Dear Dems: Stop scapegoating and look at yourselves.

It wasn’t hard to figure out. Back in November 2014 I correctly predicted that Bernie Sanders would run for the Democratic Presidential nomination, lose to preordained candidate Hillary Clinton and then endorse her for the November 2016 general election (if you don’t believe me, you can check it on Facebook). My feeling then was that Bernie knew he really didn’t have a chance, but would run as a “sheepdog” candidate to keep disaffected lefty Democrats in the party’s fold, and guarantee their votes for Clinton.

But then a funny thing happened. Bernie’s popularity as a left alternative exceeded, I believe even his, expectations. Suddenly, the corporate Democrats had a problem. How could they minimize the positive reaction to Bernie’s left-of-center message, and still pretend to value democracy? The Demestablishment’s answer was to demonize anyone who wanted someone better than a corporate-beholden warmonger committed to the status quo. You want Medicare for all? Free higher education? Reduced military expenditures? Democrats are NOT socialists, we were harshly reminded – accept reality, forget about “pie in the sky;” at least we’re not as bad as Republicans.

Although at that point in time I didn’t think there was a chance in hell that the lying clown would actually be elected – he was, you know, endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan – I began to realize that there would be hell to pay for anyone daring to publicly support Jill Stein or any other candidate to the left of corporate America’s (second?) favorite candidate if she lost.

Well the rest, as they say, is history. We may never find out what really happened – voter repression, Russian meddling, the ridiculous Electoral College system, and other shenanigans all played their parts – to project the lying clown into the White House. But rather than admitting their candidate’s weaknesses, and rather than addressing their party’s failures, the call went out blaming those of us who refused to toe the “liberal” Democratic Party line, hold our noses and vote “blue” for the corporate shill. After all, scapegoating works. Sad to say, over two years after their Election Day debacle, Democrats are still blaming those of us who dared want something better than the status quo.

Democrats need to face the truth. Their record as a governing party is far from stellar. Their acceptance of neoliberal dogma, and the subsequent actions of Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama, did not help the majority of people in this country. Poverty and economic inequality have increased under both Republican and Democratic administrations and congresses. The US has continued its economic imperialism and policies of intimidation and terror in Latin America, Africa and southwest Asia no matter who occupied the White House.

Face it, Demapologists – Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate. She was unable, even with all the election irregularities noted and not noted above, to decisively defeat an unstable, corrupt, disgusting, dishonest, openly bigoted clown with zero political experience. If Democrats are looking for a culprit, they need to look within; it was their own hubris that lost them that election. And unless they make some changes, that is, unless they become a real alternative to the Republicans, and not just on social issues, they’re likely to lose the next one too. Democrats right now need to get ahead on issues important to working-class Americans – livable wages and fair taxes, publicly funded healthcare and higher education for all Americans. Congressional Democrats need to get these bills rolling and ready for enactment, if they get the chance, in 2021. It’s still not hard to figure out.

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Why wait ‘til the 11th hour?

About a month ago, we were crossing the border back into Vermont from Quebec at about 11:00 am, on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended “the war to end all wars.” Although the actual armistice occurred about six hours earlier, minus one hundred years, the timing of that moment was not lost on me. It wasn’t coincidental that the “Great War” ended on the 11th hour (Eurotime) of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918 – the supreme commanders of the warring countries agreed to bring the homicidal killing, which had already gone on for over four years, to an end at precisely that time several weeks earlier. And everyone knew it.

What gets me, as ghastly and insane for working people as the whole war was, was that soldiers continued to kill and die up to almost the exact second of the ceasefire. Regardless of how brainwashed they all were with patriotism or some other ruling class creation, why did they act counter to their instinct for self-preservation and plain common sense once they realized the capitalist jig was up? Why didn’t they all just quit once they knew that the war’s end was scribbled on the calendar? That, despite the previous four years of murderous lunacy, would have had made sense.

The past two years, since November 2016, seem like a nightmare I am unable to wake from. A lying clown, a wanna-be dictator, leads the most blatantly corrupt US administration of all time. He and his cronies are wrecking public education, shredding our socioeconomic safety net and destroying the environment, bringing us ever closer to catastrophe. They have raised disbelief among many Americans regarding real news and genuine information, and emboldened hateful neo-Nazis to violence. The “president” is thumbing his nose at our judicial system as he waves pardons as incentive to his lackeys for breaking the law. The Constitution means nothing to these people as they plot with foreign oligarchs and domestic plutocrats to privatize all our resources, and work to negate the very principles of democracy in order to attain an even larger share of our national – meaning yours and mine – wealth and security.

Meanwhile, most of us go about our daily lives as if nothing unusual is happening. Our cooperation in going to our jobs and attending to our other civic and societal responsibilities, while waiting for the magic pill of our electoral system to bring this mess to an end, is tacit approval of the crimes being committed against us.

It is abundantly clear that the Republican Party has no intention of allowing American democracy move it from its agenda of making our country great for billionaires and their corporations, whatever the cost to working people and their families. The pre-election voter repression of red-state administrations and the actions of election-losing lame duck Republicans in Michigan and Wisconsin confirm, as The Atlantic’s conservative editor David Frum noted in his 2018 book Trumpocracy, “If conservatives become convinced that they can not win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.” It is obvious to all but the most uninformed, naive or Pollyannaish among us that we are in deep shit.

As some wise being once noted, history may not always repeat, but it often rhymes. Soldiers along the Western Front in 1914 briefly forced a temporary truce during the Christmas holiday, and it was only a crackdown, including the separation of the troops who forged the truce, by generals on both sides that prevented peace from prematurely breaking out again. Despite troop mutinies in the French, Austrian, Russian and other armies, the nationalist establishments of the countries were able only with utmost effort to keep the war running to its awful and exhausted November 1918 conclusion. Had a critical number of soldiers in the various armies simply refused to cooperate at a given time, the blood bath really could have lived up to its billing as the last one.

With democracy endangered, it is our actions that may be our last resource to end the nightmare. It certainly won’t be easy to convince the requisite number of workers that noncooperation is our best chance to bring an end to this regime destroying our country and endangering our world. Certainly, any organized attempt to circumvent the nefarious objectives of the Trumpers and their lackeys would prompt a terrible backlash. But with few options available, it makes sense to try, the sooner the better. Like the chance those World War I soldiers had, in late October-early November 1918 as the clock ticked toward 11, the lives we might save could be our own.

Canada takes care of its own

The letter published here Nov. 15 disparaging Canadian health care (“Opinion: Canada’s ‘innovative’ health care”) was disingenuous to the point of being propaganda for the U.S. insurance industry.

The only Canadians seeking health care in the states are those seeking non-essential, elective procedures and able to pay for special services. Canadians in need of immediate care receive it promptly and do not worry about being unable to afford it. The criticism leveled over waiting times makes me wonder if the writer has ever been to an American emergency room.

I have no idea how the writer figured out what Canadians pay for health care, since every reputable source I’ve checked shows them paying thousands less per capita than Americans. In fact, we Americans pay more for our health care than anyone on the planet, and, sadly, our results often compare unfavorably with those of other economically advanced countries.

There is not a Canadian I know, and my wife and I have never met one on our frequent trips across the border, who would trade their publicly financed health care for ours. They know, as do people in Europe, Japan, Australia and other economically developed countries, that a comprehensive, single-payer universal health care system cannot be beat.

  • Letter to the Editor, The Burlington Free Press. November 23, 2017.

The CCTA Bus Drivers’ Strike of 2014: A Community United Is Hard to Beat Part 2

Strike

     The strike kicked off in the dark at CCTA’s headquarters and garage on Burlington’s Industrial Road, but before 7:00 am drivers and a crowd of approximately 150 supporters, about half of them Burlington High School (BHS) students, congregated at the system’s main transfer station downtown. Burlington resident Andy Simon explained why he was there – “I’m a bus rider, I’m a climate activist, and I know that we have to have a public transportation system that works. To have it work, it has to work for the drivers as well as management.” Picketers chanted, waved signs and handed out more leaflets to bystanders and passersby in the bitter, even by Vermont standards, cold (Baird 2014b). Despite the conditions, supporters even sang, reworking the old children’s song “The Wheels on the Bus” to “The drivers make the bus go round and round … (Baird 2014b; Leavitt 2014a).” Driver Rob Slingerland, acting as a spokesman for those on the picket line told the press “We’re headstrong, dead-set on being out here as long as we have to be out here;” citing the obvious, Slingerland added “Temperatures aren’t going to stop us,” and vowed the walkout would last “as long as it takes.” Although CCTA General Manager Watterson dismissed the gathering downtown, remarking that a “more productive emphasis would be a return to negotiations,” perhaps the most enduring image of that morning would be provided by the high school students. Fortified with free coffee supplied by Uncommon Grounds, a popular Church Street coffee shop, they left the demonstration en masse, and carrying picket signs, formed a long line that snaked its way up North Avenue to Monday morning classes at BHS (Baird 2014b; Leavitt 2014a).

Students of Burlington’s public and parochial schools constitute over one-quarter, estimated at 2,400 daily, of CCTA’s ridership (Baird 2014b.). Students at BHS, especially, played a crucial role supporting the drivers during the strike. A petition signed by over 500 BHS students was presented to Burlington’s City Council by a group of 12 teenagers the evening of March 10, one week before the strike. The petition, citing “the safety of students and the public,” disparaged CCTA management as “irresponsible,” and accused them of “provok[ing] a drivers’ strike that would make it difficult or impossible for many students to get to school (Leavitt 2014a).” Senior Henry Prine, noting that that the petition with the signatures of over one-half of BHS’ students was signed in just a single school day, remarked that they could have gotten the other half if they had had another few hours (Smith).

Prine, whose father Paul Fleckenstein chaired many of the solidarity committee’s meetings, served as student representative on the Burlington School Board for the 2013-14 school year. During the buildup to the strike, Burlington Superintendent of Schools Jeanne Collins recommended that the district contract with Mountain Transit, a private bus company to provide one week of student transportation. Prine spoke against the proposal and gained the support of all but one board member in voting it down. Although the cost to the district of engaging Mountain Transit, estimated to be roughly four times more than the district paid for CCTA service, was probably a factor in turning the Superintendent’s recommendation down, the district’s website reported that it did not wish “to step into the labor management issues of CCTA (Baird 2014c; Leavitt 2014a).” According to Prine, “Many members … voted this way because they wanted to show support to our local city bus drivers and not … hire scab drivers (Leavitt 2014a).”

Drivers maintained picket lines at both the CCTA garage on Industrial Avenue, and downtown at the intersection of Church and Cherry Streets, in the heart of Burlington’s main shopping district. The weather remained cold that week with high temperatures remaining mostly in the 20s (Weather Underground 2014). To keep up spirits on the picket lines, a late afternoon rally was scheduled for Wednesday, March 19. A small, impromptu brass band arrived to warm the atmosphere on the overcast day, and at least two local pizzerias, Junior’s and Mister Mike’s, as well as an anonymous benefactor, donated pizzas to the gathering. Drivers were joined by dozens of supporters, including schoolteachers, high school and college students, nurses, professors, a number of United Electrical Workers Young Activists, as well as former drivers and other community members, while representatives of various unions and other organizations pledged support. That Friday evening, March 21, a potluck dinner was held for drivers, their families and allies at the Vermont Workers Center. Although the dinner was open to the public, drivers and friends refused to make any statements to the press since a new round of mediated negotiations were scheduled for the next day. Ashley Smith, of the solidarity committee, told reporter Joel Baird that “the drivers’ union … made it clear they hoped to avoid any media portrayals that might be construed as antagonistic (Baird 2014a).”

After a week on picket lines, drivers’ hopes, anticipating a settlement, were high. Their union officials had responded to management’s request for a new contract proposal, and the drivers had shown that they were serious about their demands (Murray 2014g). The mood on Saturday’s downtown picket line was optimistic; temperatures rose into the upper 30s, kettle corn was given away by a street vendor along with free coffee from Uncommon Grounds, and strikers were joined by concerned citizens, members of other unions and even afternoon shoppers. As the crowd grew, so did expectations that a favorable settlement would be reached that day. Unfortunately, after seven hours of negotiations – following three hours waiting for management to show up – talks had once again failed to resolve the issues between the two sides (Grace and McQuade 2014).

According to General Manager Bill Watterson, “the union ultimately rejected CCTA’s proposed compromise and walked out … while the CCTA team was still actively engaged with the federal mediators at 8:20 pm.” A news release from CCTA reported the main issues to be compensation, cameras on buses, part-time drivers and split shifts, and that the union demands “continue to be out of line with CCTA’s obligation to operate safe, affordable and reliable public transportation.” Teamster official Tony St. Hilaire rebutted the company’s claims, stating that only two issues separated the two sides – length of (split) shifts, and the use of video cameras to discipline drivers. St. Hilaire explained “The message was made clear to the company that the acceptance of any contract offer … would be dependent on [CCTA’s] acceptance of the union’s proposal; … the discipline article [was] a very important issue for the membership (Murray 2014g).”

The anger aimed at CCTA’s video surveillance policy derived from the company’s use of the cameras to confirm anonymous complaints and justify firing drivers. Drivers argued that using video to corroborate unidentified complainants’ assertions violated their right to face their accuser. Watterson disagreed, saying that management could not disregard a complaint due to anonymity “because there might be validity.” Citing what he called “video’s enhancements to safety, fairness and accountability,” and CCTA’s “obligation” to protect the public, Watterson referred to the contract’s grievance language that “protect[s] drivers in those situations.” Drivers, however, no doubt recalling the company’s resistance to the grievance process, insisted that the sentence “Anonymous complaints against drivers must not trigger disciplinary reviews that rely on video footage” be included in the new contract (Baird 2014d).”

The absence of bus service at the end of a long cold winter certainly caused hardship for many Burlington residents and other Vermonters. While those owning cars dealt with increased traffic congestion and longer commute times, many others, especially people with lower incomes, had to find alternate modes of transportation to get to work or appointments. While some drivers and supporters created carpools and drove regular riders to their destination, local print media consistently focused on hardships faced by people dependent on public transit (Fouts; Smith). The Burlington Free Press, Vermont’s largest daily paper, seemed to require that every article on the strike report that 9,700 daily riders and 2,400 schoolchildren were not being served by bus drivers during the strike, and regularly provided accounts of riders distressed by the strike. Burlington’s weekly newspaper, Seven Days, took a similar approach, focusing on hardships faced by the residents and students most affected by the strike. One such rider was Paula Mongeon, a disabled Winooski resident who had broken her ankle that January. Burlington Free Press reporter Elizabeth Murray interviewed Mongeon, who, due to the strike, was having difficulty making it to her twice-weekly physical therapy visits and her twice-monthly primary care appointments; Mongeon was reported being “frantic” in her efforts to find rides. Later in the article, Murray acknowledged that Mongeon, although missing two appointments due to the strike, had “taken part in some rallies supporting the striking drivers (Murray 2014e).” While neither paper took a blatantly anti-union position during the strike, drivers and others criticized both for functioning as mouthpieces for CCTA management, accusing them of publishing company press releases verbatim without fact-checking or further investigation (Smith).

Burlington’s political establishment became a significant obstacle to the drivers achieving the contract they wanted. Although a number of elected officials, especially members of Vermont’s Progressive Party were publicly supporting the union, Democrats, one Progressive and the lone Republican on Burlington’s City Council called for a special meeting to adopt a resolution of binding arbitration (Murray 2014f). While the first scheduled meeting was canceled due to the council being unable to meet the public warning requirements, the special meeting was held Wednesday evening, March 26 in Contois Auditorium, Burlington City Hall. Since eight of the fourteen councilors had co-sponsored the resolution, approving it seemed to be all but a done deal. But, the drivers and the community solidarity group were ready. As the tenth day of the strike was winding down, allies from other unions and the community joined drivers at Cherry and Church. The throng, now totaling about 150, carrying signs and chanting “Get up, get down, Burlington’s a union town!” and “We are the union, the mighty, mighty union!” marched down Church Street and up the stairs into City Hall (Leavitt 2014c).

Binding arbitration, to most casual observers, probably seems to be a fair resolution for most labor-management conflicts. Drivers, however, had made it abundantly clear that they did not find such a conclusion acceptable. Prior to the strike, Rob Slingerland, spoke for the drivers – “Management and their lawyer don’t have to live under the terms of their proposed contract. We do. Agreeing to binding arbitration does not move us closer to having safer working conditions, safer conditions for passengers and other drivers, or livable jobs. Those are our core demands and what is necessary to reach a settlement (Leavitt 2014c; Murray 2014b).”

As the drivers and supporters filed into the City Council meeting that evening to speak against binding arbitration, Council President Joan Shannon, a Democrat, notified those in attendance that the public commentary session, traditionally held at the beginning of council meetings, would be postponed due to an executive session. Funneling back through the doors and into the lobby, obviously perturbed by the Council’s clumsy delaying tactic, the crowd started rhythmically clapping and chanting “Whose house? Our house!” and “What do we want? Fair contract! When do we want it? Now!” Organizers hurriedly sought speakers, bus drivers and those representing other unions/organizations, to address the crowd, and the group quieted enough to hear what each had to say, but then resuming their chanting and clapping during each change of speaker. After about 45 minutes, the drivers’ contingent was allowed back into the auditorium where they took over the speaker’s list and recounted their objections to CCTA’s contract proposals and the reasons why they were on strike. By the time they had finished, two of the resolution’s eight sponsors, Karen Paul and Tom Ayers, backed away from the document. Councilor Paul then introduced a successful amendment to “remove the resolution from the agenda,” adding, “I’ve learned a great deal tonight.” Although Mayor Weinberger and some other councilors continued to argue in favor of the resolution, the focus had shifted from binding arbitration to a discussion of whether to sanction CCTA management by the end of the meeting. Ade Fajobi, a driver from Nigeria, told reporters “This is the movement of the people. The voice of everybody changed the votes of City Council (Leavitt 2014c; Smith).”

Having beaten down with numbers and voices the city council’s attempt to impose binding arbitration, the solidarity committee planned a noontime rally and demonstration for the following Saturday, March 29. With another negotiations session scheduled for that Friday, there was hope that a settlement could be reached, and that this could be a victory rally. After 17 hours, however, word came that the talks had broken down; in the words of driver James Fouts, “They basically tossed the same pile of dung back in our faces.” However, aware that the council meeting had been a turning point, over 200 supporters had flocked to the steps outside City Hall, and then participated in the well-planned march up and then down Church Street. A number of speakers addressed the multitude at various stops along the route (Davis 2014c). Amy Lester, a Vermont-NEA member from Barre, about 40 miles from Burlington, expressed both the solidarity created by the fusion of labor and community, and the group’s commitment to see the strike through to the finish, telling those assembled “By using your right to strike, you’re creating a stronger movement of workers. Your strength is our strength. … We have your back, keep fighting and don’t give up (Leavitt 2014c).”

Despite the encouragement and solidarity demonstrated by the greater Burlington community, two weeks on strike was taking a toll. Picket duty in bitter cold, a time lag between the beginning of the strike and the distribution of the strike fund payouts, and the prevalence of negative publicity regarding the union’s aims and drivers’ motives had some drivers questioning their decision to strike. A few drivers had even broken down in tears while on the line. But the organization crafted by the drivers with the assistance of the solidarity committee responded quickly and effectively; the squad arrangement created before the strike allowed quick communication both with other drivers and with St. Hilaire. Drivers having difficulty were whisked off the line by colleagues and brought to a quiet place inside Burlington’s University Mall or to a coffee shop to warm up, refresh, use the facilities, or just talk; volunteers filled in on the line when necessary.

Cohesion and camaraderie were vital during the strike, so squad leaders met with communication liaison Rob Slingerland, shop stewards and negotiators nearly every night. Drivers were kept updated with current information delivered in consistent language. Since all members were kept on the same page, the system worked both ways – proposals and options were communicated to Slingerland by negotiators; he relayed the information to squad leaders, and they to their squad. Members then gave thumbs up or down, squad leaders sent their results to Slingerland, who tabulated the totals, and passed the results on to those at the bargaining table (Ibrahim). Although perhaps a bit unwieldy and time consuming, the high degree of direct communication and union democracy helped maintain the strikers’ solidarity and morale when the situation appeared bleak.

Perhaps the situation seemed bleakest on Monday, March 31 when Tom Buckley, CCTA Board Chair announced that the Board had authorized its staff “to secure temporary drivers until the negotiation is resolved.” This decision, endorsed by a 12-1 margin, was arrived at in executive session earlier that day; ironically, just previous to that meeting, a public hearing was held in which about 45 people spoke, most in support of the drivers (Brown 2014). Although it was not clear how soon replacement drivers might be deployed, Buckley said the authorization was “designed to try to get transit service on the street as quickly as possible.” While Buckley declared that he could not “predict” how the bus drivers would react, he characterized the resolution as “the Board trying to take responsibility for making sure that it’s examined all of our options for restoring service (Murray 2014a).”

While CCTA’s announcement caused some consternation for the drivers, it was too late to affect the successful execution of the strike. On Wednesday, April 2 negotiators from both sides met with Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles, Jeb Spaulding of the Administration Agency, and Phil Fiermonte, outreach director for Senator Bernie Sanders (Davis 2014a). The day prior, even before drivers had a chance to formally respond to Buckley’s pronouncement regarding the possible hiring of scabs, Shumlin had encouraged drivers and management to reach a settlement, citing “the most vulnerable Vermonters, who can’t get to work [and] kids who can’t get to doctors…” and concluded “we’ve got to get this thing resolved (Dobbs 2014).” With the tide turned in favor of the drivers, it was time for Vermont’s political establishment to weigh in and bring the strike to a conclusion. Statements of support for a settlement were coming in from around the state. While Sanders referred to “the very difficult time for bus commuters in Chittenden County,” Shumlin stated that “Vermonters have lost their patience and … it [the strike] needs to be resolved now (Davis 2014a; Murray 2014d.)” But, as a result of that Wednesday meeting, the governor also said that he “heard the drivers’ frustration over working conditions and management relations,” and said he was “committed to helping in any way I can to help forge a better environment for workers going forward (Davis 2014a).”

With negotiations resuming that evening, drivers’ negotiator Nate Bergeron reported being “optimistic” heading into the meeting. “Progress did come out of it,” he said; “The governor’s been brought up to speed [on the issues]. He’s trying to see if a resolution can be worked out.” By this time, the discipline and anonymous complaint issues had been tentatively resolved, and the union had indicated that they would move regarding the use of part-timers. The “sticking point” was still the length of the drivers’ split-shift workdays (Murray 2014d). At about 3:00 am, Thursday April 3, however, CCTA management surrendered their demand for a 13.5-hour workday and accepted a cap at 12.5 hours. In return, the drivers had conceded to the company license to hire up to 15 part-time drivers, “a pill” that St. Hilaire called “hard to swallow,” because the drivers “believe in full-time jobs with benefits.” Bergeron, however, stated the drivers were “happy with it — we do what the majority wants — and I’m satisfied with it too. We achieved our goal on the spread.” Later that day both sides overwhelmingly ratified the agreement; the strike that united the community was done (Davis 2014a).

Results

     Drivers and supporters celebrated their new contract with a late afternoon rally on Church Street April 3, and were back to work on Friday, April 4. Although not everyone in the community supported the strike, feelings of joy and relief were widespread as the buses began rolling again – automobile drivers honked their horns and bus riders high-fived or fist bumped drivers upon boarding. As a gesture of goodwill, CCTA canceled fares until April 13 (Walsh 2014). Drivers were in high spirits, if some a bit bleary-eyed, knowing that their efforts and unity had succeeded in keeping their workdays at 12.5 hours and in tightening their contract to restrict predatory managerial practices.

Five months after the strike ended, driver Jim Fouts reported a “completely different atmosphere” on the buses and at the CCTA offices. Fouts pointed to the now open doors of CCTA offices as symbolic of a more relaxed environment surrounding CCTA operations with less surveillance and fewer punitive actions by management. Although Fouts noted recalcitrance exhibited by some board members, he believes that overall labor-management relations are “good and going forward.” Statistics regarding company discipline agree with Fouts’ assessment.

Whereas before the strike CCTA management averaged three disciplinary actions filed against drivers weekly, there was zero filed during the first seven weeks following the strike (Fleckenstein 2014). Rob Slingerland concurred with Fouts, testifying that the new environment is evidence that the company wants to move forward. Slingerland cites as evidence the inclusion of drivers in company operations, including the hiring of a new General Manager. Bill Watterson has resigned from CCTA, effective September 15, 2014 (Murray 2014c). Although it is doubtful anyone really enjoyed being on strike for 18 days during an exceptionally cold late Vermont winter, most drivers confirm that, if conditions were the same, they’d do it again (Fouts; Ibrahim; Slingerland).

One of the most important results produced by the strike was the creation of Vermont Labor Solidarity (VLS), a collection of activists evolving from the “We Support the CCTA Drivers” group. VLS meets regularly to discuss the local labor situation and coordinate efforts to assist workers and unions. The group currently numbers 199 members (Vermont Labor Solidarity 2014). VLS has already engaged in a contract struggle for Burlington mental health workers, and is currently supporting striking FairPoint communications workers, and UVM professors campaigning for a fair contract . Existing plans include sponsoring a Labor Notes’ “Troublemakers’ School” this fall to raise awareness and expectations for rank and file, and helping unionized nurses negotiate a new contract in 2015 (Smith).

Lessons

     The Vermont bus drivers’ strike of 2014 set a new standard for labor contract organizing in the “Green Mountain State.” Labor activists hoping to emulate the success of CCTA’s drivers can certainly take a few winning principles from the drivers’ successful campaign. First, the drivers formed a rock-solid united contingent during the buildup and throughout the strike. Although this unity – which twice produced unanimous rejections of management’s contract proposals – certainly was not a given at the time of the first solidarity meetings, it was carefully crafted through a combination of internal democracy and personal contact.

The growth of driver unity and democracy was a long-term development starting with the advent of the Sunday “Breakfast Club” in 2009 (Fouts). According to Mike Walker, he started looking around at the people who were interested in making … a better place to work.” Those were the drivers who began networking, researching, learning and discussing the transformation of their union into “a rank and file-led organization with real power in the workplace (Fleckenstein).” The formation of the “Breakfast Club” helped to establish the drivers’ consensus regarding community safety and workplace dignity embraced by much of the public. The drivers’ commitment to democratic principles remained evident during the strike buildup and throughout the work stoppage. Members were kept abreast of strike and negotiations developments almost as they happened, and weighed in on all union decisions. Unlike in many unions where a kind of “democracy by consent” pays lip service to real democratic decision-making, the CCTA drivers know their opinions matter (Fouts; Walsh 2013: 19). In the words of driver Noor Ibrahim, “It was members who pushed the leaders” to the strike’s successful conclusion.

While internal democracy was vital for building and maintaining unity, it was the nearly constant interpersonal communication between drivers of various levels of responsibility – rank and file, squad leaders, communications liaison Slingerland, stewards and negotiators, and IBT business agent St. Hilaire – that was indispensable (Fleckenstein). While Fouts points to antagonistic managerial policies during the buildup as doing “much of our organizing for us,” he credits the “always open” and “active lines of communication” within the union for keeping the drivers together. Fouts’ analysis of the importance of communication in keeping people together during the buildup and strike echoes the words of AFSCME organizer Kris Rondeau regarding her work at Harvard during the late 1980s – “the union must have a relationship with every single person in the workplace (Oppenheim 1991: 47).” Ibrahim was more specific in his analysis of communication’s importance; he stated that the continuous consultation among drivers “stressed the common purpose” they shared with the community. He believes that the near-constant transmission of information among union members was essential in keeping “everyone on the same page” among a swirling barrage of misinformation, rumors and propaganda. Of course, sustaining this communications network during the heat of the strike did not occur by accident. Slingerland explained, “One issue we worked on is communication. We found it to be the most challenging thing … [it] is all about the one on one (Fleckenstein).”

Although business agent Tony Hilaire played an important role for the drivers during the strike, tangible assistance from IBT Local 597 was scant and slow to arrive. Unlike the scenarios described by Teresa Sharpe, union staff did not make room or even encourage member engagement; in fact, it seemed to Mike Walker during the buildup that “The union [bureaucracy] was fighting us as well. They just want us to sit there and get a contract signed (Fleckenstein; Sharpe 2004].” The disconnect between what drivers wanted and 597’s leadership’s motives led to the “Breakfast Club’s” formation in the first place, and union officers had been hostile to the drivers’ movement towards democracy and activism, as mentioned previously, for years. The local attempted for weeks to demobilize the drivers, prevent a strike and force a concessionary contract on them. But the drivers were able to organize, with the help of the solidarity group, independently. It was only after numerous overwhelming rejections of management’s proposals, and waiting for union staffers to return from vacations during the week leading up to the strike, that they eventually succeeded in getting state Teamster officials to authorize their walkout (Fleckenstein). In the presence of such a strong and united front, and unlike his predecessor in 2011, St. Hilaire effectively worked with the drivers and respected their democratically produced decisions (Fouts).

In the process of transforming their union, drivers came to realize that some of the accepted practices of modern-day service unionism worked against their interests. Although gag orders regarding labor negotiations are common if not practically de rigueur today, agreeing to one made it more difficult for them to build public support. The agreement to remain silent cost the drivers valuable time, when they could have begun getting their message out to the public, a delay that made it easier for the company to ply the community with misinformation and propaganda (Smith). The union had to work constantly to dispel the myth that the strike was about pay and benefits, consciously and consistently staying on message that it was “not about the money (Fouts).” Although the threat of replacement drivers did not appear until late in the strike, the gag order would have made it difficult to prepare for “scabs” if the company planned to employ them from the beginning (Smith).

Another common union practice to fall by the wayside during the strike was any reliance on politicians. From the beginning of the buildup and throughout the strike, appealing to Burlington’s political establishment was never a priority for the drivers (Fleckenstein). The city’s Democrat-controlled council took a variety of approaches to dealing with the strike, from ignoring it and pleading neutrality the first week, to its resolution for binding arbitration the second. Although drivers’ testimony at that March 26 meeting “shamed” some councilors and changed some minds, Mayor Weinberger then clandestinely tried to pressure CCTA management to offer a fair contract if drivers agreed to end their strike first. The drivers rejected this grandstanding attempt to end their strike short of having a satisfactory contract in place (Fleckenstein; Smith).

Although Burlington, like most of Vermont, has a reputation for liberalism and progressive politics, the neoliberal dynamic of cutting labor costs and weakening workers’ power is evident there as it is elsewhere (Fleckenstein; Grace and McQuade). Service and infrastructure workers, like bus drivers are being targeted by employers who seek to reduce costs by employing part-time workers, and weakening or destroying their unions; unlike manufacturing jobs, transportation services cannot be moved to other locations, (Fantasia and Voss 122-24). Was CCTA Chairman Spencer’s statement about “business as usual” a not-so-thinly veiled reference to an attempt to squeeze drivers in order to “deliver desired outcomes”? After all, labor costs are often the only expense management can attempt to control, and this strategy has been used elsewhere, among teachers and other public sector workers in recent years (Aronowicz 2011; Bradbury et al. 2014: 96-99). Unions represent a deterrent to businesses seeking a compliant, low-wage workforce; the drivers’ union could be a strong obstacle to the committee’s somewhat grandiose plans. Such a scenario happened before in Vermont – in 2002, management at the Montpelier-based GMTA tried to impose an open shop on its drivers by attempting to bargain outside the union (Vermont Labor Relations Board 2004). The resulting strike led eventually to union decertification (Grace and McQuade). In order to make Burlington a better place for business, it would be important to neutralize labor’s capacity to resist austerity (Fleckenstein; Grace). In any case, Mayor Weinberger and the Burlington City Council did little to advance the drivers’ cause (Fleckenstein).

A number of elected officials were in the drivers’ corner from the outset, but it was the strike itself – especially the unity displayed between strikers and the community – that drew more prominent politicians, including Governor Shumlin and Senator Sanders. While the support from them and others did seem to help bring the strike to its successful conclusion, it is plain that it surfaced only with the drivers’ demonstration, with broad community backing, of their capacity to sustain a strike shutting down public bus transportation in Vermont’s largest city and county – according to Jim Fouts, “Bernie waited to see which way the wind was blowing” before stepping in (Fleckenstein; Fouts).

Another important lesson is the importance of coalition building, with other unionized workers, students and the community in general. Drivers knew from the beginning that a strike would be virtually unwinnable without the public behind them; according to Fouts, “We needed the community on our side to win.” To garner that support, drivers continually stressed that their strike was about safety, human rights and dignity. They reached out and maintained “active lines of communications” with the community; drivers, individually and in pairs addressed students, other unions, religious and community organizations (Fouts). The drivers’ struggle, during its course, became as much about livable jobs, the rights of new immigrants, and predatory management across the state and country as it was about CCTA drivers’ issues. Slingerland recounted, “You have all these different unions and groups, but the fight is the same … [when] it starts affecting one group … it affects all of us.” Tristin Adie, a unionized nurse, reflected “Drivers spoke to what is in the heart of every working person: We can’t take it anymore. We don’t deserve to take it anymore. Their issues are our issues (Fleckenstein).”

Perhaps the greatest takeaway from the Vermont bus drivers’ strike of 2014 is the realization that if you strike, you can succeed. Unfortunately, the forty-year neoliberal assault and imposition of austerity measures on American workers has diminished their expectations and dulled their resolve to fight back; in the words of UVM English professor Nancy Welch, “Austerity has … taken a grim toll on our consciousness, our expectations. Austerity attempts to roll back any belief that we can defend ourselves (Fleckenstein).” As a result, concessionary contracts have become the norm, while union officials too often have sought to maintain “labor peace,” and their jobs, at the expense of members’ wellbeing. In this era of labor’s retreat, workers’ fear of losing even more, and falling even deeper in the “race to the bottom” has become a major obstacle to fighting back (Cohen and Hurd 1998). Rob Slingerland admitted that before the buildup and strike, “… fear kept me from doing what I needed to do.”

The CCTA drivers, in striking and winning, have proven that workers, with enough resolve and proper preparation can succeed. In order to do so, the drivers’ union had to go back to organized labor’s roots, and build both workplace solidarity and sturdy connections to the community; they had to organize and execute a successful 18-day strike (Smith). With much help from the solidarity committee and the community, the drivers worked to ensure that everyone was “willing to go all the way for the contract they wanted (Slingerland).” They had to overcome brutal winter cold, an unsympathetic media and an unfriendly political establishment. Most of all, they had to overcome their own fear. But feeling “pushed to the wall,” and realizing that they could not win if they did not fight, these drivers found the courage to resist and, according to Welch, strike “a blow against diminished expectations (Fleckenstein; Slingerland).” It took an epic, heroic struggle, but once the decision was made, when the drivers became “brave enough to fight” and felt the solidarity of others with them, they learned that they could refuse to quit, and refuse to be defeated. Together, they learned that they could win.

 

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The CCTA Bus Drivers’ Strike of 2014: A Community United Is Hard to Beat Part 1

Once you get past the ‘fear factor,’ when people get brave enough to stand up and fight, and feel the solidarity of others … , you can’t lose.                                                                                                                                                                               – Rob Slingerland, CCTA bus driver

At 6:00 am, Monday March 17, 2014, with thermometers frozen by record-breaking below-zero (Fahrenheit) cold, unionized bus drivers employed by the Chittenden County Transit Authority (CCTA) and about a dozen supporters began picketing the company’s Burlington, Vermont headquarters and garage. The strike, begun in that day’s predawn darkness after the drivers’ unanimous 54-0 rejection of management’s last proposal, would be remarkable for its high level of community support, despite the obvious inconvenience it caused for the region’s 9,700 daily riders (CCTA 2014a). This support grew stronger as the 18-day walkout progressed and helped propel the drivers to an unquestioned victory despite CCTA’s resistance, an unsympathetic media, and bipartisan hostility towards the union from much of Burlington’s political establishment (Smith 2014). The social justice unionism strategy the drivers used, worked out in conjunction with an ad hoc community solidarity group resonated with workers, the unemployed, students, immigrants and other residents of greater Chittenden County (Disclosure: I was a member of the solidarity group supporting the drivers, and was present at many of the events described herein.). The combination of striking workers and community backing engendered a robust contract campaign that won its key objectives and provides a model for future labor struggles.

The CCTA drivers, members of Teamsters’ (International Brotherhood of Teamsters, or IBT) Local 597, had been working without a contract for nearly nine months since their previous agreement expired July 1, 2013. Whereas most strikes are concerned with “bread and butter” issues such as wages and benefits, the Vermont drivers’ concerns were “unsafe conditions, surveillance and discipline, and part-time [workers] status;” as driver Rob Slingerland affirmed, the strike was about achieving “a fair contract that treats drivers with respect, avoids increasing driver fatigue and creates livable jobs (Leavitt 2014a).” Despite company press releases, often repeated verbatim by the media that compensation was a major issue separating the two sides, drivers’ maintained that their strike was about “safety, dignity, respect” – for the community as much as for themselves (Donoghue 2014; Fouts 2014; Freeman 2014). Since many working-class Vermonters identified with the drivers’ demands, and since many bus passengers held their regular drivers in high regard, the message that the drivers’ fight was the community’s fight held great appeal (Smith). It would be this empathy that would propel the drivers’ strategy in building a winning public campaign.

Background

The Chittenden County Transportation Authority was chartered by Vermont’s legislature in 1973 as a municipal corporation. It was established to maintain public transportation, formerly provided by Burlington Rapid Transit, a private company that had gone out of business. Its mission statement declares that “CCTA is to operate safe, convenient, accessible, innovative and sustainable public transportation services in the Chittenden County region that reduce congestion and pollution, encourage transit oriented development and enhance the quality of life for all.”

CCTA was initially authorized to serve four Vermont municipalities, Burlington, South Burlington, Winooski and Essex. Each municipality was allowed two representatives on the CCTA Board of Commissioners. The board was commissioned to assess fees on each member community based on the number of revenue miles operated within that municipality. At the time, CCTA had a mileage formula that dissuaded changes to service in its route, and thus, “inadvertently” discouraged any other municipalities from joining the system (CCTA 2010; 8).

In 2007, the mileage formula was discontinued after a two-year review and analysis of the system, and replaced by an alternative means of assessment determination. The new system allows greater flexibility for service and removes barriers for new members to join. As a result, Milton, Williston, Hinesburg and Shelburne have all joined CCTA. By 2011, CCTA had absorbed the Green Mountain Transit Agency (GMTA) and become a single entity. Today, CCTA operates routes through Franklin, Grand Isle, Lamoille and Washington counties as GMTA; furthermore, CCTA operates LINK Express commuter bus routes to St. Albans, Jeffersonville, Montpelier and Middlebury, all outside Chittenden County. Today, CCTA is the only transit authority in Vermont (CCTA 2010a: 8; CCTA 2014a).

Funding for CCTA is provided by a number of sources. In 2010, federal monies accounted for about 30 percent of total operations funding, and the state of Vermont about 17 percent. Passenger fares and advertising comprised approximately 23 percent, and assessment totals from member communities paid nearly another quarter of the total. The remainder came from Medicaid passes, employers and institutions enrolled in CCTA’s Unlimited Access Program and the purchase of service along ongoing routes by municipalities and private organizations, including GMTA management (CCTA 2010a).

CCTA employs approximately 70 drivers, including part-timers. All drivers are members of IBT local 597, headquartered in South Barre, regardless of employment status. Almost all full-time drivers work split shifts, beginning their workdays early in the morning, having mid-days free (and unpaid), and returning to their buses for the evening and nighttime runs. There are approximately 25 mechanics working in the CCTA garage who are also Teamsters. Both drivers and mechanics were organized by IBT shortly after the company began service. Although both groups were in the same bargaining unit as recently as 2011, they are now separate (Slingerland 2014). There appears to be no evidence of uncommon hostility, conflict or drama between management and labor before 2010; at any rate, the 2014 strike was the sole work stoppage in CCTA’s 40-plus year history.

Dress Rehearsal: 2010-11

The CCTA Board of Directors’ Strategy Committee released a vision statement in its September 2010 Transit Development Plan (TDP) proclaiming that the “Authority will play a major and important role in Northwest Vermont’s transportation system and will carry an increasing number of passengers … [providing] the region with economic development, environmental benefits and a cost effective means of transportation (CCTA 2010c: 2).” The expansion outlined in the TDP brought CCTA routes to their current configuration, but the proposed development is not yet complete (CCTA 2010b: 1-25). Among the planned projects is the construction of a new Downtown Transfer Center (DTC), featuring “indoor, climate-controlled waiting areas; enhanced customer information and signage, including real-time bus arrival and departure information; comfortable seating; restrooms; and perhaps concessions” to replace the current, spartan transfer station on the downtown corner of Cherry and Church Streets in Burlington (CCTA 2010b: 18). In addition to the DTC, where nearly one-quarter of CCTA’s weekday boardings occur, the TDP also announced the committee’s intent to construct a transportation center in Burlington’s South End, and at least five “satellite stations” with large, lighted shelters, bike racks and real-time passenger information boards. There are also plans to expand and replace bus stop shelters and benches, enlarge and update its storage and maintenance facilities on Burlington’s Industrial Avenue, and “develop its facility to accommodate additional staff as necessary to support growth in operational departments.” The TDP explained that the update and expansion plan was necessary to “meet the needs of current riders [and] make a huge difference in the public perception of CCTA [making] the system more attractive to choice riders (CCTA 2010b: 18-19).”

The Strategy Committee recognized that its plan for more routes, increased service and new facilities would be limited by its ability to fund them – “this document proposes an ambitious vision for transit in the region, and that implementation is dependent on the availability of federal, state, and local funding (CCTA 2010b: 1).” Funding had been an issue for CCTA since at least 2002. The committee recognized this fact by explaining that CCTA expansion had “been limited by the available funding and there is general consensus within the community that the amount of service offered today is not meeting the transportation needs of the community.” The report states “perhaps the most severe constraint on system growth has been the inability of member municipalities to substantially increase their contributions toward CCTA operations” to match federal funding, lamenting that property taxes, the municipalities’ “primary source of funding,” was facing “severe limits on how much can be collected and tremendous demands for its use (CCTA 2010c: 5).” In the committee’s Executive Summary of the TDP, CCTA Board Chairman Chapin Spencer explicitly reported, “Business as usual will not allow public transportation to deliver desired outcomes. Only with policy changes and increased support will public transportation help achieve the region’s mobility and sustainability goals.” Release of the TDP coincided both with the implementation of a newly aggressive, hostile managerial approach to labor relations, and the advent of a democratic, more assertive mindset demonstrated by the drivers (Walsh 2013: 18-19).

In 2009, a group of CCTA drivers, including Chuck Norris-Brown, Michael Walker, Scott Ranney and James Fouts, began meeting for Sunday breakfasts in local establishments. These mornings were the only time that they and most drivers were free to meet and discuss their jobs, their contract and their dissatisfaction with the way they were being “serviced” by local Teamster officials. Drivers believed they were not being heard, nor supported by local Teamster Principal Officer Ron Rabideau. They were frustrated by their exclusion, even their elected negotiations team members, from the closed-door bargaining sessions being conducted between Vermont IBT officials and CCTA management (Slingerland 2014). These drivers, soon to be known as the “Breakfast Club,” came together much in the same way as activists in other non-manufacturing unions were organizing themselves, “working from within the very union structures that had long sustained business unionism … [building] a new labor movement within the shell of the old (Fantasia and Voss 2004: 126-28).” The “Breakfast Club” reached out to Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a reform faction within the IBT, and in April 2010, drivers Chuck–Norris Brown and Scott Ranney, attended the Labor Notes Conference held in Dearborn, Michigan. In November 2010, when IBT officials presented a tentative agreement (TA) to CCTA rank-and-file, the drivers, fortified by their preparation and unity, rejected the deal by a margin of 36 to 1. The proposed agreement confirmed the Breakfast Club’s fears – although there was little argument over the TA’s proposed pay and benefits, their critical issues regarding work schedules and part-time drivers were ignored (Walsh 2011a and b; Walsh 2013: 17-19).

The Breakfast Club, with assistance from the TDU and some local labor activists, developed an independent, democratic contract campaign outside the IBT aegis. The drivers organized a potluck community speak-out, participated in a Wisconsin labor solidarity march and rally on Burlington’s Church Street, a pedestrian-friendly shopping concourse, conducted informational picketing and spoke on a panel with other local labor leaders at a Martin Luther King, Jr. labor forum. They drew community support by emphasizing that their refusal to accept management’s demands for split-second schedules and increased mid-shift split times would cause unsafe operating conditions, and CCTA’s increased employment of part-time drivers would have deleterious effects for other workers in the community. Although they received little help from Vermont’s Teamster officialdom, drivers forged a coalition with students, workers and other community members, who united around the Facebook page “We Support the CCTA Drivers.” The five-month campaign lasted through the winter and included open rancor with IBT officials; the drivers refused a second TA, 52-6, which Rabideau asked members to ratify despite the text of their copies being too small to read. The union, finally with rank-and-file members at the table, reached an acceptable settlement on the evening of April 14, 2011, within four hours of a strike deadline (Walsh 2011a and b; Walsh 2013: 17-19).

Negotiations, Impasse and Buildup

The agreement settled between CCTA drivers and management remained in effect until July 1, 2013 (Fouts 2014). In preparation for the next set of negotiations, the union and company established ground rules for the bargaining period; among these was an agreement by both sides to maintain a “gag order” of silence regarding negotiations (CCTA 2014b; Fouts 2014; Slingerland 2014). Five bargaining sessions were held that May and June where union negotiators put 80 items forward, while CCTA management identified four goals and ten items. With little headway being made, Cynthia Jeffries, of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FCMS), interceded in five more negotiations sessions attempting to reach agreement. On August 29, 2013, Teamsters’ Business Agent Tony St. Hilaire declared impasse on behalf of the drivers. Both parties then agreed to hire Michael C. Ryan of Freeport, Maine, an experienced mediator, arbitrator and faculty member of the American Arbitration Association to conduct a fact-finding investigation and propose a non-binding arbitration settlement (CCTA 2014b).

Ryan’s report was completed January 7, 2014. It supported management’s proposal on three important issues. The first was increasing driver’s maximum “spread time” from 12.5 to 13.5 hours per day (Ryan 2014: 77-78). “Spread time” refers to unpaid time between the hours within one day (24 hours) when the driver is not working; since buses are most used during “rush-time” commuting hours (6-9:00 am/4-7:00 pm), most drivers are not driving during the midday span. Thus, most drivers begin work during the early morning, log out and spend up to six hours away from work, and then return to their buses for their evening runs. For instance, a driver might begin at 6:50 am, drive until 9:00, clock out until 2:20 pm and then work until 7:20 in the evening (Leavitt 2014a; Slingerland 2014). Furthermore, the contract had language that could extend their days, with forced overtime to 15 hours if directed by management. Since most drivers commute to Burlington, from less-expensive-to-live-in communities outside Chittenden County, and often use the time for chores they are unable to complete after their day is done, there is little opportunity for them to rest between their two, split, shifts (Fouts 2014; Slingerland 2014). Aware that studies indicate driver fatigue as a cause of traffic/transit accidents, drivers opposed any extension of their already long days on safety grounds, for themselves as well as for their passengers and the community (CARRS-Q 2011; CDC 2014; Fouts; Ibrahim; Manila Consulting Group 2012; Slingerland). Slingerland cited the “long work days, split shifts and forced overtime” as dangerous during a late February speakout at the Cherry Street terminal; he went on to say the drivers want “maximum work days, real breaks and better schedules.” University of Vermont history professor and president of the faculty union Denise Youngblood commented, “These sound like workplace issues from 1914, not 2014 (Leavitt 2014b).”

Secondly, Ryan’s report upheld management’s desire to increase part-time drivers’ hours to 25 per week (Ryan 2014: 78). This demand for increased part-time hours is part of a growing trend – 85 percent of transit authorities have pressured their drivers to accept part-time “conditions (Leavitt 2014b).” Slingerland, speaking for the drivers, rebuffed management’s proposal: “We are living in a world with more and more part-time jobs. People can’t make ends meet with part-time labor.” Expressing the view that a part-time Vermont doesn’t work, Slingerland declared “The [part-time] drivers can’t live under the terms of management’s last proposal (Leavitt 2014a; Galloway 2014; Slingerland; Smith).”

Ryan’s third conclusion, regarding “Discipline,” was perhaps the hardest for most drivers to accept. After the near strike in April 2011, disciplinary language in the contract was changed to reflect drivers’ concerns regarding punitive actions by management (Fouts; Slingerland). That November, the CCTA Board hired Tim Bradshaw as its Director of Operations. In February 2012, Bradshaw and the Board hired Bill Watterson to be the new General Manager. Watterson had previously held the same position with Charlottesville (Virginia) Area Transit (CAT) (Murray 2014c). Drivers report that management assumed a new, aggressively hostile, prejudicial disciplinary policy with Bradshaw and Watterson’s arrival – “their way or the highway.” Buses were followed by managers in cars, drivers were written up for the tiniest (or imagined) infractions of rules, security cameras on buses were used to observe and scrutinize driver’s behaviors, and drivers were fired without the video footage being shown to them or their union stewards. The reign of terror went on virtually unabated while union-filed grievances were delayed, ignored or obfuscated by management. The situation became so severe that drivers were often afraid to take bathroom breaks for fear of being late on their runs, and some even reported urinating in their trousers. For his part, regarding drivers’ complaints, Director Bradshaw allegedly stated, “All I care about is keeping the buses running on time (Fouts; Ibrahim; Slingerland).”

According to drivers, the partiality in applying discipline was quite obvious and particularly galling. Retaliatory firings were used against drivers who complained, while favoritism toward drivers who kept their mouths shut divided the garage. Driver Mike Walker, a shop steward and a member of the negotiations team was fired three times on trumped up charges regarding union activity; then, proving he had broken no rules, was reinstated each time. Firings were also used to maintain “a climate of fear.” Walker stated that he witnessed “a 30-year employee get let out the door because she got ill, it took longer for her to heal than it was supposed to, and CCTA just said ‘see you later (Leavitt 2014a).’” Noor Ibrahim, a Somali refugee via Kenya, recounting an episode reminiscent of immigrants’ experiences from over 100 years ago, charged that he was discriminated against for being a Muslim (Ellis 1973). He was prohibited from taking a day off for religious purposes; later, while his wife was undergoing a difficult and anxious pregnancy, he was told he had to work on a day he had previously been scheduled to be off in order to bring his wife, who did not drive, to her doctor’s appointment (Ibrahim; Slingerland).

With Factfinder Ryan’s report agreeing with them on key sticking points, CCTA management offered an agreement based on his recommendations. The drivers’ team expressed no interest in Ryan’s suggestions, but instead, on January 29, proposed CCTA’s best offer to the drivers for a decision. On February 9, they turned down the offer by a vote of 53 to 4. More negotiations were held February 21-22, without success. On Sunday, February 23 the Teamsters Local 597’s business agent declared Monday, March 10 to be the effective date for a driver’s “work action,” which was understood to be a strike (CCTA 2014b).

Another bargaining session was held on Saturday, March 8 extending into early Sunday morning. Wages, work rules, and “management by means other than the labor contract” were discussed. Tentative agreements were reached on seven out of the 11 articles in dispute; major differences remained on spread time and the use of part-timers. Although the two sides remained divided, these negotiations delayed the upcoming strike for another week as union negotiators agreed to bring management’s latest best offer back to members for another ratification vote (CCTA 2014b). That Sunday afternoon, March 9, inside the Vermont Workers’ Center (VWC) in Burlington’s “Old North End,” activist drivers, union negotiators and St. Hilaire met with members of the “We Support the CCTA Drivers” solidarity group to continue preparations for a strike. Although the drivers would vote on management’s final best offer in a few days, it had become obvious that there was little chance of approval. The strike date was being set for Monday, March 17.

The community solidarity group had first met with a group of drivers at VWC on Super Bowl Sunday, February 2. The meeting was scheduled after driver Mike Walker, about ten days earlier, disclosed the drivers’ situation at a local labor event. Since both sides had agreed to the negotiations “gag order,” there was little community awareness regarding the state of CCTA negotiations before then. However, remembering the impact that community organizing had had during the last CCTA drivers’ struggle, an initial meeting was quickly organized with drivers. The meeting on February 2 began with the drivers in attendance relating horror stories resulting from managerial practices. Testimony from the drivers, including revelations of forced overtime, company spying, predatory managerial practices and punitive discipline – but no mention of wages or benefits – convinced those assembled that action was needed, not only for the drivers but for the greater community as well. It was also clear that a much larger group would need to be mobilized if a successful strike were to occur.

At the time of that early February meeting, six weeks before the strike, the drivers had a strong core of militants. The “Breakfast Club” had ushered in a degree of democracy previously unknown among the drivers, and the experience of 2011 helped groom an experienced, confident cadre of leaders (Fouts; Smith). Smarting from management’s repeated contract violations over the past two years, some had come to believe that not striking last time had been a mistake; in their opinion, management had taken their willingness to settle just short of striking as weakness. Those drivers were determined to not allow that to happen again (Smith). Despite the aggressive attitude of those drivers, however, it was difficult to consider the union a completely unified front. According to Ibrahim, the self-interest of a number of drivers made unity difficult. There was open disagreement among drivers about the direction the union was going. Further complicating efforts, two of the most active and respected leaders from 2011 were no longer driving – Chuck Norris-Brown was retired, and Scott Ranney had taken a dispatcher’s job with the Burlington Police Department (although no one knew it in early February, both Norris-Brown and Ranney would lend their efforts to the solidarity committee). In short, as of February 2, drivers’ solidarity was no sure thing.

The community solidarity group met twice more in February. By the end of the third meeting, Sunday afternoon February 23, coinciding with the initial announcement of March 10 as the day to begin the strike, specific plans were in place to support the drivers. Leaflets explaining the drivers’ position were printed and handed out by volunteers both at bus stops and on buses. A press conference was held with local media to announce the lack of progress concerning negotiations. A public speakout was held outdoors at CCTA’s main transfer station downtown at noon on February 28, where both community members and some local politicians, including Democrat State Senator Ginny Lyons, joined the drivers in their struggle for a fair contract. Anna Gebhart, a Burlington mother who relies on bus transportation showed her support that day by stating “I am very passionate about the drivers’ ability to be treated with respect, because the safety of commuters equals safe and fair working conditions for them (Leavitt 2014b).”

On Thursday morning, March 6, drivers held an informational picket to demonstrate what a transit strike could look like. A group of 50 labor partisans, including unionized nurses, workers from Burlington’s City Market Co-op, university professors and workers’ center members picketed and chanted in support of the drivers. CCTA management apparently found this display of labor solidarity, a legal action held in a public space, “so threatening” that police were called. That evening, drivers hosted a well-attended public forum at Burlington City Hall’s Contois Auditorium. The event presented several new political allies for the drivers, including State Senator Philip Baruth, another Democrat and Progressive Party City Councilor Rachel Siegel (Leavitt 2014a). Most local officials, however, including Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, were remaining silent or declaring neutrality regarding the labor-management impasse; their silence, or explicit neutrality, were taken by most labor supporters as tacit indications that those politicians were favoring management.

Regardless of most politicos’ silence, the support being built within the community was having a positive effect on the drivers. According to Ashley Smith of Burlington, who took an active leadership role in the solidarity group, many bus drivers already enjoyed a degree of recognition and respect in the community for their work transporting people every day in all kinds of conditions. Although a working-class consciousness was already evident among many drivers from the beginning of the buildup, it was the actions of the solidarity group to expand public support that helped build drivers’ confidence that they could win a strike. The solidarity committee helped the drivers organize themselves into squads of eight or nine drivers, each with a strike “captain” in preparation for the strike, and also helped develop a model of social justice unionism consciously modeled after that of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, stressing safety and dignity for all. From the beginning, the committee focused on potential “divide and conquer” strategies they believed management would use to defuse the strike by forging connections with other unions and organizations, and by maintaining communication with the public (Smith). The slogan adopted by the drivers and their supporters – “We are all on this bus together!” – reflected the unity and camaraderie generated between drivers and the community, and deflated the company’s attempt to turn other workers against the unionized drivers with their relatively higher compensation (Fleckenstein 2014; Grace 2014).

The committee purchased and posted hundreds of lawn signs proclaiming “CCTA Fair Contract Now” on one side and “I ❤ (heart) my bus driver” on the other. For their part, the drivers were brought more closely together by constant one-on-one communication stressing the common struggle that they, and the community faced (Ibrahim). On Wednesday, March 12 drivers unanimously rejected CCTA’s last best offer, 54-0; later in the day, but before the end of voting, the company, perhaps feeling confident in the fact-finder’s recommendations, proposed binding arbitration to settle the dispute. The Teamster’s local did not respond to the offer of binding arbitration, but on Friday, March 14 gave official notice that the strike would begin March 17 (CCTA 2014c). Late that afternoon, another informational picket was held at the Cherry and Church main transfer station, and over the weekend volunteers heavily leafleted and surveyed residents of the “Old North End,” shoppers on Church Street, and others in parts of the city dependent on buses. By the end of that weekend, Sunday March 16, the night before the strike was to begin, picket signs were ready, alarm clocks set, and drivers and allies knew where they would be in the morning.

End of Part 1

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Is Folly Still Marching? Six Rules for Unsuccessful Contract Negotiations

Historian Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly examines four instances of what she considered folly in human history – bringing the wooden horse into Troy, Renaissance popes’ consistent bad behavior triggering the Protestant Reformation, arrogant British policies causing the loss of 13 valuable colonies, and a shortsighted, imperialistic US policy regarding Vietnam. Tuchman defined “folly” as actions contrary to self-interest, conducted by a number of people over time, despite criticisms declaring the acts to be folly. While there is little doubt that current economic conditions and anti-union sentiments are shaping school district contract negotiations, the way many union locals approach negotiations made me think of Tuchman’s book and her definition of folly. What would the author say about the way these education locals pursue negotiations? Would she classify these procedures – often adherence to a formula that may no longer be working – as folly? With those questions in mind, I present six rules for failure. Do any of them apply in your local?

Rule 1 – Leave your members uneducated and send them a survey you already have              the answers for.

Salary and insurance are obviously most member’s greatest concerns during negotiations. But too often items necessary to overall workplace conditions, issues currently important to a certain faction of your members, or language important to strengthening locals are ignored. Are there important issues concerning GEO members that are not addressed on the survey? A meeting where an engaged membership is encouraged to talk about the issues important to them is needed to find out.

Rule 2 – Mystify negotiations and create a culture inhibiting involvement of rank-and-  file members.

Working people standing united wield tremendous power. But some locals leave members out of negotiations, seeming to believe that bargaining is a ritual only for the initiated, and that negotiators are endowed with powers not shared with ordinary mortals. While there is much to be said about skill and experience, it is important to remember that any negotiator’s greatest strength is a strong local membership supporting the contract proposal.

That fact was brought home very clearly to me in February 2004. With negotiations, having begun over a year before, at impasse, my local packed 180 motivated members into our library for a board meeting Monday night, and set a strike vote date that Wednesday. We had our contract before that week was out.

Rule 3 – Believe that your employer would never impose a contract or force you to strike.

Many members like to believe that although employers elsewhere may impose employment terms, their management would never tolerate imposition. But, the truth is management’s job is always to get the best product at the lowest cost.

No one ever wants to strike, but strikes are sometimes part of the process for achieving a fair contract. We have the right, when without a contract, to withhold our labor in order to gain the compensation and conditions we need. But my mantra as local president, following the sage advice of organizer Ellen David Friedman, was “The best way to avoid a strike is to prepare for one.”

Following those ultimately successful negotiations in 2004, we created the Contract Information and Support Committee (CISC). The CISC, working on the principle that the contract struggle is constant, educated members, conducted surveys and helped plan our next contract campaign. Most importantly, the CISC included more members in the negotiations process from the beginning and helped make us a stronger, more focused union. The CISC’s success was evident when we achieved a good contract in October 2006, four months earlier, and with much less contention than in 2004.

 

Rule 4 – Rely on others to win a good contract for you.

Unions were formed because workers knew that they could only really depend on other workers. Worker-led unions achieved the eight-hour day, livable wages, insurance benefits and weekends. But as unions and responsibilities grew, workers depended less on themselves and more on paid employees and politicians.

Reliance on others has weakened labor. Collegial relationships between union officials and management have often led to backroom deals and corruption; politicians have consistently betrayed labor when expedient. Disempowered members thus left unions, and many workers have experienced reductions in pay and benefits since.

Since a strong membership makes the best negotiator, it is important to plan negotiations strategy with, and around, members. Professionals – expert staff, mediators, factfinders and other allies – are a great help. However, it is only other members, sharing common needs and goals, who can be depended on to achieve success. Workers defining their goals, and then working together to attain them, will ultimately be successful.

Rule 5 – Believe that you are not like other workers and that your union is not a real “union.”

 Many members belong to unions for the benefits, but cringe at the idea of belonging to a “union.” Sure, most of us don’t ordinarily get our hands dirty, but discomfort at being a union member is unclear to me.

Unions received a bad name during the 1950s after Cold War red-baiting purged labor of their most progressive leaders, and allowed corrupt bureaucrats into management positions. But history shows that unions have consistently been the “good guys,” helping working people earn a fair wage, creating what we know as the middle class, and leading the struggle for human rights of all Americans.

Before unions, industrial corporations imposed wage-labor slavery on millions of Americans. Unions successfully organized workers and led the struggle for economic and social justice. Today, fewer than 10 percent of American workers belong to unions. I’m one that does, but aware that the struggle continues.

Rule 6 – Go to your members only after everything has failed and you are in crisis mode.

It’s a broken record: negotiations have broken down, we’re at impasse – time to rile up members. To be fair, that strategy has often been successful. But recent contract impositions show that perhaps unions have gone to the well too often. Members cannot be expected to support a contract proposal they have too little investment in. It’s clear that workers need to be involved in the negotiations process from the very beginning. Yes, it takes more time and more work, but the results can be worth it.

The 1930s were the worst economic crisis the United States had ever seen – businesses closed, unemployment reached 25 percent, thousands of banks failed. Millions of Americans were homeless and dying of starvation. Yet, labor unions enjoyed their greatest triumphs during the period, achieving success on “bread and butter” issues revolving around pay, benefits and working conditions, and also pressing for such reforms as unemployment insurance, national fair labor standards and Social Security. Labor unions during the 1930s proved that they were a force able to bring positive change for their members and others. How could they have won with so many cards stacked against them?

Those unions of the 1930s were democratic organizations. Many members were very involved both at the organizational level and socially. Those union’s decisions to strike – often an illegal action in those days – were not rash, presented to members as their last chance keep what they have, but rather as part of a member-formulated plan to achieve their objectives. Since the members had invested themselves in both the process and the decision, they were willing to do whatever was necessary; their success transformed the relationship between American employees and their employers for forty years.

Insanity has been defined as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Too often education unions have done just that, entering negotiations with the same tired formulas, and then either retreating and yielding important concessions, or launching poorly conceived and usually unsuccessful job actions or strikes. Taking chances with these procedures, despite of what is already known about how successful union contract campaigns are conducted, certainly passes as “folly” for me. It is up to you to determine whether you want it to continue marching.

Amazing Grace and Chuck: Maybe What We Need Is a Sequel

 

“I would not be a Moses to lead you into the Promised Land, because if I could lead you into it, someone else could lead you out of it.” – Eugene Debs

Amazing Grace and Chuck is a film made about thirty years ago. In it, a young boy named Chuck Murdoch, star pitcher on his Little League team, refuses to play baseball ever again until all the world’s nuclear arsenals are destroyed. This local story is picked up by a major newswire and read by NBA star “Amazing Grace” Smith who, inspired by Chuck’s idealism and commitment, decides to forgo the playoffs and join him at the Murdoch family farm. Perhaps predictably, seeing that I remember this as a “feel good” film the two are soon joined by other star athletes ready and willing to give up their careers for the cause of nuclear disarmament.

Although I don’t remember how the film ends, I’ve been thinking about it recently. Bombarded by the daily absurdities, atrocities and just plain crimes emanating from the White House the hopelessness I’m feeling seems inescapable. Most people are looking for either a magic answer, or someone to change things. Many are pinning their hopes on impeachment, and many others are anxiously waiting for Election Day 2018. Unfortunately, these events, if they occur, are unlikely to significantly change anything.

It is important to understand that the clown’s election – and yes, I do believe that there has never been such a brazenly immoral, unethical and self-serving administration as this one – was not an accident. It occurred as a logical result of over 70 years of concerted effort by plutocrats and rightwing ideologues to first destroy the public benefits guaranteed under New Deal reforms, and then privatize and absolutely control every aspect of economic life – including education, healthcare, and the environment – in the US for their benefit. This policy, called neoliberalism, wrecked the relative economic equality of the 1950s and ‘60s, the golden age for America’s middle class, and created class disparities today as wide as those of industrializing America in the late 19th century. This has been happening since the late 1970s, no matter who’s been in the White House or controlling Congress. No wonder so many people are angry, and, at least partly due to our supposed binary political system, they don’t know who to be angry at.

Most liberals believe that the Democrats, traditionally thought of as the workers’ party, will save them once they regain control. Sadly, believing that the Democrats would be willing to bring significant change for workers is to ignore history. The Democrats were a conservative, mostly southern party with a northern, often corrupt, urban component well into the 20th century. However, confronted by the horrors of the Great Depression, Republican President Hoover’s ineffectiveness in dealing with it, and pressed by urban and rural radicalization, they pioneered the New Deal. Originally intended as a moderate response to placate the millions of unemployed workers and their destitute families in order to maintain the system, Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats were pushed farther to the left than they intended by the rapidly organizing mass production industrial workers of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) and other unions. Labor activism, strongly influenced by socialists, helped to fundamentally change the relationship between government and those it governed for 50-plus years. To at least some extent, people’s welfare became the government’s responsibility.

Unfortunately, that’s mostly over now. Democrats have been living off their New Deal laurels for far too long without adding much to that legacy. Democrats like Carter, Obama and the Clintons have basically been Republicans without the misogyny, racism and homophobia. Deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, “free trade,” attacks on unions and the unfortunate have only gotten worse under their watch; the “safety net” is in tatters. But while the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and left-leaning politicians like Bernie Sanders criticize the Democrats’ neoliberal conservatism, Nancy Pelosi reminded true believers that the US would always be a capitalist country, and the Democrats would always be a capitalist party. As corporate America’s second-favorite political party, why change things? After all, when it comes to the perks of government entrenchment, being number two is not so bad.

History shows us that the only way for ordinary working people to really move forward is for them to do it on their own. Unionizing workers pushed the New Deal forward, just as abolitionists drove Congress to end slavery and the civil rights movement pressed elected officials to end Jim Crow. Now, no one can tell you what to do. But when neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other fascists threatened to demonstrate their hatred last weekend in Boston, ordinary people, organized by the thousands, shut them down.

Amazing Grace and Chuck is a movie, a piece of fiction. But it shows people taking personal responsibility and doing what they can for what they believe is right. We are in a real bad place right now, and we are the only ones able to get us out of it.

 

 

Thinking about David Crosby

David Crosby played Burlington’s Flynn Theater last night. Kinda wish I got to see him – he’s a legend. I started thinking about the time I saw him perform, about fifteen years ago. I was working a security gig at the Ben & Jerry’s music festival at Sugarbush. I was stationed backstage and saw his tour bus pull into a back parking lot. A few minutes after they arrived, one of the festival workers came around to the bus carrying a case of Peace Pops. The bus door opened, and the case was taken in; the door closed. The bus remained quiet and dark. I thought about Crosby’s well-publicized history of substance abuse and wondered if ice cream had replaced cocaine and heroin.

Security work can get boring, especially before shows and between acts. Standing around, I thought about Crosby’s career and then his arrest. I remembered the picture I had seen of him from jail, where his hair was short and his face was shaved. Having gained weight, he reminded me of some of the fathers in my neighborhood when I was a kid. Later, at the entrance to the stairs climbing to the stage, he walked past me. I was glad to see his hair growing out, and that his signature mustache was back. I’m not sure he saw me standing there; certainly he gave no recognition. Nevertheless, I remember thinking, “Wow, this is David Crosby, he’s a legend.” I turned around, watched him walk up the stairs and saw that one of his socks was brown and the other was blue.

Labor’s Lost Opportunities: 1915-1978

Organized labor in the United States today appears to many to be in its death throes. Despite legislation granting it legal authority since 1935, and extraordinary organizing and massive membership growth since then into the late 1950s, it is clear that American capital had never accepted labor’s legitimacy as any kind of viable partner in achieving its socioeconomic vision. The roots of the neoliberal assault on labor beginning in the late 1970s extend at least as far back as the 1940s; as well-planned and aggressive as the attack has been, however, shortcomings within the labor movement itself have prevented effective opposition to it. Despite the formation of an economic liberalism embedded in American society with the New Deal, the labor movement had never been able to permanently establish a definitive, united vision equating labor success with national goals, a communal “American Dream,” such as that espoused early in the 20th century by socialists and “Wobblies,” and later by the US Communist Party and the early CIO, benefiting all. The diminution of that greater socioeconomic vision to a much narrower definition predicated on firm-centered pluralism benefiting union members only, reduced labor, at least in much of the public’s eye, from champion of the working class to a “special interest.” Weakened by legislation, labor failed to display the willingness or ability to return to the strategies or kinds of tactics by which unions first achieved success. Rather than motivating and mobilizing members to resist legal and corporate restrictions, labor, increasingly part of the system unions were created to fight, depended on the Democratic Party to protect what union militarism had gained. Labor’s failure to present a compelling vision of what its success could mean for all Americans, and its settlement for lesser aims as part of the economic/political establishment, has condemned American labor to its wretched position today.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was a strong, established federation of trade unions, composed almost entirely of skilled, white, males, by the early 20th century. Unfortunately, American industry was undergoing a rapid transformation to heavy, mass-production manufacturing whose legions of semi-skilled workers, many foreign-born and often women, were ineligible for AFL membership. Beginning about 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) provided a place for many of those workers rejected by the AFL. Organized by industry rather than by craft, the IWW represented an alternative kind of unionism whose goal, a worker takeover of private industry, and corporate America’s reaction to it, threatened the relative privilege and smug self-interest of AFL chieftains and their brand of union voluntarism. Although IWW numbers never proved it to be much of a rival to the AFL, the conflict, between skilled and unskilled worker, left-conservative and left-radical politics, helped create divisions within the US labor movement that would cripple it for the rest of the 20th century.

Despite those divisions, American labor had reason for optimism by mid-summer, 1918. Although the syndicalist IWW and other radical organizations were in tatters or disarray, worker unrest, coalescing around demands for “industrial democracy,” was causing consternation among business leaders and politicians. Seemingly doomed to failure just a few years earlier, a series of developments, according to historian Joseph McCartin, led to renewed vigor for the labor movement and “recast the labor question around the demand for industrial democracy.” Although “industrial democracy” was ambiguous and used to embody a variety of labor objectives, the term voiced semi-skilled industrial workers’ aspirations for input into their conditions of labor (McCartin 2007).

Rising class-consciousness and labor strife prior to US entrance into the war led to the creation of the US Committee on Industrial Relations (CIR), who reported in 1915 that “political democracy [can exist] only where there is industrial democracy.” Chaired by Woodrow Wilson appointee Frank Walsh, the CIR held that industrial democracy for labor meant the right to organize, and supported several strikes in 1915 and 1916. Although Wilson had been mostly lukewarm towards labor during his first term, and the AFL mostly ambivalent toward electoral, partisan politics, his support for pro-labor legislation during the election year of 1916 cemented an alliance between labor and the Democratic Party that would exist for most of the 20th century (McCartin).

The 1917 entrance of the US into World War I made labor an essential partner with industry and state in the “war for democracy” being waged against Germany and the Central Powers. Adapting the patriotic rhetoric endorsed by the propagandizing Committee on Public Information, labor unions in mass-production industries launched a bold strike offensive for “industrial democracy” that was seen to threaten the entrenched entrepreneurial and capitalist order. Aided by pro-labor rulings from the newly created National War Labor Relations Board (NWLRB), co-chaired by Walsh and ex-President William Taft, labor linked its struggle with the war being fought in Europe to “preserve democracy (McCartin).”

With war’s end, however, and industry’s necessity curtailed, a corporate backlash, with significant support from some important craft union leaders, rolled back most of labor’s gains. President Wilson, bowing to conservative pressure, withdrew his support for labor, not the last time a Democratic president would do so. Although strikes continued into 1919 and 1920, and Frank Walsh and other labor progressives protested violations of NWLRB decisions, the board’s lack of enforcement power destroyed any chance for “industrial democracy” continuing after the war (McCartin). For the first time however, labor had succeeded in equating unionism, aka “industrial democracy,” with greater national goals in the American consciousness.

Aware of the dangers of industrial unionism for their economic hegemony, many industrial corporations established human resource departments and employee-representation plans to “inoculat[e] … against Bolshevism” and short-circuit labor organization in their plants. Despite its 1923 membership being roughly one million more than in 1914, AFL unions did little to prevent the continued exploitation of workers during the 1920s (McCartin). As the economy soured later in the decade and then collapsed after 1929, organized labor was woefully unprepared to resist wage cutbacks, hour reductions and layoffs.

Moving away from the “ultra-left” isolationist position it had followed since its founding in 1920, the US Communist Party (CP) helped strikers in locations as diverse as Passaic NJ, Gastonia NC and Harlan County KY during the second half of the decade. Although unable to successfully resist the corporate assault on workers, they won recognition and gained valuable organizing and leadership experience. Following Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 election, CP members and other leftists played major roles in strikes at Toledo OH, Minneapolis and San Francisco (Cochran 1977; Richmond 1973). By the mid-1930s, adopting a “Popular Front” strategy against fascist ideology, the CP was rapidly becoming part of the liberal mainstream, even supporting FDR – who was looking rather “left” himself – for reelection in 1936        (Lichtenstein 2002). Following passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, many of these young, idealistic CP organizers were hired by John L. Lewis to build the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Although unsympathetic to the CP’s cause, Lewis recognized the value of these committed and battle-tested organizers (Lichtenstein).

The CIO was created in 1935 as a committee of the AFL in order to organize semi-skilled workers in mass-production industries. Breaking away from the staid “business unionism” of the AFL, CP members and other radicals helped shape a vision that transcended economic issues, incorporating concepts like social equality and political democracy. CP members, now part of a great left coalition, helped organize African-Americans and women, and used new tactics like the “sit-down” strike to successfully establish unions in the auto, steel and other key industrial sectors. As European fascism and Japanese militarism were rising, “unionism” and “Americanism” became practically synonymous (Cochran; Lichtenstein).

Popular regard for corporations and businessmen was at an all-time low during the mid-1930s (Phillips-Fein 2009). With Franklin Roosevelt, who stated he   welcomed businessmen’s “hatred,” reelected by a landslide in 1936, the time was ripe for the CIO, with its ideology being shaped by its radical organizers, to push for an end to the old capitalist order. Unfortunately, as the CIO established itself as a rival to the AFL and practiced its own brand of contractual shop-floor unionism, union leadership forced communists and other “left” radicals to the fringes of union management and power (Lichtenstein). The diminishment and later removal of these committed idealists would be keenly felt after World War II.

US labor was at the apogee of its prestige and power following World War II. Wartime regulation, such as by the tripartite War Labor Board (WLB), helped swell union membership by five million over three years (Lichtenstein). Similar “in purpose” to the World War I NWLRB, but with power to issue binding decisions, the WLB “socialized” much of labor’s pre-war agenda, mandating seniority and grievance systems, paid vacations, sick time and mealtimes (Lens 1973; Lichtenstein). Labor’s new power during the postwar period led to a historic high level of striking, a doubling of real wages, the beginning of the new “middle class,” and the launching of the “corporate-sponsored, ideological warfare,” as described by Kim Phillips-Fein, that would characterize “neoliberalism (Phillips-Fein).” In 1947, a conservative Congressional coalition of northern Republicans and southern Democrats pushed through the Taft-Hartley Act, famously over Harry Truman’s inconsequential veto, restricting labor’s organizing rights, forcing union officials to take loyalty oaths and prohibiting secondary strikes and boycotts (Lens; Lichtenstein). Taft-Hartley, coinciding with “Cold War” anti-Communist hysteria supported by even liberal Democrats, cost labor both its most important weapons and the majority of its most committed and visionary leaders.

Although unions still had enough clout to keep members satisfied, Taft-Hartley forced even the most progressive unions into the “narrowly focused, defensive brand of private sector bargaining” in effect today. Thus, when Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement with General Motors (GM) in 1950 that guaranteed workers pensions, health insurance and a 20 percent cost-of-living salary increase, as well as a “union shop,” it signaled a change in union, especially CIO, perspective and attitude; socialist intellectual Daniel Bell wrote “GM may have paid a billion for peace but it got a bargain.” While this so-called “Treaty of Detroit” may have granted GM workers a comfortable materialism for a time, it was the first major industrial contract that accepted “the existing distribution … between wages and profits as … ‘fair’ (and) objective economic facts … as determining wages,” thus jettisoning all “theories of wages as determined by political power … (Lichtenstein).”

Cost of living allowances (COLAs) were soon incorporated into most union contracts, and most unions settled for a private, firm-centered, job-dependent “welfare state.” Unfortunately, this private welfare state was a “poor substitute” for the universal welfare state envisioned by many unionists prior to, and just after, the Second World War, and instituted in much of war-torn Europe (Lichtenstein). Whereas European welfare states provided healthcare, retirement, social security and other advantages to all citizens, these advantages were seen as “fringe benefits” in the US, tied to employment contracts and negotiations. Since the majority of the American workforce remained unorganized, many, if not most Americans were cut off from those forms of compensation. As the new American “middle class” – unionized industrial workers in the Northeast, Midwest and on the West Coast – moved to suburban homes, large swaths of the population, including urban blacks and southern whites, remained behind in miserable poverty. The merger of the CIO and AFL – nominally as equal partners, but in reality more the former being absorbed into the latter – in December 1955 was symbolic of the CIO’s abandonment of its industrial-based constituency for the AFL’s elite trade union status.

Labor maintained a strong presence through the 1960s and, as long as the US economy kept humming along, provided means for members and their families to enjoy comfortable lifestyles with relatively little effort or innovation. “Middle-class” prosperity, however, led many liberal Democrats to shift their focus from economic class issues and their traditional (at least since the New Deal) blue-collar, white, majority base, to identity-based and topical politics, like civil rights and, increasingly, the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, as Judith Stein points out, the economy, almost imperceptibly at first, had begun a long decline since at least 1965. The party’s disregard for the failing economy’s impact on working families helped create a populist, working-class backlash capitalized upon first by George Wallace, and culminating in Republican Richard Nixon’s 1968 election (Stein 2010; Cowie 2010).

The election of 1968 caused a split in the Democratic Party between traditional, class-based, “New Deal Democrats,” generally moderate on social issues, but who had initially supported the Vietnam War, and “New Democrats,” anti-war, socially liberal, but with moderate and increasingly as the 1970s wore on, conservative economic views. Since the AFL-CIO supported the war, and Hubert Humphrey’s nomination and failed candidacy, while ignoring, or even opposing, most of the ‘60s social movement activism, these “New Democrats” shunned labor, whom they considered to be part of the country’s “problem,” rather than of “the solution.” Despite a massive, landslide defeat in 1972, new Democratic politics continued to dominate the party and led to Jimmy Carter’s nomination and, due mostly to Republican corruption and inability to deal with economic issues, election in 1976 (Stein; Cowie).

Carter’s victory, despite its narrowness, offered labor great hope. In addition to the White House, Democrats consolidated control in the House and Senate; with two-thirds majorities in each, progressives believed they would at last achieve legislation for, among other reforms, a national healthcare program, a federal consumer agency, and guaranteed full employment. Labor leaders trusted that, at the very least, they would obtain legislation allowing joint strikes on common construction sites, vetoed by President Ford in 1975, and labor law reforms restricting corporate anti-union efforts, non-election union certification and requirements that new business owners respect collective bargaining agreements negotiated with former owners. But many of those “Watergate Baby” Democrats, such as Gary Hart and Paul Tsongas, did not share traditional New Deal, pro-labor values. Furthermore, Carter, a born-again southern Christian aware that his reelection hopes hinged on conservative, white southern voters, had no great affection for labor. Although at least partly a victim of economic and international events beyond his control, Carter, in addition to deregulating key economic sectors, cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans and raising them for the middle class, and prioritizing the fight to reduce inflation rather than unemployment, did little to support progressive causes in general, or labor’s in particular. Labor’s hoped-for reforms, which looked so promising at the end of 1976, died ignominious deaths by year’s end, 1978 (Stein: 2010).

With Carter’s presidency, so ended labor’s last best chance to enact the changes enabling working-class Americans, of all genders and ethnicities, to achieve a stable, relatively peaceful, prosperity. The long period of prosperity following World War II into the 1960s had lulled organized labor into a complacency that war, social turbulence, economic crises and even many members voting Republican could not rouse. Carter’s inability to solve the economic crises of the 1970s by shifting to the “right” allowed the Republicans to shift further “right,” and permitted neoliberalism to become the dominant ideology, with labor relegated to an ever diminishing role in economic and political discourse. Even William Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s, and Barack Obama’s from 2009-17 have done little, if anything, to change that.

Labor had opportunities during the 20th century that could have allowed it to play a much bigger role today. During World War I, labor made “industrial democracy” analogous to US entrance into the war to “preserve democracy,” linking unionism with Americanism. During the New Deal, labor was part of a great “Popular Front” liberal coalition with the Democrats, where labor, anti-fascism and even communism became “American.” Emerging from World War II in 1945, labor was stronger than ever, but rather than continuing the struggle to make union

membership tantamount to US citizenship, labor conformed with its enemy, the establishment it fought against for so long. Becoming more conservative, labor rejected its “left,” losing most of its militancy and social vision. Despite restrictions placed upon it by the Taft-Hartley Act, labor remained strong until the economy began faltering during the late 1960s and 1970s. Then, with some exceptions, such as the UAW’s and other unions’ support for civil rights, labor’s accumulated conservatism prevented it either from expanding its social consciousness into supporting the great social justice movements of the 1960s or opposing US involvement in Vietnam. Having dropped its “sword of justice,” labor lost vital support from the left. By the mid-1970s, US labor, increasingly perceived as a “special interest,” had surrendered its mandate to speak for working-class America. Having failed to articulate a vision of what victory could be, labor placed its faith in the Democratic Party to achieve limited goals; labor’s fate was thus sealed by the time of Ronald Reagan’s election over Carter in 1981. Labor’s inability to shield its members from the neoliberal onslaught since has been the consequence of those failures.

References

Cochran, Bert. 1977. Labor and Communism: The Conflict that Shaped American Unions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cowie, Jefferson. 2010. Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. New York: The New Press.

Lens, Sidney. 1973. The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs.        Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

Lichtenstein, Nelson. 2002. State of the Union: A Century of American Labor. Princeton, NJ and Oxford, UK: Princeton University Press.

Phillips-Fein, Kim. 2009. Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New     Deal. New York: WW Norton and Company.

Richmond, Al. 1973. A Long View from the Left: Memoirs of an American Revolutionary. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Stein, Judith. 2010. Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

An Economic Interpretation of Southern Secession and Civil War: Slavery Had Everything to Do With It

 

In response to the clown in the White House’s comment re the US Civil War, a short paper I wrote about five years ago.

Economics 764: US Economic History

February 8, 2012

Although scarcely disputed for 30 or so years after it was fought, the cause of the American Civil War is an issue of contention today. According to David Von Drehle, author of Why They Fought: The Real Reason for the Civil War, there are a “wide array of arguments” ranging from “high tariffs” to “Marxist class struggle,” “blundering statesmen” to “fanatics,” and the “clash of industrial and agrarian cultures” to “Northern aggressors invading an independent Southern nation.” Perhaps predictably, according to a 2011 Harris Poll, two-thirds of white Southerners, answered that “states’ rights” was the primary motivation for southern secession (Von Drehle 2011). It is little surprise, then, that Von Drehle’s latest book caused a stir in Civil War commemoration circles since the author contends that the only “states’ right” that really had a role in causing the horrific war was the “right” of some Southern whites to own slaves.

Although most serious academics have little doubt regarding the role of slavery in leading to war, there seems to be a “need [in the public mind] to deny that slavery was the cause of the war (Von Drehle 2011).” This denial, although perhaps reasonable, was manufactured in the postwar campaign of reconciliation and reunification that led to “Redemption” for white Southerners, and “Jim Crow” segregation and terror for blacks. Key to this campaign of denial and absolution are the ideas that slavery was unprofitable, increasingly marginal to the southern economy and rapidly on the way to extinction of its own volition.

Adam Rothman’s “The Slave Power In the US, 1783-1865” describes the extent of slavery in the country and analyzes the influence of the slave-owning class, especially in the South. Although just about one-third of white southerners owned slaves, Rothman explains that slavery was fundamental to the southern economy. Although slaves are most typically associated with cotton plantations, Rothman argues that slaves and slavery were ubiquitous throughout the region, not only on other agricultural plantations, growing rice, tobacco and sugar, but also providing semi-skilled and skilled labor in mines, mills, workshops, factories, refineries and railroads. Approximately ten percent of African-American slaves were living in southern cities in 1860.

Although only about three percent of slave owners owned 50 or more slaves, they wielded political power disproportionate to their numbers. From this miniscule slice of the population, Rothman reports were five US Senators, 17 members of the House of Representatives, 15 governors or lieutenant governors and 73 members of southern state legislatures – slave owners constituted the majority of every state legislature where slavery was legal except Arkansas and Missouri.

Since only a small percentage of Americans owned slaves – approximately 100,000 out of over seven million voters – they depended on the support of politicians, especially Democrats, businessmen and ordinary citizens, South and North to maintain that institution. From the earliest days of the country, slave owners were able to influence national legislation and direction, from the Constitution to expansion and war – with Native American nations, Britain and Mexico. If slavery was dying of its own accord by that time, Rothman’s implication is that southern politicians and other slave owners would have been quite sorry to see it go.

     Time On the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, supports Rothman’s assertions regarding the importance of slavery to the southern economy. Using “cliometric” research analysis methods, based on “advances in economics, statistics and applied mathematics,” and computers to compile and tabulate data, Fogel and Engerman contradict some widely held beliefs regarding slavery. They determine that, even on the brink of the Civil War, slavery was in no way an inefficient, “economically moribund” labor system doomed to extinction without political action. Instead, the authors contend that slavery was highly profitable and completely compatible with a dynamic and increasingly urban, industrial-based economy. Slavery compared so favorably economically with free labor systems that slave owners, often thought to be resigned to the institution’s inevitable collapse but resolutely supporting their slaves as a form of charity, were actually optimistic about what they believed would be an upcoming period of unprecedented prosperity for them. Indeed, in 1860, slavery was an even stronger and more entrenched economic system in the southern United States than it had ever been.

Although some of their conclusions are controversial and have been disputed, the importance of Fogel and Engerman’s work is that it shows that slavery would probably have continued to exist in the US for some time unless action was taken to abolish it. While southern economic interests were able to ensure slavery’s survival and expansion since the country’s establishment, by the 1840s and 1850s rising anti-slavery sentiment in the rapidly growing North was threatening the pro-slavery South’s political hegemony. Bruce Laurie’s Beyond Garrison: Antislavery and Social Reform explores the emergence and development of abolitionism as a political force in Massachusetts during the 1840s and early 1850s. Traditionally thought of as a one-dimensional, fringe movement, Laurie’s research shows that abolitionism’s political development, as first the Liberty Party, and then the Free Soil Party, was as committed to labor reform in the emergent northern factories as it was to ending slavery in the South. Therefore, Laurie argues that the new Republican Party of the 1850s had a strong labor wing, many who had been Democrats – the South’s dominant party – rather than Whigs as had been previously supposed, and that abolitionism was being embraced by the northern, white, working class in reaction to their own “wage slavery” experience as industrial workers.

The development of a broad-based political party, as opposed to a insignificant group of fanatics, in opposition to slavery threatened the southern economic elite who depended on slave labor. Despite being kept off the ballot in most southern states, perhaps in fear that white workers might join their northern class brethren and vote Republican, Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860. Although Lincoln promised to respect slave owners’ property rights in states where slavery was legal, Republican rejection of the Crittenden Compromise, which technically would have protected slavery into perpetuity, proved to slave owners that Lincoln’s administration would not negotiate expansion into the West. In order to protect their property, their entire economic system, and what they believed to be their golden future, southern state legislatures, beginning with South Carolina’s in December 1860, thus began their secession from the Union that led to the Civil War.

 

Resources

Fogel, Robert and Stanley Engerman. 1974. Time On the Cross: The Economics of              American Negro Slavery. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Laurie, Bruce. 2005. Beyond Garrison: Antislavery and Social Reform. New York:           Cambridge University Press.

Rothman, Adam. 2005. “The ‘Slave Power’ in the United States, 1783-1865,” 64-91 in  Fraser, Steve and Gary Gerstle (eds), Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a    Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Von Drehle, David. 2011. “150 Years After Fort Sumter: Why We’re Still Fighting the       Civil War.” Time April 7, 2011.

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