This summer and again earlier this month, the Bay Area faced a complex labour negotiation as BART employees fought for better wages and working conditions, and eventually called for strike actions to underscore the fact that they were deadly serious about sticking to their mission. As is often the case in such situations, BART brought in a unionbusting ‘negotiator’ and made a lot of noise about the unions refusing to come to the table, while the unions were forced to fight a ferocious PR battle against an agency with far more funding than they could ever hope to access, and the ability to launch anti-union campaigns across the Bay in an attempt to sway public sentiment against BART.
Meanwhile, BART employees on the ground who were participating in the strike faced tough conditions. Strike pay wasn’t available because the union was forced to invest heavily in hiring negotiators and managing other expenses, effectively leaving employees with no money for every day that they didn’t work; but they still had to show up for meetings and events, making it impossible to seek work to fill their days. For those with savings, partners, and other resources, it was possible to scrabble to fill the gap, but others really struggled.
BART officials operated in full awareness of this fact and exploited it as much as they could to push the union into folding, knowing that eventually workers wouldn’t be able to stay off the job any longer and they’d have to return to work, even if a deal hadn’t been made. If they folded before the union was able to negotiate a sustainable contract, it would be very difficult for the union to have any bargaining ground, given that administrators would know they’d effectively killed the strike. If workers weren’t striking, the pressure to give on the contract just wouldn’t be there.
Which was why it was so crucial for the progressive public to support the strike and put their weight behind a good contract for BART employees. When I lived in the Bay Area, I relied on BART to get me around, and as a visitor, I’m often on BART at least once or twice during my stays. The trains provide a great opportunity for getting around without a car in San Francisco, for example, which is convenient if you don’t want to deal with City parking and congestion. And they provide transit to SFO and OAK, something I often take advantage of when I’m flying out of the City—given than I’m often down south specifically to catch a flight, this is a pretty significant service.
As a supporter of labour and unions, it seemed obvious to me that following the strike situation, interacting with BART employees, and making it clear that I supported workers, not bosses, was the way to go. As a visitor to the Bay, I could send a powerful message that those bringing money into the area wanted public transit workers to be paid fairly, offered reasonable benefits, and provided with safe, pleasant working conditions. There are lots of places I can spend my money and time; I’d prefer to do so in labour-friendly locales where I can feel comfortable getting on buses and trains, knowing that workers are treated well.
Yet, during the negotiations and strikes, I saw a lot of so-called progressives complaining about the ‘inconvenience’ of a labour action. People whined incessantly about how there might be a strike and what a massive headache it was going to be, and then when the strike actually happened, they moaned and dramatised over how much more work it was making for them and how rude the striking workers were to dare and ask for better conditions. The media dove right in, which isn’t surprising, since the media often like to bash on unions, but I was appalled and disgusted by how many allegedly progressive people apparently didn’t see a problem with trashing workers.
Here’s the thing: yes, not having public transit is inconvenient. Especially for low-income people relying on it to get to work. The wealthy, of course, just turned to cars and helicopter services and other options. That said, labour rights are important too, and workers supporting workers is the only way to effectively create justice for people labouring across the US. Solidarity isn’t just a catchphrase. It’s also a way of life. It’s something that needs to be wholeheartedly embraced to make it work; which means that when workers in the transit sector strike, other workers need to support them, rather than making resentful comments about unions.
The labour movement in the US has been heavily demonised, especially when it comes to public sector workers, who are apparently supposed to work as a charitable service, rather than as a way to make a living. The fact is, though, that BART workers are not in it because they’re passionate about public transit and just want to give of themselves to provide it to everyone. They do their jobs because they are jobs that need to be done, and they deserve fair compensation for them, as well as fair treatment for their work and equitable pay when compared to other transit workers and civil servants.
And that’s what the union is for, to promote worker welfare. It’s not about making everyone’s life difficult, because let me tell you, going on strike sucks for the striking workers, too, not just the people relying on the services they provide. The real enemy here isn’t the union, or the workers, but the bosses pushing the workers into a corner where the only option they have is to strike, because their employers aren’t willing to sit down at the table and negotiate.