I have not been following the debates about a BART strike in the Bay Area as carefully as I would have liked from Zambia, but a recent headline caught my eye. It seems that Mark Desaulnier, a Democratic State Senator in California, is considering a bill that would make strikes by BART workers illegal.
I can understand the frustration of commuters with the prospect of struggling to get to work, but I can also understand the frustration of workers who are not paid in line with the cost of living. Further restricting the rights of organised labour to flex its muscles in the interests of its membership is the wrong answer in an economic and political climate in which the working and middle classes are being turned against one another while the gap between them and those at the top of our society widens.
There’s been a rush in the media to portray BART workers as greedy, but a good article from Mother Jones puts their demands into some perspective—in the context of increases in the cost of living and in healthcare costs. The other component of workers’ demands—about safety issues—hardly seems gratuitous.
The extent to which communitarianism, solidarity, and the underlying principles of organised labour (sometimes, it is true, undermined by highly-centralised union organisation) are no longer a part of our politics has been very apparent from the criticisms greeting the strike.
People complain that strike action would be “disruptive”, as though this is somehow outrageous. But what, at the end of the day, would be the point of a strike action which allowed people to go about their business as though nothing untoward had occurred? The idea behind a strike is for one group of people to point out what they see as an injustice within the system in which they operate. To do so, they seek to demonstrate the value of their labour by withholding it, thereby making the case to their community and/or their political representatives that their needs and interests should be taken seriously. That community and those representatives then weigh up the value of that labour as measured against the costs of a strike action, debate the merits of demands, and ideally contextualise them within their economic environment. Not every strike will succeed, but creating a condition in which workers cannot even make their case to the public sets a dangerous precedent (the evisceration of private sector unions and the concomitant tumble in the welfare of most of our country’s workforce is a good illustration of the perils in restricting labour rights).
Commentators attack BART workers for demanding salaries in line with the cost of living, arguing that these workers already make more than average, the suggestion being that they should content themselves with living a lesser quality of life. To me, the more logical conclusion in the context of our very wealthy society—wherein that wealth is distributed in a grossly inequitable manner—would be for other people to organise themselves along similar lines in order that they, too, might be in a position to ask that they be paid a living wage.
People talk about an era of limits and the need for people to tighten their belts, but tellingly, within our political discourse, restrictions always begin with those who have little to spare, even as corporate profits head for the stratosphere and the personal incomes of executives and other elites climb relentlessly. The actions of even a small group of transport workers demonstrates the frailty of the myths underpinning the drive for austerity in Washington, D.C., and help to explain why those actions are so harshly condemned.
The strong reaction by so many Bay Area residents against the disruption of the strike is also a telling indicator about the importance of just one form of labour to the functioning of our society. BART workers are not alone in performing labour which is, in addition to being essential, under-valued by those who make use of it. In fact many of the things which make our day-to-day lives functional and pleasant, between the time we get up in the morning and go to sleep at night, stem from the labour of people who are likely to be underpaid and under-acknowledged. We don’t always see the people whose labour makes the morning commute, the lunch-break, the clean workplace bathroom, the empty trash cans, or the evening trip home possible. But their labour is no less essential to our lives for its social invisibility.
A just economic system would reward those people (that is, probably anyone reading this) by providing them with the means to live a decent quality of life. Ours, on the other hand, unleashes savage attacks on unionised labour in the hopes that depressing their wages and quality of life will create a trickle-down effect in the workforce, lowering expectations about the rights and wages and welfare to which members of our society are entitled.
Labour could use some reforming. It could bear to be made more democratic. It could stand to be more self-conscious of the context in which it operates. But the relentless and increasingly vituperative attacks on organised labour in our society belie what unionisation brought the American workforce. Thanks to strike action in our nation’s history, people enjoy an eight-hour day, a 40-hour week, overtime pay, week-ends, health benefits, workplace safety regulations, unemployment benefits, collective bargaining, rights of appeal against arbitrary dismissal, a minimum wage, and social security.
This is a part of our country’s history that has not always been taught at schools and universities. And the triumph—however short-lived—of labour in the United States is something that the Republican Party and its corporate handlers are keen to excise from our schools’ textbooks, not coincidentally at the very moment when they are seeking to roll back so many of these rights. Their motivation is transparent: as they embark on a drive to enthrone capital and bind the workforce to its avaricious needs, they want to kill off the memory of another kind of society, in which workers from different parts of the country, in different industries, doing different sorts of work, were able to combine their efforts to demand that they be treated as full members of society, whose labour was valued, and whose rights to live a decent life were respected.
It is an ugly state of affairs when people who would benefit from greater collective action within the workforce, and a more equitable distribution of wealth within our society, have been conditioned to attack their fellow workers, and refuse to even contemplate the value of the sort of collective action responsible for the quality of life—even if diminished—that most of us enjoy.