The New York City transit strike is over and millions of residents and tourists in the five boroughs are relieved that they will no longer have to suffer what the governor and the mayor characterized as an act of blatant lawlessness.
Soon the discussion will shift from who was right and wrong to which side lost and won.
The great shame is that the debate that should have happened, the debate the people of this nation so desperately need to hear, never occurred. Every major media outlet gave only cursory coverage of the transit workers’ case. They uniformly preferred to give free reign to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki, buying prologue to epilogue their condemnation of the strikers as thuggish, law-breaking, ungrateful laborers turning their backs on the hard-working citizens of New York.
It is perhaps unfortunate that the strike came in the holiday season, when those who are still watching the news were engaged with other concerns, including drilling in the Artic wildlife reserve, developments in the Jose Padilla case, the latest round of WTO talks, the Iraq election, renewal of the Patriotic Act, and the NSA domestic spying scandal. We had hardly recovered from the torture rendition scandal and the execution of Tookie Williams. Outside the greater New York area, few saw the transit strike coming and fewer were prepared to defend the beleaguered Transit Workers Local 100.
Beneath the constant drone of our ambulance chasing, gore seeking, “breaking news” addicted press, we are trapped in a perpetual three-day news cycle, inundated by a never-ending series of attacks on our liberties, our sense of justice, and our economic well-being.
In this context, perhaps we should be forgiven for not rallying to the cause of the New York transit workers. The problem is: They are us. They are all of us. They are the working class of Bolivia, fighting against the privatization of water and public services. They are the jobless of the Gulf region and the homeless of New Orleans. They are the family farmers of Arkansas, the teachers, nurses and firefighters of California, the perplexed senior citizens in a maze of pharmaceutical options, the high school student whose last option is military service, and the family struggling to hang on to a lost way of life.
Nothing emblemizes the American tragedy more than the transit workers of NYC, caught in a vice grip between a union-busting mayor, with all the power of government behind him, and a working class public numb and dazzled by a pandering press and the image of an All American city recapturing hope from despair.
The real tragedy is that the heroes of September 11, 2001, who braved the storm and kept on marching, are the same working class stiffs who are being shunted aside by big government and big corporations today. It was not the Rockefellers or the elite of Wall Street who were called upon to pay the price of tragedy. It was the firefighters, the beat cops, the teachers and public employees.
Never mind that the NYC Mass Transit Authority had a billion dollar surplus this year, Mayor Bloomberg made a great show of indignation at the illegality and selfishness of the strikers. The fact is union busting has been going on in New York and throughout the nation for a very long time. When the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, ten percent of the working force was unionized. In subsequent decades, union representation rose to 35% before beginning a long decline in the mid to late sixties, as employers realized that legal remedies to union busting were weak and unenforceable. Today, an estimated eight percent of private labor is unionized (less than it was in 1900). It is hardly coincidental that real wages have declined accordingly, including those of nonunion workers.
The sad truth is Mayor Bloomberg wanted this strike. Like Ariel Sharon playing the Right of Return card on the last day of a peace summit, Bloomberg played the two-tiered pension card knowing it would be a deal breaker. The two-tiered system asks the union to sell out future workers by asking them to pay more than current workers. Like a poison seed, it inevitably divides the working force and leads to disintegration.
Pataki, Bloomberg and their lackeys on the MTA left the union with only one way out. They knew how it would play in the media.
What Middle Americans fail to understand about George W. Bush, common New Yorkers fail to understand about Pataki, Bloomberg and his predecessor. They do not represent New Yorkers. They represent the wealthiest of the elite and Bloomberg is among them. Like Giuliani before him, both wish to establish themselves on the Republican play list as world-class union busters.
What is happening to the transit workers in New York is happening to all Americans from coast to coast. It is the reason thousands of Californians spend hours daily commuting to work: They can no longer afford to live where the jobs are. It is the reason the true family farmer is all but extinct. It is the reason households must have two incomes to get by. It is the reason we are drowning in debt. It is the reason a growing number of working people have neither health care nor retirement benefits. It is the reason the middle class is itself a dying breed.
If you believe that is a preposterous proposition, imagine that credit cards were abolished tomorrow. How many of us could continue to pay the bills, support our families, take care of emergencies, and keep a roof over our heads?
What is happening in America is that we are losing what our fathers, mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers worked so hard to achieve. We may have issues with the labor movement, but they are essential to the maintenance of our society. Without them, we will return to sweatshop labor and slave wages.
When the overlords of capital lecture us on the fundamentals of a global economy, we must answer: the world needs unionization as well. When America, by far the largest consumer on the planet, refuses to trade with nations that fail to meet minimum standards of wages and working conditions, the equation changes overnight.
The transit workers in New York were being fined two days wages for every day of the strike. The union was being fined a million dollars a day. Union leaders were being threatened with incarceration.
When was the last time a union leader in America was jailed for doing his job?
We are understandably perplexed by the roller coaster news cycle, the virtual absence of fair and in-depth reporting, and the endless barrage of tragedy, horror and injustice on our televisions. We are tired, frustrated and we have come to believe there is nothing we can do to alter the course of events.
In the case of the New York City transit workers strike, those of us who remained silent were wrong.
The one thing these hard-working men and women needed from us in their time of trial was the one thing we all have to give: Support. They still do.
So do we all.
Jack Random is the author of Ghost Dance Insurrection (Dry Bones Press) the Jazzman Chronicles, Volumes I and II (City Lights Books). The Chronicles have been published by CounterPunch, the Albion Monitor, Buzzle, Dissident Voice and others. Visit his website: Random Jack.
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