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Looking Back, Looking Ahead

When I got a job driving a bus 35 years ago my friends and relatives, even our neighbors congratulated me even though they knew how hard it was to drive a bus in New York. By the way it still is, in New York or anywhere else.

They were all happy because I got a union job.  Back in 1978 that meant decent wages and good benefits, job security.  I would be able to take care of my family when I got one, and retire when the time came.

Transit was just one of the good union jobs out there.  There were good manufacturing jobs, construction jobs, working for the city or state or the phone company, teaching.  All good union jobs with decent pay, good benefits and a real future.

Like most of us I believed that if all our unions stayed strong on the job and took care of our business we would all keep getting ahead and we would all have that decent life. So I devoted myself to making sure my Union, ATU, stayed strong on the job.

 

View from the wheelhouse

It’s 2013.  I’m not looking at things from behind the wheel but from the wheelhouse as the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union and as a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council.  The reality I see is not good, for transit workers and workers in every other industry.

Managements had already been gaining ground by the time I was hired, and its gotten a lot worse.  Globalization has steadily eaten away at the compensation of the union jobs that it hasn’t been able to eliminate. And even if a union job can be found, it no longer holds the promise of a decent life for  decades like it used to. We’re just not getting ahead, and if we don’t do something fast our children will fall even further behind.

I only see two choices for my generation of union leaders.  We can be the ones who hang on until unions are completely beaten down and crushed, or we can be the ones who turn things around.  We can hope that some of our cities will be the last ones to privatize transit or we can be right in the middle of a popular movement that saves and expands mass transit.  I think one ATU local president got it exactly right at a recent meeting. “If we don’t stop the attacks on the working class we won’t have any more contracts to negotiate.”

Here’s what I have learned.  No union is strong enough to take care of business by itself.  Even all unions together aren’t.  There are just not enough of us.  But if all the people who need and deserve a decent life get together we will all be strong enough.  Unions are the only ones strong enough today to pull all those powerful voices together.

 

Who will decide?

One other thing.  Doing things the way we always did is going to get us the results we always got.  In 2013 that is not good enough.

Working people in America and Canada are in trouble.  Somebody is going to decide what having a job is going to mean in the future, what retirement is going to look like, what kind of education our kids will get, what kind of life they can look forward to.  Either the rich and powerful will decide or working people will.  One or the other.  Our unions have to be the strong organizing center for a decent life for every man, woman and child in North America.  The ATU has to be there.  That’s what the 2013 Convention is going to be all about.