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Discussion of Union Principles and Proposed Way Forward for Chicago Transit Workers

Its not who you are against; its what we are for.
What is the union? We must begin from an understanding of what the union is and what it is not. Our union is not the leadership; not a building or a stack of papers someplace. Its not a job trust or a group of labor lobbyists or lawyers. We must convince the majority of the membership / ranks that their union is not some kind of service company where we pay a monthly fee and receive union representation by a small group of labor experts. The union is the actual unity and activity of the membership, our community and our mutual aid and protection of other workers in struggle. We are: 5,000+ working members, 10,000+ retirees, and by extension: tens of thousands of loved ones and dependents, and hundreds of thousands of passengers who depend on our work. Our union is an organization of workers that can mobilize this powerful social force. Our strategies must be built on our confidence in the ranks of workers. Each active worker both male and female is a leader of their family and community. Our work is complex, physically demanding and dangerous. We provide an important service for society: we safely transport the most valuable thing known: human life. We are not perfect all of the time, but the great majority of us do our work very, very well. What is the goal? Our immediate goal should be to educate and mobilize the membership to take control of and use their union in the interest of the community. In the ranks we trust. We must reject the argument that executives and politicians -who have never done our work- are fit to control our lives. Our real employers are the people who depend on our work. We are servants of the public public transportation- not employees of a for-profit company. If we are to win anything for ourselves, we must be willing to use our union power to fight for what our communities need. Our uniforms may command respect for the difficulty and importance of our work, but we have not forgotten where we came from. We are responsible members of our community. Ultimately, our goal must be to remove the boss from the workplace entirely and run things ourselves: workers and passengers must run public transportation directly. The people who do the work must make the decisions. Where is the power to accomplish our goals?

These goals put us in opposition to our current employer and the city political machine. This is a formidable and experienced force- we will need all the help we can get. We must openly seek the mutual support of other unions and workers organizations, community groups, and other forces that wish to take co-ownership of these goals. We cannot do this alone. Our employer does not and cannot care about us as human beings. It responds only to power. Our power is rooted in our ability to collectively withhold our labor (strikes and other job actions) and our ability to mobilize the population behind our legitimate leadership. How did we lose our power? The workers movement rose in strength during the aftermath of the great depression to the point where the bosses were afraid the workers would take control of the country. The bosses used their state (courts, cops, media and military) to jail union leaders and revolutionists (McCarthy witch hunt, Smith Act, etc.). World War Two was used as a pretext for this and other antidemocratic measures against workers. What was left of the leadership of the union movement charted a course of worker submission to the bosses: binding workers to legal frameworks that weakened our ability to use our power. The United States main competitors industrial production was largely destroyed from the war and the bosses made huge profits. They were able to temporarily buy off a generation of workers with relatively better pay. The ability of the bosses in the Unites States to buy off the workers has lessened, especially after the 1970s. Our working and living conditions have been systematically lowered with relatively little effective resistance by organized labor. During this period, the workers movement has forgotten many of the lessons learned when it openly fought the bosses power over us (with important exceptions, such as the civil rights movement). Most unions today have become little more than a group of labor-arbitrators helping the bosses run their grievance and arbitration systems and wasting worker resources helping to elect Democratic Party politicians. How do we build and use our power? First we must openly recognize that our interests are separate and opposed to the bosses, their managers, their government and their political parties (both Democratic and Republican). Our boss will be our master until we force them out of the workplace altogether and we become the masters of our work and our lives. Even if many of our coworkers do not share this goal or believe it is impossible, a long-term outlook makes union principles from dealing with managers on the job to signing temporary peace treaties (contracts) much clearer. It is no accident that the most principled union leaders in the US over the past 100 years have been revolutionists unwilling to play by managements hypocritical rules. We must make it as easy as possible for members to spend part of their precious time working to strengthen their union. That means holding multiple meetings that different shifts can attend, organizing day care and making union meetings as democratic and participatory as possible.

We must reorganize our union so that it is battle ready: constantly preparing to stop the buses and trains (or other job actions) if necessary. Without this credible threat to the boss, we have no leverage and no respect. Strikes are a very serious undertaking. We would harm the boss profits, but we would also harm the working communities who depend on us. Before and during a strike, we have to explain to the public why we must take such a serious step in the interest of the whole community (not just ourselves). To do this, we need a much broader group of leaders and active workers who see the union as their organization. Instead of 2-3 paid officials per 500+ workers, we would need to convince and train 20-30+ of our coworkers to become volunteer stewards. Stewards would help represent workers when confronting management, help lead regular democratic meetings at or near each work location and be spokespersons of the unions cause to the community. -erek slater Chicago public transit bus driver member, Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 241