Thursday, September 18, 2014

The State of Our Union

"Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” 
― George Orwell, 1984

Prime example of union workers' excellence!
While this blog's regular intention is not to explore union politics, current conditions call for a frank discussion of issues facing us all. This past weekend, our drivers were invited to take part in a "bus roadeo", largely coordinated by volunteer employees but sponsored by our district. Our union's executive board passed a motion declaring a boycott, which I support.

An estimated 65 operators, and/or retirees participated and the consensus was they all enjoyed it. Given there are over 1,000 operators, it would appear the boycott was a success. Sure, this was meant to be an ice breaker in the midst of all the strife related to contract negotiations. Under a fair and reasonable contract, this would be a positive way to show our solidarity while also having fun. However, our management has not shown us respect when you consider its union-busting tactics and general shadiness the past few years.

Since the Reagan administration, corporatists have diligently attempted to dismantle worker protections battled for by our country's unions. These detractors have unleashed infinite rhetoric to support their tactics, encouraging their supporters to believe propaganda painting unions very negatively. After President Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers in the 1980s, unions were targeted for ultimate destruction. Corporations as well as public entities have attempted to paint union representatives as "thugs", and label union proposals as "socialist". Good people who support the Republican party have been led to believe that unions are something to be distrusted, or "bad for business". By doing so, they convince the very people unions work hard to protect, to rally against their own best interests. This is a very shrewd, yet effective, tactic. If we could somehow convince lemmings jumping over a cliff is suicidal, would they still do it? Some would, and perhaps this is a trait that cannot be changed in one generation. In our case, it's time to stop emulating lemmings or face outright economic bondage.

In the past few decades, we've seen an all-out war against the working middle class. A frightening number of Americans, however, do not understand how the powerful elite have conspired against unions. Union workers largely paved the way for corporate success the past 100 years. Many do not realize what valuable benefits were secured by union "thugs". The 40-hour week, overtime pay, sick leave, holidays, work site safety laws, Social Security, and military leave are just a few of dozens of protections fought for by American unions. Regardless whether you support unions, it is a high likelihood that you have benefited from them.

According to Business Week, 2013 corporate profits increased five times more than wages. In the past 30 years, the minimum wage has not even kept up with inflation; if it had, it would now be about $22/hour. Corporations greedily outsourced and off shored millions of jobs once held by hard-working Americans, thrusting their loyal employees into poverty. These interests supported politicians who helped shift power from the masses to the corporatists. They further solidified elitist power by encouraging wars based on outright lies, which fed billions into the industrial war machine. Simultaneously, they also waged war upon the military veterans who fought these battles, by refusing to fund veterans benefits. Many who voted for the cuts beat their pseudo-patriotic chests, having never served in uniform, while heartily supporting sending our troops into wars we could not afford. They also voted to deny benefits to those most affected by the Great Recession. Considering that for the first time in our history, half of all Congressmen are millionaires, it's no secret whose interests they serve.

The actions of the monied elite, through their purchased politicians, have nearly erased the ability of unions to protect American workers. People are so happy to find any job, they fear reprisal for joining a union. The propaganda war has convinced millions that unions are corrupt, not to be trusted. It's akin to the Big Bad Wolf convincing Goldilocks that her sweet Granny is the true villain. Fortunately, Goldilocks grew wiser and fought the Wolf's attempts to steal her goodies. Unfortunately, the gallant woodsman who comes to her rescue has been reduced to a sickly kid with a dull axe.

Our plight in Portland mirrors that of transit workers across the country. Thirty years ago, the union and our transportation district agreed on a generous, yet necessary pact. In exchange for large raises, employees were guaranteed a fully-funded pension and health insurance paid by the district. For reasons the district hasn't directly answered, the pension wasn't fully funded. Last year, since we had no contract, it began charging us a percentage of insurance premiums. Even though we successfully sued on the premiums issue, the district has not reimbursed us. It collects interest on the money owed while dragging the issue through the appeals process.

After the Great Recession hit, the district found itself in dire straits. While it pushed forward a controversial and expensive new light rail project, bus routes were cut. It also forced hefty fare increases on the very people hardest hit by the economic crash. Passengers, many of whose jobs had drifted overseas or simply disappeared, were understandably frustrated. Assaults on operators increased dramatically while the district hid behind carefully-crafted press releases designed to put the blame on "Cadillac benefits enjoyed by union employees". The corporate media, seizing a golden opportunity to further demonize unions, repeated this phrase at every opportunity. They even singled out a handful of operators who, simply by working tons of overtime, made over $100k a year. Curiously, the district's GM secretly gave raises to non-union employees. Union employees, however, haven't even had a cost of living adjustment in several years.

Meanwhile, contract negotiations languish in mediation. Union employees are frustrated, but hopeful. We hope we're able to hold off the Wolf so he only gets one butt cheek rather than our whole ass. Many are resigned to a sobering reality that we may have to pay for medical insurance even though the nature of our jobs guarantee a decline in our general health. The pension plan was replaced with a 401k, which is no security blanket given the volatility of the stock market. Our retirees, many of whom dedicated their entire working lives to this district, face poverty or worse due to increasing premiums.

Overall, from all I've seen, morale is bleak. People are frustrated because they feel uninformed, while others are simply misinformed. Opinions about current leadership range from "okay" to "useless". Nobody I've spoken to has 100% confidence we can secure an acceptable contract. Some wonder why our union doesn't cast off the other entities it represents to form their own charters, giving ours the ability to concentrate solely on our own plight. Several people support a vote of no confidence in the district management. Without the ability to threaten a strike, we are left without the benefit of ultimatums.

Union officials encourage our members to participate, attend meetings, and speak up. Scheduling conflicts often make it impossible for members to actively participate. Those good souls who volunteer their time to represent us, without extra compensation, often burn out due to the long hours they give us.

The majority of union members seem to like the idea of representation, but are unsure how to participate. Many are simply apathetic. In previous generations, unions packed a mighty punch. Today, we are fighting to survive.

While I'm unsure just how the public stands on our union, one man told me at a layover that "this country is a union, something your GM needs to realize".

There are many among us with strong opinions about current leadership. I've met some eloquently brilliant brothers and sisters who have excellent ideas. Some speak up, others say their input "wouldn't make a difference". Quite simply, we've arrived at the point the district management has worked so hard to achieve: in complete chaos. If we cannot put aside differences, roll up our collective sleeves, and plunge into the fray as a united front, we're doomed.

In light of our current plight, I cannot in good faith support my union and also participate in a district-sponsored dog-and-pony show. Sure, you say, the roadeo sounds "fun", a way to showcase our skills as drivers. I prefer to be properly respected with an honorable new contract. Once this district treats us with respect, I might be more amenable to participating. Until then... the good fight continues.

By supporting our union and participating in the contract process, we're helping ourselves. Putting my actions to work along with these words, I hope to see many of my ATU 757 brothers and sisters at the next meeting. I will be there, if at all possible!

Deacon's Note: In the interest of fairness, I've asked union officials to respond to a questionnaire regarding current issues facing our union. The next part of this series will address their responses.

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