Sequester Nation: Workers and Their Unions

March 8th, 2013

The first day of the right-wing GOP plan to destabilize our government by continually creating hostage situations over the federal budget and our economic recovery.

Despite everything you've read, this is part of a long term plan by the group that can't really win democratic elections fair and square, the only reason they control the House is by rigging state election districts in easily corruptible state legislatures. That 1% corporate money goes a long, long way in Madison and other Midwest capitols.

We are likely to muddle our way out of this mess once the cuts begin to hurt and regular folks wake up to the mess and call their robotic. mid-controlled Congress people to complain. Hopefully. But this would not happen if unions were some 40% of the workforce instead of 7%. As we've pointed out previously, the low union member rate and the ability of a hard-core right-wing corporate party to create fake societal convulsions to try and hijack the democratic process to get their way are not disconnected. These are two sides to the same plan to destroy the ability of working folks to organize for fair wages and a dignified work existence. The flip side is the effort to scuttle government services, through any means necessary, including this form of economic terrorism, in order that more and more of these previously public, and often unionized services, are handed over to "private enterprise," meaning the 1%ers who pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the election process.

The one and only way to fight this is for workers to organize. Trying to answer emails from MoveOn, or any of the many other well-meaning left-wing groups, in their calls to protest this despicable behavior by both parties, is like spitting in the wind folks. When workers organize into union groups, or even like union groups - they gain power and leverage. They can tilt the playing field towards their needs and their causes. Without a growing and healthy labor movement we end up where we are right now, on the cusp of no labor protections and at the mercy of corporate serfdom. 

Make no mistake, as we will show during The Second Annual Workers Unite! Film Festival, in NYC from May 10th through May 18th, there are many victories happening for workers below the radar of the corporate mass media machine. The one in particular I want to highlight tonight are the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA). Bhairavi Desai, Javid Tariq, Beresford Simmons, Bill Lindauer, Victor Salazar, Ryan Richardson, Melanie Lindauer and an amazing Organizing Committee have brought dignity, workplace rights and imminently a first-time healthcare plan for taxi drivers and their families. This is all done by a group of workers completely outside the protections of the National Labor Relations Act, contract employees. Besides this type of workforce being the wave of the future, as employers try their best to shed any responsibility for their workers, organizing independent workers who do not share a factory or office space is incredibly hard. But these dedicated organizers succeeded. And while they followed many of the basic rules of organizing, the one that stands out so boldly to me is a typical interaction that I was privileged to witness - totally by accident - during a brief visit to their NYC headquarters on 28th Street.

As organizers and activists we can talk for days about strategy, getting workers to think like a working class and a thousand other threads, which are all important in the process. But what many unions forget, especially as they grow in size, is that the original mission was to improve the lives of the workers they wanted to organize. That means they had to deal with them as individuals, banding together to get a better deal, but as individuals, with their own issues and problems that needed to get dealt with in order that their lives might actually get better.

In the midst of a schedule that was hectic beyond belief, during a meeting dealing with the fine points of part of the huge healthcare plan to come, a young driver walked into the NYTWA office looking confused and a bit frightened. Bhairavi Desai, who has a dedicated and hardworking staff to help such walk-in drivers - with issues from speeding tickets, to license issues, to immigration and health issues - looked up from the healthcare meeting and saw his level of upset. She asked a few brief questions, then quickly realized that the young driver was being railroaded into something by the owner of his cab that was way beyond anything he should reasonably be expected to shoulder. She promised she would do nothing to jeopardize his livelihood, but made clear he was being set-up in an unfair and possibly financially damaging situation. Basically, she took the time out to really give a shit about what happened to this young man. No theory, no strategy, no platitudes. She quickly and efficiently got to the root of the issue, got a plan into place to help the young driver meet the issue head-on, but with educated support behind him and had him settled down and relaxed by the time he was ready to leave the office. You build a true union one member at a time, not from decisions made between employers and union presidents high-up, but from intervening in the hard daily interactions of workers getting abused by their employers. Not rocket science, but so few really do this job well.

This was not easy work and it wasn't phoned in, and it happens in that office every single day. That is why this workers group is now an Alliance, a union, over 16,000 members and achieving negotiating results that older established unions would envy. In fact, the NYTWA is the first nationally chartered union by the AFL-CIO since the United Farm Workers in 1965. There will hopefully be many more of these, though the AFL-CIO has been far less supportive of this new and growing union than they should be at this tough moment in labor history. But that is a topic for another blog post at another time.

We salute the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and all workers groups fighting to organize workers into alliances, unions, worker centers. They are doing the hard but necessary work of building back our decimated labor movement and without them, the sequester nation will happen over and over again.