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Union President Says Minneapolis Is Trying to Punish Transit Workers Who Wouldn’t Help the Police

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In late May, as Minneapolis and St. Paul erupted in protests against the police killing of 46-year-old Black man George Floyd, members of the Twin Cities’ Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1005 publicly refused to transport protesters to jail. “As a transit worker and union member, I refuse to transport my class and radical youth,” Minneapolis bus driver Adam Burch told the labor publication Payday Report, which first reported the refusals on May 28. “An injury to one is an injury to all,” said Burch.

ATU Local 1005 also issued a statement in solidarity with the protests on May 28. “This system has failed all of us in the working class from the Coronavirus to the economic crisis we are facing,” the union declared. “But this system has failed People of Color and Black Americans and black youth more than anyone else.”

The union’s public support for the uprisings, and some members’ public refusal to do work that helps the police, sparked praise and inspiration around the country. As the Black Lives Matter protests spread, so did transit workers’ refusal to assist in police crackdowns. In New York, bus drivers refused to transport people arrested at protests, as crowds cheered them on. “None of our bus ops should be used for that,” J.P. Patafio, vice president of New York’s Transport Workers Union Local 100, told Motherboard on May 29.

The impacts of the uprisings are already being felt, particularly in Minneapolis, where a veto-proof majority of city councilors pledged to disband the police department, under pressure from activists. In These Times spoke with Ryan Timlin, the president of ATU Local 1005, about the impact of the union’s actions on the lives of its members, and on the political climate. “It wasn’t just the bus drivers’ union, it was all the protests,” Timlin said. “Even though the military came in, the protesters kept marching forward.”

Sarah Lazare: Has your union faced retaliation for showing solidarity with the protests?

Ryan Timlin: We are working on a class-action grievance, because they cut the pay for those who refused to transport state troopers. MetroTransit said they’re not going to do mass-arrest bussing because of the petition we did, but they did do some transporting of state troopers. A lot of our low-seniority members got stuck doing that, and we reached out to them to make sure they understood the right to refuse. I don’t know an overall number, but some of them refused, mostly over the issue of safety. I’d put it at around a dozen who refused.

As a result of our petition, they stopped having bus drivers transport protesters. They went and got decommissioned metro and mobility buses, and some police ended up driving them.

Sarah: So the grievance was about being docked pay?

Ryan: Anybody who refused to do the work, they did not pay them. They paid them if they showed up and were there for three or four hours at the garage, they paid them for that work. But if they got called to do a run and they refused, their pay got cut: They used vacation time or sick time. The company said they weren’t going to pay people for not doing anything. Well they had sent 90% home and paid them to stay home. They forced the lower seniority transport state troopers. We filed the grievance and are going to collect the data about who is impacted. As soon as I got a phone call that someone got their pay cut, we got paperwork ready.

Sarah: Do you think your union’s actions had an impact?

Ryan: I hope it helped protesters. To be honest, I don’t know if it did. It clearly excited people, especially the letter of solidarity we wrote. We got so many phone calls, and we got a lot of thank yous. It was overwhelmingly supportive, just a few people called pissed off. We got lots of thank yous coming in—I wish we had kept a better list. I remember I saw an email from the RMT, the union of British railway workers, and a lot of other random people. There were a lot of individual letters.

It wasn’t just the bus drivers’ union, it was all the protests. Even though the military came in, the protesters kept marching forward. More and more unions came in and started to speak out, that movement led to the change of charges for the murder of George Floyd. It’s the movement that’s been keeping all these politicians accountable.

Sarah: How do your members feel about the Minneapolis City Council’s  pledge to disband the police?

Ryan: I can’t say our union has spoken specifically on disbanding, but I think there’s a strong feeling inside the union that too much money has gone into the police and more money needs to go to public services like education, transit itself, and even the postal service.

Sarah: Do you think having a union made you feel secure enough to take this action?

Ryan: They knew that they had some form of protection. If you don’t have a union, and you’re a workplace that is not organized in any way—no workers’ center or anything—the more you stick together, the more protection you have, the less isolated you are. the union is a legal body that gives you protection to exert your rights.

Sarah: Did you have discussions within your union about racism?

Ryan: Even before this, racism has been a discussion in the union anyway. I can’t really give details, because it hasn’t gone through arbirtration, but we have a case dealing with discrimination, where there was discrimination in the workplace. We recently had a meeting about discrimination, and there were people who didn’t support us, people who did. It became clear to them why the union had to take it forward and couldn’t walk away from it. This was going on against the backdrop of what’s happening in Minneapolis.

A lot of our members face racism on a daily basis. The workforce is diverse,especially if you get to operations, not just maintenance. We have Somali and Hmong, a lot of black drivers. Those members face racism on the bus, but also they come from the third precinct and have to deal with how police treat them. One coworker told me a story of how he had to have his paycheck in his glove box to be able to prove to police he could afford the car he was driving. i have heard so many stories over the years, that one’s the one that stuck out the most.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.


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Coronavirus has killed dozens of New York City transit workers after they had to beg for masks

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Workers in New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) took measures into their own hands. They wore their own masks, brought their own bleach solutions to clean shared workspaces, and had bus passengers enter through the rear door and blocked them from sitting too close to drivers. Eventually, the MTA started to catch up. But at least 41 New York City transit workers have died of COVID-19, another 1,500 have tested positive for the virus, and more than 5,500 others are self-quarantining because they have symptoms. That’s a huge hit for a workforce of 70,000.

It’s having a ripple effect through the entire city. The MTA is so understaffed it can’t keep up with even the reduced-by-25% schedule it had planned. Even with ridership down by over 90%, subway platforms and cars are crowded because trains aren’t coming as often, which in turn increases the danger of the virus spreading through the crowds in the city that has become the epicenter of the disease.

Union officials pushed MTA bosses to hand out masks and other safety equipment earlier, but the organization stuck by the Centers for Disease Control’s advice against masks. Some workers who wore their own masks were told to take them off because they violated uniform policy.

Bus drivers, whose passengers walk right by them, have been particularly hard-hit, with at least 11 dead.

If you want a devastating illustration of how the United States has let down its working people, check out the picture up top of MTA cleaning staff in early March and compare it with the one below of a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, being disinfected in late February.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Transit Workers Reach Agreement to End Weeklong Strike in Philadelphia

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On Monday, transit workers in TWU Local 234 reached a tentative agreement with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and ended a weeklong transit strike in Philadelphia. Nearly 5,000 employees are returning to work, and the deal now goes to the local’s membership for a vote, which is set for Nov. 18.

Willie Brown, president of Transport Workers (TWU) Local 234, lauded the agreement:

“This is a contract with many important gains, especially on pension benefits and a host of non-economic issues effecting the working conditions and job security of our members. As everyone with experience in collective bargaining knows, we didn’t get everything we wanted—but we came a long way from where we were prior to the strike. We made gains in pensions and wages and minimized out-of-pocket health care expenses at a time when health care costs are soaring, while maintaining excellent medical coverage for our members and their families.

“We worked day and night at the bargaining table in an attempt to finalize a new contract over the past week. We settled just hours before facing the possibility of a back-to-work court-ordered injunction. We ultimately prevailed because our members were determined and united from beginning to end. We also benefited from the assistance of city leaders such as Congressman Bob Brady and Democratic congressional candidate Dwight Evans, who worked to help us settle this dispute with a SEPTA Board controlled by Republicans.

“Our members will keep Philadelphia moving, and we will continue to fight for our members’ economic well-being and their rights on the job.”

Said TWU President Harry Lombardo:

“TWU’s members in Philadelphia are some of the hardest working people on the job. We’re pleased they’ll have a contract that recognizes that.”

Details of the agreement will be made public after the vote.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on November 7, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Kenneth Quinnell: I am a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, I worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  My writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.  I am the proud father of three future progressive activists, an accomplished rapper and karaoke enthusiast.


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Transit Union Head: Future Depends on Organizing Riders

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eidelson-headshotFollowing labor’s loss in Wisconsin’s recall, the leader of the nation’s largest transit union says building coalitions with riders, not organizing more drivers, is the top priority for his union’s future. Interviewed at last month’s Netroots Nation conference, Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley said that Wisconsinites’ willingness to keep their union-busting governor in office demonstrates the urgent need to change the relationship between public workers and the American public. “No matter how much money we put into electoral politics,” said Hanley, “if we can’t change the attitudes of people…we’ll lose. It’s just a matter of when and how hard.”

“I think Wisconsin shows,” says Hanley, “that at this moment in time, the right wing and the billionaires who support them have been successful in convincing a significant minority of working people that their interests are tied to falling wages in the public sector.” Hanley adds that Walker’s re-election demonstrates politicians’ success in framing unions as a “special interest,” and “saying there are working people, and then there’s organized labor.” Hanley noted he was particularly surprised by polls showing a substantial minority of union households backing Walker. “We have to – starting with our own members – make sure that people understand that we’re all in this together, we’re not all in this alone…it’s going to be a long process.”

ATU represents over 190,000 workers in the US and Canada. The majority are public workers, although the majority of ATU’s contracts are with private companies like Greyhound. A year and a half ago, ATU began shifting resources into organizing coalitions with transit riders to support public transit. With the policy resource center Good Jobs First, ATU has held two rider organizing “boot camps” for activists and union leaders from 95 cities. Last month, those efforts entered a new phase with the launch of Americans for Transit, a new national organization backed by ATU and GJF. Hanley chairs Americans for Transit’s Board; GJF Executive Director Greg LeRoy is its secretary-treasurer. They tapped Andrew Austin, the former field director of Washington State’s Transportation Choices Coalition, as the organization’s founding executive director.

Austin highlights his group’s success in getting a King County, WA Republican councilmember to back a tax increase in order to stave off a 20% service cut. He says aggressive turnout efforts, including leafleting on buses, paid off when riders formed a line “almost a mile out the door” to attend the first hearing on the issue. “The story in all the major media switched from about King County Council wants to raise your $20 car tabs to pissed-off bus riders angry about losing service…the story never went back.”

While some major cities have well-established permanent riders’ organizations, Austin says in “a lot of places there’s just no sustained effort.” Unlike bike riders, Austin says that for most bus riders, “it’s just what they do…they don’t identify themselves as that, so that’s one of the challenges.” Austin adds that, “The transit union can’t succeed if there’s not a grassroots movement for transit and transit riders and transit advocates across the country…Most drivers are working class or poor people, so I think there’s a natural solidarity there.” But he says absent organizing, anecdotes about outrageous union benefits can still get traction.

The context is austerity. ATU and GJF note that in the recession, ridership has reached its highest level in decades, just as 85% of transit agencies have raised fares, cut service, or borrowed money. Hanley sees a dual threat: proposals to balance budgets by slashing service, and calls to cut workers’ benefits so service can be saved. Hanley says local politicians “create a fiction in which only the people who depend upon the service and the people who depend upon the service for jobs are the players, and they take out all the other taxpayers from the discussion.” As Mike Elk reported, among the budget alternatives pushed by ATU and its allies is a call for banks to renegotiate interest rate swaps deals signed with cities early in the financial crisis.

Hanley charges that in order to “cleave the working class,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel “lied” about the drivers’ union contract, portraying the ten minutes provided for drivers to inspect their vehicles at the beginning of their shifts as an indulgent paid “coffee break.” He says Emanuel’s willingness to mislead the public shows that the “very powerful” see the importance of allying themselves with transit riders, and his union has to do the same.

Hanley says that with “about 100 riders for every member” of ATU, the union needs “to get, first of all, our members talking to the riders in a more political sense than they have been. I mean everyone says good morning and good night, but there’s not much more going on in most places.”

If the coalition effort is successful, says Hanley, raising transit fares will eventually become politically dangerous in the same way that raising taxes is today. Attempts to cut service will be met by “an organized lobby screaming and saying we need better transit. Don’t build the bridge to nowhere—build the bus to someplace.” He adds, “we want our pastors to see us as allies, and we know when that happens, then people like Rahm can’t come in and say, ‘Oh, they make too much money.’”

ATU’s new focus comes with a cost: a shift of resources away from organizing more drivers—public sector or private—into the union. While ATU has continued to do some new worker organizing, Hanley says, “I could go out and organize 100,000 people and spend a fortune trying to get them contracts, but what am I doing to change the overall picture by doing that? Not enough…we’re on a trajectory that has to be turned around too quickly.”

Hanley argues that the US labor movement has been too slow in responding to intensifying threats, and too quick to offer concessions: “My view is you’re feeding jelly beans to the bear, because at some point, you’re going to say no, I’m not going to feed the bear anymore—I ran out of jelly beans. And then you’re going to have a fight. So the question is when do you have the fight?” That said, notes Hanley, “sometimes you do make concessions, you have to.”

Hanley says conservatives have been successful at isolating public workers by “promoting jealousy over unity” and exploiting “racial messages…just like Ronald Reagan, ‘welfare queens.’” The subtext, says Hanley, is “those are benefits for other people, not for us.” But he draws hope from recent local referenda in which voters have chosen to raise their taxes in order to fund transit—including in Wisconsin.

Hanley contrasts the current atmosphere of resentment with the attitudes he saw on September 11, 2011: “It was like the first time in my whole career where I thought that average people really understood the value of government services, and the fact that when the bell rings, our guys are the ones that go in. And the idea that a few years later, there’s this sweeping attack, saying the people who did that aren’t entitled to pensions, aren’t entitled to healthcare, make too much money, it’s just amazing to me. It’s [an] amazing turnaround in the public framing of how our society works.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on July 9, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet. After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years. His website is http://www.josheidelson.com.


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To Hell With Pensions: Let Them Eat Dog Food

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The other day, I saw an amazing spectacle: a firefighter responded to a call to a burning building in New York City and, as he was dragging the fire hose to the fire, a crowd of angry people stopped him and said, “Stop. Your pension is too generous so don’t you dare put that fire out”. Absurd, you say? Well, yes–if you mean the intensifying attacks against the pensions people earn.

Yesterday, there was an attack against firefighters’ pensions in the pages of the Daily News:

Even in the midst of a deep economic downturn, New York City taxpayers are paying billions every year to provide city workers with retirement benefits that are extraordinarily generous by any standard.

Since fiscal year 2003, the taxpayer contribution to municipal workers’ pensions has more than tripled – to $6.4 billion in fiscal year 2009. At this rate, in four years, every working-age New Yorker will be putting an average of $1,250 a year into the pension funds of municipal workers.

We cannot keep giving new workers retirement benefits at the current levels.

Take current city firefighters, for example. They are entitled to retire after 20 years of service at half pay, with their overtime included in that calculation. In 2006, the last year for which data are available, the pension benefit for a newly retired firefighter averaged just under $73,000 annually. On top of that, many get another $12,000 every December as a “Christmas bonus” to bring the annual cash total to $85,000 – all of which is exempt from state and local income taxes.

That attack came from someone from the “Citizens Budget Commission”, a self-perpetuating organization which has zero grassroots links and is simply a front run primarily by corporate leaders in New York.

Today, The New York Times carries another attack:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is sounding the alarm over New York City’s pension system these days, calling it “out of control.”

Costs have ballooned, he says, threatening to bankrupt the city. Municipal unions and lawmakers in Albany created the crisis, he suggests, and left the city holding the bag.

But interviews and budget records show that the Bloomberg administration itself is responsible for much of the growth in city pension costs over the last eight years, and has repeatedly missed opportunities to rein in the spending.

Since Mr. Bloomberg took office, city contributions to the pension system have jumped nearly five-fold to $6.3 billion, from $1.4 billion, and they now account for one out of every 10 dollars in the city’s budget.

A major reason: the mayor has given the city’s 300,000 workers generous pay increases, guaranteeing that they retire with bigger pensions, which are typically 50 percent of salary. Such raises force the city to make heftier payments to the pension system now.

So, let’s talk about the real world. The average pension for a transit worker in New York is about $20,000-a year–after a job that very few of the people who attack transit workers’ “generous benefits” would ever take. Other city workers’ pensions are in the low 30s. And firefighters’ pensions average around $70,000.

If you think for a moment about what the cost of living is in New York, that isn’t a lot of money even at the “high” end.

So, what is going on here? In the public sector, the hue and cry over “generous pensions” obscures a major point: the reason city and state governments are facing budget deficits is not because of “generous” pensions. Putting aside the most recent budget shortfalls made worse by the economic crisis, the real problem is that in New York–and in virtually every other state in the country–we’ve allowed the richest people in society to escape paying their fair share.

Last December, I pointed out that New York would easily have billions more in revenue to use for basic services if the wealthiest people in the state paid a fairer share of the dues that should be required in a decent society. It is ironic, indeed, that the very people who escape paying higher taxes are some of the very people who were at the helm–incompetently, one might add–of the financial industry which, with its spectacular collapse, wiped trillions of dollars in wealth held by regular people who believed, in the absence of a real pension, that their 401(k)s would provide a decent retirement.

Indeed, the hammering of pensions in the private sector–where a decent pension is increasingly a thing of the past–is directly related to the ideological assault in the private sector. The “free marketeers” are clever–they can whip up the public’s anger about “generous” public employee benefits by effectively saying to people whose pensions in the private sector are evaporating, “look over there, people, at those overly generous benefits YOU are paying for”. It is the classic Henry Ford strategy about dividing one half of the working class against the other half. And it makes people blind and distracted–and prone to forgetting about the transit worker who gets them to work, the firefighter down the street who their kids look up to and the rest of the army of people who make life run in our society.

As progressives, though, we have to fight this ugly strategy. The answer should not be: someone doesn’t deserve a decent pension because I don’t have one. It should be: everyone deserves a decent pension and, if the very wealthy would stop for a moment from avoiding their responsibility in the public sector (by paying a fair share in dues) and stop the wide-scale looting of the wealth created in the private sector (by ending the enrichment of a handful of CEOs and top executives who reap millions of dollars in pensions benefits while the rest of the workforce gets crumbs), everyone could retire with dignity and respect.

Now, where are our political leaders with that message?

I am curious to hear about stories about the attacks against pensions in other places.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

This article originally appeared in Working Life on June 23, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.


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