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Day 17

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We Should All Learn From It

The Workers United Are Not Always Defeated

by RON JACOBS

Working people around the world are in worse straits than they have been for decades. Unemployment is rampant and real wages are stagnant. Young people entering the job market face an uncertain future and a lack of understanding on how to change that. In the most capitalist nation of them all –the United States—the future only looks bright if one is a member of the shrinking but ever-richer ruling elite. Education is being attacked on all levels by the privateers and those who invest in their economy built on destruction and despair. Claiming to be held hostage by right-wing pro-corporate politicians, most of the remaining liberal and progressive politicians compromise the future of the people who elected them in order to keep their jobs. In doing so, they become the very enemy they campaigned against.

However, there is hope. Across the United States, resistance to the increased transfer of working peoples’ wealth to the wealthiest among us—or austerity, if you prefer—is being mounted. Workers, unionized and otherwise, are organizing strikes, demanding wage increases and job guarantees, and even considering socialist candidates in some areas of the ultimate capitalist nation. The victories are few and their permanence is always in question, but the act of resistance itself has revitalized those individuals involved. In Chicago, teachers in the public school system have held one day work stoppages in opposition to the austerity moves of the Chicago mayor and his friends in the charter school business. For those who don’t know, charter schools are (with a few exceptions) essentially corporate initiatives designed to privatize public education. University of Illinois faculty struck for one day in support of their part-time colleagues. There have been similar actions around the continent. At Portland State University in Oregon, the University of Illinois-Champaign Campus and across the University of California system, a series of job actions by workers and students against cutbacks and other threats have taken place.

The town I live in is Burlington, Vermont. It is the most populous city in Vermont, which is a mostly rural state. The University of Vermont, which is located in Burlington, faces work actions after its administration announced austerity measures that did not include any cuts to the administration. At a small college administered by a priestly order of the Catholic Church, custodians found themselves at an impasse in their negotiations with the administration. Students, faculty, other staff and local unions have all worked together demanding the administration negotiate a fair contract. Rallies were held; petitions signed and forwarded to trustees, and picket lines were instituted. After months of this, the administration team finally buckled and agreed to a contract which proved acceptable to the workers. One of the primary reasons given by the union was the solidarity shown by the campus and local community.

Meanwhile, after months of negotiations between the union representing the bus drivers in the regional public transit system that met only intransigence from management, the union drivers went on strike March 17, 2014. However, the strike is not necessarily the story here. It is the solidarity expressed by the community served by the transit system. Bus riders, workers in other fields (restaurant workers to nurses to school teachers and university staff and faculty), high school and college student have rallied behind the drivers and their position. The solidarity committee was coordinated by the drivers’ union (Teamster’s 597) and local Workers’ Center with plenty of help, especially from the local ISO chapter, UE locals 203 and 255, the nurses’ union local, faculty union locals, and individual activists. Picket lines were constant at the main bus terminal; weekly rallies grew from a hundred or so to over five hundred. It became clear that everyone understood the drivers’ call for dignity and a say in their working day. After more than three separate marathon negotiation sessions where management presented the union drivers with the exact same contract proposal the drivers had already rejected, a contract was finally agreed on. The contract was ratified by the drivers, who called it a good contract that answered their concerns about hours, disciplinary process, and job security.

The number of workers involved in the aforementioned struggles is small—barely more than a hundred. However, the meaning of their victories is of a much greater magnitude. Unions across the United States were watching these actions. Indeed, the list of solidarity messages on the website set up by the drivers’ support committee includes workers from places as far away as San Francisco and as near as the local university less than a mile from the daily pickets. Attendees at the Labor Notes conference in Chicago followed the events closely and celebrated when news of the drivers’ victory reached the hall. The fact of victory should resonate with every worker who hears the news. The level of determination and organization shown by the drivers and their supporters is an education in itself. We should all learn from it.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.