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CHICAGO — Don’t wait around for your lethargic union leadership — get out there and organize, organize, organize. Seek solidarity with workers from other unions, non-unionized workers and the people who depend on your job, be it welfare recipients, parents, students, bus riders or otherwise.
This was the message at a slightly raucous meeting called “Public Sector Workers Unite” at the United Electrical (UE) workers hall in Chicago Saturday, where activist unionists bemoaned a lack of support from their respective union leaders but described how they are taking things into their own hands and using “creative and proactive” tactics to achieve their goals.
“Change can come if you hold your leadership accountable,” said Karen Lewis, a public school teacher and member of CORE (Caucus of Rank & File Educators), an activist group within the Chicago Teachers Union. “If you don’t hold them accountable, nothing is going to happen.”
She charged union leaders aren’t concerned with the needs of students and parents, and she sees CORE’s strength in reaching out to the kids they actually teach and their parents.
Erek Slater, a Chicago Transit Authority bus driver, similarly described solidarity with bus riders as crucial to better service and working conditions.
Slater noted that drivers bear the brunt of public anger at severe service cuts and fare increases being pushed through by the city as part of a “doomsday” funding scenario, even though drivers are also suffering from the cuts in lay-offs, reduced benefits and heavier workloads.
“People shout at you and you have to bite your tongue,” he said.
You’re responsible for people’s lives, and if anything happens you’re the first one blamed. The transit agencies will continue to degrade the service, all they care about is the ruling class, getting workers to work to make a profit but they don’t care how long you have to wait for your bus.
Slater and others described the Rider-Driver Alliance which brings together transit authority workers and public transportation users to fight for better and more equitable service. (He headed to work after the meeting; Halloween night is the worst night of the year for bus drivers, who can expect to be dodging everything from eggs to gunshots.)
Slater said drivers are so disillusioned and unhappy with their leadership in the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241 that the only recent time members turned out with a quorum was to vote to remove leadership. “A lot of union leaders and politicians think we’re just stupid and mindless and do what we’re told,” he said. “But we’re not simply badge numbers, we’re human beings.”
Slater said they have worked with rider-driver alliances in L.A. and Atlanta, and that para-transit activists, fighting for quality transit for the disabled, have been among their staunchest allies.
Labor history professor Joe Berry pointed out that bus driver-rider activism has a long history, with the San Francisco drivers union proposing free fares and the 1968 Democratic Convention demonstrations in Chicago featuring a wave of support led by Black Panther Bobby Seale for a wildcat strike by black bus drivers.
“Management ha[s] no practical experience, they have what I call book learnin’,” said Harry Brooks, a member of the grassroots Little Village Environmental Justice Organization which has been a key force in the rider driver alliance. “They haven’t driven buses, and they never interact with the public unless they’re forced to at a public hearing. The riders could run this system better than management.”
Dean Moulopoulos of AFSCME Local 2858, which represents human service caseworkers, said members are furious at the failure of the “union brass” to protect their interests — and those of their clients — including by voting down income tax increases that could help save their jobs and pensions.
Members passed a resolution supporting a “Tax the Rich” progressive income tax, despite opposition from the “brass.” “We took our abilities to their limits, we did not allow pessimism to guide us,” Moulopoulos said.
He said unhappy members are trying to protect their rights and prpmote the progressive income tax through a campaign including letters to the editor, press conferences, protests and more.
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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.