Labor's Gotta Play Hardball to Win!

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The Internationalist
  November 2016

Victory to the SEPTA Strike!
Mobilize All Of Philly Labor To Win!

TWU Local 234 rallied on October 28 in preparation for strike. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

At one minute past midnight on November 1, almost 5,000 Philadelphia transit workers, members of  TWU (Transport Workers Union) Local 234 walked out. The strike comes on the heels of months of “negotiations” between the union and management, if you can call it that. The transit bosses have been stonewalling, even after the strike started, demanding increased healthcare and pension contributions by workers (up to $400 dollars per month for family coverage!), refusing to remove the pension benefit cap, increasing workplace surveillance and disregarding worker safety.

The importance of this vital issue was underlined by the death of New York City transit worker Louis Gray in NYC while setting up warning lights for a construction zone on November 2.

Over 1.1 million people rely on the SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) system to get to work daily. In the second-largest city on the Eastern seaboard, this strike has the potential to be very effective – if all Philly transit workers go on strike. In 2014 when SEPTA regional rail workers, represented by International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 (IBEW) and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division 71 (BLET), struck, TWU Local 234 president Willie Brown ordered his membership to remain on the job, undermining the strike. As we wrote at the time:

“SEPTA workers have enormous power in their hands, but they are stymied by a leadership that divides the workers and looks to the bosses’ government rather than the power of workers solidarity. To overcome this, Philly mass transit workers should elect a joint strike committee and prepare for industrial-strength action against SEPTA and the federal straightjacket. This would be a giant step toward uniting into one powerful industrial union.”
–“SEPTA Workers: Strike Together to Win!The Internationalist No. 37, May0June 2014

Now the tables have turned, and the leaders of IBEW Local 98 and BLET Division 71 are stabbing TWU Local 234 in the back. It isn’t the first time. In 1998, when TWU Local 234 struck for 40 days, union bureaucrats representing regional rail workers ordered their members to stay on the job. These games union bureaucrats play only hurt the membership, who are fighting to defend their standard of living. And a defeat of one union by the bosses today paves the way for the defeat of another union tomorrow!

Shutting down regional rail is no minor issue. The historic NYC transit strike of 2005 succeeded in paralyzing the center of global finance, causing millions of dollars in lost revenues for business during the holiday season. It sent billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg into a frenzy, the media denounced strikers as “rats” and demanded that TWU Local 100 leaders be jailed. But the commuter trains (LIRR, Metro North, PATH) kept running. The Internationalist Group distributed leaflets calling to “Strike to Shut Down All New York City Transport!” We wrote:  

“Metro North and LIRR should be picketed out. Taxi drivers’ organizations should urge their members to stay home. Wall Street bigwigs who want to head to Midtown, ‘and step on it,’ should get the answer, in the many languages spoken by the heavily immigrant drivers, ‘Fuggedaboutit!’”
–“Hang Tough, Spread the Strike! Bust the Union-Busters!” reprinted in The Internationalist No. 23, April-May 2006

Metro North unions said they would walk off if strikers’ pickets showed up, but they never did. Instead of fighting for the labor solidarity needed to win the strike, TWU Local 100 president Roger Toussaint (who was subsequently jailed) called off the strike after three days.

SEPTA strike supporters picketing. Bring out all of Philly labor to win! (6ABC)

Philadelphia is a key focus of the upcoming elections. Democrats hope to roll up a big majority in the city to swamp conservative Republicans in rural Pennsylvania. Democratic leaders worry that the strike could affect Hillary Clinton’s chance of getting elected president should the strike extend to next Tuesday (election day). Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell has been calling insistently on the state legislature to “consider” making transportation strikes illegal. His complaint: “this will hold down the turnout in Philadelphia and the Philadelphia area. I guess that would be good for Donald  Trump.”

The capitalist class, through its executive committee (the government), has already taken action against TWU strikers, with a court injunction filed on the first day of the strike in response to strikers picketing on the tracks of regional rail yards. This rank-and-file militancy is precisely what the sellout leadership wants to dampen with their appeals to Democrats in high places and calls for ‘independent’ mediators.

Posing as “friends of labor” during election campaigns, Democrats naturally implement the anti-labor program of the bourgeoisie once in office. Democratic chief Rendell played a key role as Philly district attorney in framing Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther who sat for three decades on death row and who is still imprisoned despite his innocence. Black Democratic mayor Wilson Goode ordered the police bombing of the MOVE commune on Mothers Day 1985. Democratic mayors the country over preside over the unending racist police murder of black and Latino people, and Democratic president Obama has deported over 5 million immigrants.Yet the union leadership wants the rank-and-file to put its faith in the good graces of “concerned elected leaders,” as Local 234 president Brown said in a November 3 statement.

What is needed is a class-struggle union leadership ready and able to take the steps necessary to actually win strikes and prepare workers for the coming battles. That means recognizing a court injunction for what it is – a piece of paper which can be shredded by mobilizing labor’s power backed by African American, Latino, immigrant and white working people. To do so, it’s necessary to bring out all of Philly labor, because an injury to one is an injury to all! A win for SEPTA workers would bring confidence to other sections of the working class who take their cue from the country’s powerful transport workers unions.

But to revitalize the labor movement we must oust the sellout union bureaucrats, who seek to bind the workers hand-and-foot to the Democratic Party of racism and war. Rather than being beholden to the party of Rendell, Clinton and Obama, TWU Local 234 should follow the example of Painters and Drywall Finishers (IUPAT Local 10) in Portland, Oregon, which voted in August to reject the Democratic and Republican parties or “any party of the bosses’” and called on labor to “break from the Democratic Party, and build a class-struggle workers party.” ■