By SARAH DORSEY The Chief
Amalgamated Transit Union International President Larry Hanley last month announced he was changing battle tactics against not just local governments but the multinational companies that contract with them, which he portrayed as corporate Goliaths, trying to pick off his transit workers’ wages and benefits city by city.
He and his delegates at the ATU’s triennial convention this summer voted to beef up their efforts against such moves by private owners, among the most prominent of them Veolia and First Transit. Veolia, a French company, took over Nassau County’s former Long Island Bus in 2012, wringing out pension and health-care concessions along the way. British-owned First Transit recently won a bid for a Paratransit service in Queens, leading to the layoffs of dozens of Transport Workers Union Local 100 members. Those who were hired back were offered much lower salaries.
‘Nourishing’ Rider Group
Mr. Hanley also pledged more help from the International for local campaigns—to elect transit-friendly representatives and especially to build alliances with riders.
“There are now 91 cities that have some form of rider group,” he said, among them New York’s Straphangers Campaign and the newer Rider Alliance. “We’re attempting to go around and nourish them.”
The stepped-up involvement of International leaders will be funded by a small increase in “per capita” dues, the amount members pay toward the national union. When asked what inspired him to restructure an ATU that has long kept most of its dues money at the local level, Mr. Hanley pointed to the increasing privatization of municipal transit.
City bus and train services, he noted, are increasingly being run by a few big, powerful corporations. In the last 15 years, First Transit’s parent company bought America’s two largest private contractors that operated city transit services, Ryder and Laidlaw, which owned Greyhound Bus. First Transit now employs more than 96,000 workers in 49 states. Veolia has 200 contracts in North America and moves 400 million passengers a year.
‘Must Aggregate Power’
“We need to have a more global approach,” Mr. Hanley said in a phone interview last week. “We can’t have 130 locals negotiating separately. In a situation where power matters, there’s no way to relate to them if you don’t aggregate your power. The relationship is totally unbalanced.”
The ATU’s delegates voted to create industry councils uniting members of different locals who work for the same private company, a move Mr. Hanley said would make small locals tougher to defeat.
But he also emphasized the need to bring other stakeholders into any local fight, pointing to recent examples in two municipalities more than 1,000 miles apart.
The ATU was part of a broad coalition of advocates that helped pass a referendum forcing city officials to bring back the buses in Weston, Wisconsin, a town of 15,000 which lost state funding in 2011, prompting the Village Council to cut all city bus services. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, another coalition shepherded through a referendum to nearly double the city’s investment in transit after it was projected that the local transportation agency would have to shut down in 2011.
Value of Local Transit
In both cases, faith groups, riders and business leaders played a strong role in saving the transit system, though only a modest portion of the population actually used public transportation.
“The truth of it is there’s a strong sense of community out there of people that recognize the value of the service to their city. That we are our brother’s keeper,” Mr. Hanley said.
The ATU’s sister union, the Transport Workers Union of America, has been moving in a somewhat different direction, building up its state and regional councils. The TWU saw a transfer of power this year as its president, James Little, quit under criticism of his handling of an American Airlines merger and an International Brotherhood of Teamsters raid. Longtime International officer Harry Lombardo was elected to replace him, bringing Local 100 president John Samuelsen with him as executive vice president.
The TWU has traditionally organized along division lines, since its airline and transit members face distinct challenges. The state and regional alliances are intended, in part, to encourage people from different workplaces to support each other locally at rallies and in contract campaigns.
While the TWU’s strategy may seem different than that of the ATU, Ken Margolies, senior associate at the Worker Institute at Cornell University, said they are actually somewhat complementary.
“The basic strategy is how to use the union’s strength as effectively as possible,” he said in a phone interview. The TWU’s locals also tend to be much bigger, giving them more leverage.
Mr. Hanley is following a wider trend that’s been embraced by other large unions, including the Teamsters, Mr. Margolies explained. Until recent years, many unions tended to be as decentralized as possible, in part because locals demanded a democratized set-up.
“That was possible when most of the bargaining was local, when the company was based wherever the work was,” he said, but locals became vulnerable as large corporations began to buy out their smaller employers.
“Companies often have very clear strategies,” Mr. Margolies said. “‘Let’s look at all the negotiations that are coming up, figure out where we can get this [concession] in first.’ They don’t necessarily take on the strongest local union first; [they] look where it’s weakest. And then once you have the precedent, it’s harder for the other locals to resist the concessions.”
Cites School-Bus Strike
“My guess is the strike with the school-bus drivers [in New York’s ATU Local 1181 in January] might have been a big motivator because it was clear that the local on its own was not prepared for such a major negotiation without a lot of support from the outside,” he said. “These isolated situations where a local is up against more than [it] can handle alone [are] dangerous for everybody because it sets a precedent and it makes the labor movement look weak, and it makes them look unprepared.”
The need to shore up small locals facing large opponents also drove the strong union support for New York’s locked-out Con Edison workers in the summer of 2012, Mr. Margolies said. Local 100 rallied in support of those utility workers, who especially benefited from the efforts of the Service Employees International Union’s Local 32 BJ.
‘Marshal Support Early’
“I think there was a feeling that had other unions been involved earlier, they would have done even better,” Mr. Margolies said. “There’s discussion in the labor movement about trying to marshal their support as early as possible to avoid situations where the local is in trouble before they ask for help. To win a strike or any campaign, there’s a certain amount of infrastructure [needed], and you’re playing catch up if you do that once things get rough.”
Mr. Samuelsen declined to comment on the TWU International’s strategy, but praised Mr. Hanley’s decision to put more emphasis on local rider alliances, saying such support had been key to Local 100’s getting bus service restored for residents of Red Hook, Brooklyn, after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority made cuts in 2010.