is no peace, and ‘understanding’ with those who do not want to understand, let them declare war on the whole capitalist regime. That is the only way to save the unions and to make them grow in the face of adversity and become powerful war engines for the destruction of capitalism and reorganization of society on the foundation of working class control in industry and government.”


Workers Vanguard No. 1033

WV 1033

1 November 2013


Labor Must Fight for Immigrant Rights!

Immigration “Reform”: Ramping Up Border Crackdown, Guest Worker Servitude


As Legal Attacks Mount

Film Honors Heroic Abortion Providers


Bosses Kill Own Scabs

BART Strike Ends with Blood on Tracks


Stop Prosecution of ATU Militant!


From the Archives of Marxism

The Proletarian Revolution in Russia

By Louis Fraina


After Union Uses Some Muscle

Baltimore ILA Tops Bow to Arbitrator, End Strike


Boston Job Action: No Reprisals Against School Bus Drivers!


Quebec Rail Disaster

Lac-Mégantic Industrial Murder


John Bellamy Foster & Co.: “Ecosocialism” Against Marxism

Part Two