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November 23, 2008

PAT, Union Busting, and the Right to Strike

Much has and will be written about the impending labor strike against PAT by Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union. The strike, if it happens, will be depicted as a heartless uncaring reckless action by a group of overpaid cossetted civil servants, abandoning their ridership to the December elements.

The fact that the strike is a response to an artificial situation contrived by County Executive Onorato will be glossed over. Onorato has been withholding money intended for PAT, and even recently returned $8M that he said PAT doesn't need. When have you heard of a Pittsburgh politician returning money?

The great thing about the attention on bus drivers is that, like any good magic trick, the sweeping broad gesture diverts the public's attention from the real stink: CEO and management compensation and retirement. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Read state Auditor General Jack Wagner's quote: "Management has placed itself in an elite status and that is the main reason why the Port Authority of Allegheny County is in the financial crisis it is in today," he said.

This is really a setpeice of Allegheny County politics, but it brings into focus the labor strike -- something that was once a normal aspect of American life, and is now a discounted historical oddity, like WW2 rationing of sugar and gasoline - a relic and a curiosity. Something that used to be, not a factor in our wonderful modern lives. By the way, how is that wonderful modern economy treating your family?

Sometimes, the law says that public workers cannot strike. I grew up in a house where "blue flu" was a technique, not a disease. But the law in this situation provides for labor strikes once a process is exhausted. The process has been exhausted, and the union is entitled to strike if they choose to. It's their right. And the PR campaign is painting the PAT employees in a nefarious light for exercising their legal rights.

The County is preparing the media war for hearts and minds, with a website dedicted to presenting the County's side. It was interesting to see the two logos at the bottom of this propaganda exercise: The Allegheny Conference and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership are aligned with the County. Curious that PAT is using taxpayer (my) money to convince taxpayers (me) that they're right.

The Port Authority (PAT) imposed work and pay rules after they could not negotiate a ratifiable contract. Imposing terms is generally a sign of failed negotiations. The Port Authority doesn't want to be a public failure, so they're portraying the bus drivers as villains. PAT calls these imposed rules a contract, but it's not a contract; a contract is an agreement between two parties, with capacity and consideration. These are imposed terms, which is a phrase more generally associated with surrender.

Why December 1st and not November 20th or December 10th? Because that's when PAT is imposing the new conditions, busting the Union's contract. That's driving the event. But the public headline is: bad bus drivers!

The reason for the development of Unionized labor should is something that should need no explanation in Pittsburgh, but a short tour of the need for unions can be found in considering the Homestead Strike,
the West Virginia Mine War, the 1934 textile strikes, and the Haymarket Massacre. A labor strike is a tool of social justice.

The American working class became the American middle class because of the efforts of organized labor. Without the capability of striking the union has no legal, non-violent position of strength to negotiate. In this situation, the Company PAT has agreed to recognize the Union, and the Law provides for a labor strike. This is, dare I say, the American way.

No Union wants to strike. Strikes pose terrible hardships on the workers and their families. But If workers cannot strike within the legal framework, they become less than fully American workers and more like indentured servants. Without the strike, every workplace becomes WalMart.

A small example in my own experience: at Hofstra University in the 1970s, there were thirty janitors who wanted a raise. The University could have rolled over them - there's always enough struggling people to replace a janitor. But they were in a Union, a Teamsters Union, and when the Janitors went on strike the UPS deliveries didn't come, and the plumbers didn't work, and all of sudden those Janitors were pretty important to Hofstra. That's how it used to be. Now, a politician would introduce impotent Living Wage legislation that won't pass, and the Company would outsource the work, and those people would all be on the street, having been taught a lesson about their impertinence.

Unions, like any human organization, have their foibles. Where there's cash there's corruption. Leadership can become complacent and forget their mission. Overreaching can produce abuses that threaten the competitive position of the company. USW was a great union that did great things; when the contracts started providing 10 weeks vacation, or permitted a man working a double shift to sleep through the second shift, both the Company and the Union had lost sight of reality.

For instance, the current rule (that PAT agreed to) that says employees can only be formally warned about tardiness after 13 occasions is nuts, and it's fodder for critics. When PAT bus drivers allocate Overtime through Seniority, and Overtime is used in retirement calculations, and drivers work incredible OT their last year, that's an abuse. The income in the last year isn't representative of the career. That's an example of the Company PAT agreeing to terms it should have resisted.

Is PAT accountable for the situation it's created? Is the County right in intentionally and artificially withholding PAT's money so they can contrive a financial crisis? Is that bargaining in good faith or union busting?

George Orwell would be amused to see a Pittsburgh politician busting unions and wrapping himself in the people's cause while doing it.

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Crystal Eastman said...

Great post!

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