Workers Vanguard No. 906
18 January 2008
Union Tops Push Giveback Contract
Democrats Put Chicago Transit Workers on the Chopping Block
Dump Binding Arbitration!
We reprint below a Spartacist leaflet issued on January 7 in Chicago. The Illinois state government may be on the verge of approving long-term funding for Chicago mass transit that would avert the immediate threat of mass layoffs and service cuts. This funding would seal the rotten arbitration contract rammed through last summer.
CHICAGO—2,400 Chicago transit workers (almost a quarter of the entire workforce) face the new year with the threat of a January 20 mass layoff hanging over their heads. And Chicago’s working population faces cuts of over half the city’s bus routes, hitting poor, black and Latino neighborhoods especially hard. For over a year, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) heads, hand-picked by the Democratic mayor Richard M. Daley, have been threatening increasingly onerous “Doomsday” scenarios if they don’t get more funding from the Democratic-controlled Illinois state government. Even if the funding comes through, the company has made clear that it is looking to slash union jobs through privatization and attrition. If they get away with these attacks, the city’s bosses will be emboldened in their attacks on other city unions.
A union job with the CTA has long been viewed as a “job for life” with decent wages, benefits and a good pension. The threatened “Doomsday” cuts and other attacks on this heavily black workforce come amid all-sided attacks on workers, black people and immigrants in “Segregation City.” In recent years the bulk of the city’s public housing projects have been razed to the ground. In the past year the Cook County health system has been crippled with hundreds of layoffs and the closure of 12 out of 26 public health clinics. And the racist killer cops have been running rampant, gunning down black youth in particular (see “Chicago Cops Keep on Killing—PDC Speaker: Mobilize Labor! Protest Racist Cop Terror!”, Workers Vanguard No. 897, 31 August 2007). The transit system itself is rotting and dysfunctional. Even aside from the current budget gap, the CTA estimates it would take another $6 billion to bring the rail and bus system into the 21st century.
The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) locals 241 (bus) and 308 (rail) are singularly positioned to stop the “Doomsday” cuts, with the social power to turn the Loop into a parking lot. A real labor fight against the layoffs and service cuts would find natural allies in the city’s multiracial working population as a whole as well as the impoverished black and Latino masses who have a vital need for free, quality mass transit. But this potential power is continually kept in check by the ATU trade union tops’ prostration before the Democrats and their embrace of binding arbitration. This flows from their pro-capitalist program and the lie that workers share common interests with the bosses. Break with the Democrats! For a workers party!
Last June, the ATU tops, in cahoots with the CTA brass, the Daley administration and Democratic governor Rod Blagojevich, agreed to a sellout contract. That contract, the rotten fruit of arbitration, is still dependent on the state providing more transit funding. The 5-year deal, unprecedented in length, jacks up the employee share of contributions for pension and retiree health care, canceling raises planned for the first two years of the contract. This deal robs transit workers of around $30 million a year in order to help bail out the pension fund and to finance their own retirement health care plan.
To cram this rotten pact down the membership’s throats, the union bureaucrats agreed to run it through “expedited” binding arbitration, preventing a union vote and writing off in advance any possibility to strike. Under Illinois law, it is voluntary for the transit unions to enter into arbitration! This makes the third contract in a row that the ATU 241 tops have turned to arbitration. Binding arbitration has long been a crucial weapon in the union-busting arsenal of the bosses, designed to stop strikes from happening and to gut the very purpose of unions. Binding arbitration takes a decision on the contract out of the hands of the workers and into the hands of supposedly “neutral” arbitrators who are in fact stacked against the union.
The bureaucrats’ embrace of this class collaboration, which ties labor to the exploiters, goes hand in hand with their longstanding allegiance to the capitalist Democratic Party. Since the summer, the ATU misleaders have put everything into lobbying efforts in Springfield, and nothing into any real fight against the company’s “Doomsday” threats, much less a better contract. In fact, if the CTA gets every penny the union tops are lobbying for, the transit workers will still be getting the same rotten arbitration deal.
In early December, the union tops called for a “job action” for Monday, December 17. Instead of mobilizing the union ranks in united action, they called for a voluntary one-day “sick out.” This would have made it much easier for the company to victimize individual workers. Nevertheless, transit workers took the sick out seriously as a way to finally protest the dire threat to their livelihoods, perceiving it to be some kind of action against the bosses’ attacks. Workers reported to WV salesmen how there had been lively discussions at work locations, and by phone between locations, to be sure support for the sick out was solid.
But the union bureaucracy called it off on December 14, making it clear that it was never a real threat but one more stunt to pressure the bourgeois politicians. “This is an action we never wanted to take in the first place,” said ATU 308 president Rick Harris. “We were trying to be heard by the state legislators that we needed help.” The same day a letter from the ATU International was mass distributed to workers at company expense, ordering the local union presidents to “cease and desist” any talk of a “job action.” The letter also threatened the union locals with trusteeship or expulsion if they did not back down. The company has since threatened to seek a court injunction to block walkouts in the future.
To questions from workers as to what was gained by the threatened sick out, union leaders reportedly explained that the arbitration deal, which was set to expire at the end of the year, had been extended to January 20, the day of the mass layoffs! So while the workers face getting thrown in the streets, the union tops are just looking to preserve their arbitration deal.
In trying to excuse their inaction, ATU officials have reportedly pointed to the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 strike in New York City in December 2005 as proof that illegal strikes don’t work. In fact, transit workers crippled the center of finance capitalism by walking off the job in defiance of the state Taylor Law’s ban on public workers strikes. But with strikers up against both the transit bosses and the courts and cops of the capitalist state, the TWU International stabbed them in the back, telling workers “to report to work” during the strike, while the city labor tops refused to support it. And just as the strikers were feeling their power, the Local 100 leaders demobilized the strike and sent workers back without a contract (“NYC Transit Strike: Union Power vs. Class Collaboration,” WV No. 861, 6 January 2006).
The current attacks on the ATU are the fruit of years of reliance on the Democratic Party politicians, black and white. While the Republicans openly spit in the face of workers, black people and the mass of immigrants, the Democrats posture as “friends” of labor and minorities while carrying out the very same attacks against working people and the poor. Whether it is run by Democrats or Republicans the capitalist state is an instrument for the subjugation of the working class to the interests of the capitalists. Boss Daley has not been shy in his praise of the ATU tops, commenting that it “took a lot of courage” to accept the concessions. No, what it took was union misleaders willing to offer up the interests of their members to the mercies of the capitalist state helping make Chicago the “city that works” for Boss Daley’s racist Democratic Party machine.
Another example is the Democrat Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, whose 1983 election was seen by most black people in Chicago as a chance to get some of their share of housing, jobs and schools through Democratic Party patronage. But Washington quickly used his influence to help pass the notorious Illinois legislature House Bill 1805, which massively looted the transit pension fund, outlawed the cost-of-living allowance (COLA) and imposed the hated part-time system. While the late Washington is often held in iconic status, especially for many black people in racist Chicago, the reality is that when Washington tried to justify his anti-union attacks to transit workers at a union meeting in January 1984, he was hooted off the stage by angry black bus drivers and forced to flee out the back door!
We in the Spartacist League and Labor Black Struggle League seek to win workers to a revolutionary program that is based on the understanding that the power of the working class can and must be used to fight for all of the oppressed as part of the fight for a socialist revolution. Those who labor must rule! As the speaker for the LBSL, who is also a Chicago transit worker, explained at the Annual Holiday Appeal for Class War Prisoners held in Chicago on December 9: “The present situation in transit is the bitter fruit of years of the union strategy of supporting the capitalist Democrats and supporting arbitration instead of organizing the workers independently from the bosses and their parties. Labor must break from the Democrats! No to the policy of surrender that is arbitration. We need a workers party to fight to defend black rights, to defend immigrants and all the oppressed.”