DC Transit Union Says Labor Must Join the Movement in the Streets

Hamilton Nolan June 2, 2020

Public transit drivers aren’t doing the police’s work for them. Here's why. (Photo by Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images)

The pres­i­dent of the labor union that rep­re­sents Wash­ing­ton, DC’s tran­sit work­ers called Monday’s vio­lent breakup of a down­town DC protest to make way for Pres­i­dent Trump’s pho­to-op appalling,” and said the labor move­ment needs to do more to sup­port the pro­test­ers in the streets of America’s cities.

Every­one in this coun­try should be appalled at that — putting your cit­i­zens in harm’s way for a pho­to-op,” said Ray­mond Jack­son, pres­i­dent of the 13,000-member ATU Local 689, the union that rep­re­sents work­ers who keep the bus­es and trains run­ning in the nation’s cap­i­tal. We’re in the mid­dle of a move­ment, express­ing our­selves. You’re see­ing a coun­try full of peo­ple that are fed up with sys­temic racism.”

Tran­sit work­er unions have offered some of the most vis­i­ble sup­port to the ongo­ing protests. Bus dri­vers in New York City and Min­neapo­lis have refused to car­ry pro­test­ers that police have arrest­ed, some­thing that NYC tran­sit work­ers also refused to do dur­ing Occu­py Wall Street. Bus dri­vers in Wash­ing­ton DC are now tak­ing the same position. 

That’s not what we were hired to do. We car­ry pas­sen­gers. We do not arrest peo­ple. We do not trans­port crim­i­nals. We do not take peo­ple to jail,” Jack­son said. We shouldn’t be put in those kinds of dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions. [Pro­test­ers] are look­ing at the oper­a­tor of that bus as part of law enforce­ment — we don’t need that.” 

On Sun­day night, pro­test­ers in down­town DC smashed win­dows and set fires at the head­quar­ters of the AFL-CIO, which is locat­ed next to the epi­cen­ter of the protests in Lafayette Square. On Mon­day, ATU Local 689 put out a state­ment in sup­port of the nation­wide protests that zeroed in on the labor movement’s role. 

Why did young black and brown work­ers, frus­trat­ed with con­stant injus­tice, not view the AFL-CIO as their nat­ur­al ally with over a cen­tu­ry of expe­ri­ence in the strug­gle for equal­i­ty? Why did they not rec­og­nize that act as burn­ing their own house?” the state­ment read. What are we doing over the next few weeks to ensure that these work­ers out in the streets under­stand that the labor move­ment stands with them?”

Jack­son empha­sized that in pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, the civ­il rights move­ment and the labor move­ment were close­ly inter­twined. Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. was assas­si­nat­ed while sup­port­ing a san­i­ta­tion work­ers’ strike in Mem­phis. Now, though, Jack­son sees less of a con­nec­tion between the two move­ments. He urged unions to take a promi­nent role in the social injus­tice move­ment” that is pro­pelling the cur­rent protests — I’m sure some of my mem­bers are down there protest­ing,” he said — and to let com­mu­ni­ties know we’re here for them,” such as when his mem­bers pass out free lunches. 

It will take a con­scious effort by the labor move­ment to rebuild its con­nec­tion with the mod­ern ver­sion of the civ­il rights move­ment, a move­ment that is now play­ing out every night amid tear gas and police violence. 

Maybe,” Jack­son said, we just lost touch.” 

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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