How to Stop the Transit Cuts: The Fight for Quality Public Transportation in Pittsburgh

Public transit in Allegheny County has become a battlefield in the global war on workers. However, events have shown that this is a battle that can be fought and won. We once faced a 35% cut in operations, including the elimination of service to more than 50 neighborhoods, a fare hike of between 25 cents and 2 dollars, and the vicious slashing of at least 500 unionized transit jobs. Such cuts would have rendered an already mediocre transit system enormously more impractical and inconvenient for the people who depend on it every day. But because this attack was met with resistance, these cuts have been delayed and their immediate impact has been made less severe.

However, the fact remains that a vital public service that hundreds of thousands rely on every single day is facing massive cuts. These cuts are an intolerable attack on the living standards of working people in Pittsburgh, an attack in the same malicious spirit as the present austerity measures so bitterly contested by millions of workers and youth in Europe. The magnificent protests against intolerable living conditions in North Africa in the Middle East are also a reflection of workers’ reaction to the ongoing crisis of the capitalist system. It will take a determined effort on the same scale of our class sisters and brothers around the world to stop the cuts and win the fight for expanded and guaranteed quality public transportation for all.

The immediate justification for these cuts is the fact that, as of late December 2010, the Port Authority faced a $47.1 million budget shortfall. In the face of this reality, the unelected members of the Port Authority Board had “no choice” but to vote in favor of the proposed cuts, as they claimed they were entirely “at the mercy” of federal, state, and county budget-setters.

It is important to understand that the resources to fully fund and even expand public transit in Pittsburgh and all other U.S. cities do in fact exist, but they are squandered by the bosses and both of their political parties. In the past decade, presidential administrations and Congresses controlled by both parties have spent hundreds of billions of dollars waging wars against impoverished people on the other side of the globe, and on a military and intelligence apparatus aimed at maintaining worldwide control in the interests of American corporations. With the onset of the global capitalist economic crisis — which is the ultimate root of the transit funding shortfall — the natural reaction of both bosses’ parties was to pour trillions of taxpayer dollars into the banks, insurance companies, and other big businesses. These are the very entities whose recklessness sparked the near economic collapse in the first place.

Taken together with the obscene Bush-era tax cuts for the ultra-rich (a measure that, predictably, was in effect made permanent with the blessing of the Obama Administration and many Congressional Democrats), it should be clear to everyone that the priorities of both major parties are completely out of sync with, and in fact are entirely opposed to, the needs of working Americans.

Far from cutting taxes for the rich and giving them more public handouts, what is needed is to close the many tax loopholes that exist, and to institute a modest tax increase on the biggest corporations. This alone could provide the necessary funding to close the transit budget gap. To give just one example, major “non profit” institutions like UPMC certainly benefit from publicly-funded transit, and yet they pay no taxes to help fund the service.

Incredibly, the corporate media and politicians from both major parties have the gall to blame the unionized Port Authority workers for the crisis, a claim that falls flat on its face when you consider the facts. Some have even argued that public transit could be “saved” if the Port Authority was privatized, completely ignoring the fact that the Port Authority was created out of necessity due to the utter failure of more than 30 different private transit companies to operate profitably or efficiently in the 1960s. What those who make this call really stand for is the final defeat of ATU Local 85, which would have to contend with privately-financed, professional union busting firms in the private sector, as well as a “race to the bottom” in wages, benefits, and conditions dictated by a market environment. That anyone could accuse the hardworking members of Local 85 of greed at a time when the ultra-rich parasites are giving themselves bailouts and tax cuts as well as sending our working class sisters and brothers to die fighting unjustifiable wars at enormous cost is absolutely unconscionable. Pittsburgh’s transit workers are the heartbeat of our city, and an attack on them is an attack on us all!

Failure of the Democrats

It is also necessary to point out that, as this crisis in transit funding unfolded, the “worker friendly” Democratic Party controlled every level of legislative and executive power between the City of Pittsburgh and the Federal Government (with the sole exception of the Pennsylvania State Senate) — and yet they did nothing until the very last minute. Their inaction around this and a myriad of other issues led to widespread abstention, indifference, and hostility toward the Democratic Party on the part of working people during the 2010 midterm elections, resulting in a sweeping Republican victory. Inevitably, the Democratic Party will point some of the political blame for the transit crisis at the incoming Republican-laden state and federal legislatures, but anyone who has been paying attention will recognize that the crisis arrived on the Democrats’ watch.

In fact, the Democrats began the attack on workers’ right to quality transit even before the current crisis struck. The Port Authority experienced a 15% cut in 2007, under the watchful eye of Democratic Governor Ed Rendell and County Executive Dan Onorato.  In 2008, Onorato (who was then plotting an unsuccessful race for Pennsylvania Governor), forced an enormously unpopular measure to tax poured alcoholic beverages through the Democrat-controlled County Council in order to fund transit. More recently, state-level Democratic politicians attempted to impose higher tolls on Pennsylvania’s highways in order to raise more funds for transit statewide. These were presented as “reasonable” measures, but in reality, such conduct lays bare the Democrats’ intentions: to shift the burden of paying for public transit from the rich and the corporations to the working class, who constitute the overwhelming majority of bar and restaurant patrons and highway users.

Such efforts actually had the aim and effect of politically dividing the working class against itself. It artificially created a rift between transit riders, many of whom saw these measures as a “necessary evil,” and non-riders, who resented that they were being forced to help fund a service from which they do not directly benefit. The pro-boss media outlets proceeded to fan the flames of this controversy, ignoring the fact that the only winners in the situation were the rich and the corporations who the Democrats delivered from higher taxes by forcing the working class to pay for a service that gets their employees to work and their customers to their stores.

The Struggle So Far

In September of 2010, the Workers International League (WIL), along with the Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor (CMPL), and Pittsburgh Students for a Democratic Society, with the last-minute support of several local labor unions including ATU Local 85 and UFCW Local 23, organized the first demonstration in defense of public transit. This action, despite only about a week-and-a-half’s worth of organizing and a modest turnout, made the front page of the Pittsburgh Post -Gazette and sparked a widening struggle against the cuts.

In October and November, the WIL and CMPL helped organize “Pittsburghers for Public Transit” (PPT), a coalition of unions and organizations that also includes ATU Local 85, the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, the Economic Justice Committee of the Thomas Merton Center, Pittsburgh Students for a Democratic Society, the Hill District Consensus Group, and several other socialist and activist groups. Pittsburghers for Public Transit coordinated the demonstrations of November 20th and 24th, which both attracted several dozen people, and was a major presence at the “rolling rally” against the cuts on December 17th.

The lame-duck Democrats reacted to this pressure by pulling a rabbit out of their hat. Only a few days after the Post-Gazette ran a front page photo of the November 24th PPT demonstration, outgoing Governor Ed Rendell announced that he had, as if by magic, found $45 million stashed away in the coffers of a state-mandated organization called the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (SPC), a body comprised of mayors, county executives, and an assortment of bureaucrats from around the region (to be sure, a body absent a single working person). While $45 million appears to nearly meet Port Authority’s purported $47.1 million shortfall, the Port Authority announced that this money would only be enough to sustain the public transit through June 2011.

Rendell, Onorato, and other Democratic Party apologists happily ignored this minor detail, explaining that the money would give the incoming Republican Governor and State Legislature “enough time to find a solution,” knowing full-well that the Republicans openly touted a program of massive cuts to all public services. Once again, cowardly Democratic Party politicians abandoned the working people of Allegheny County to a collapse in public transit so they could point their fingers at the Republicans in the next electoral cycle for their own political gain — despite the fact it was the Democrats who allowed and even encouraged the transit crisis to hit! One PPT member commented that the situation is “like wolves guarding the flock from slightly bigger wolves.”

Still, Rendell’s sudden interest in sending any kind of money the Port Authority’s way was a victory for Pittsburgh and Allegheny County’s workers and commuters.  As several members of the SPC promised to vote against approval of Rendell’s surprise “gift,” members of PPT (including members of the WIL and CMPL) spoke just before the SPC’s vote, in favor of approval of the “couch-cushion” funds.  In a 27 to 22 vote, the SPC narrowly approved the money to put the Port Authority on life-support. Onorato and Port Authority CEO Steve Bland then announced that a plan was in the works to spread the $45 million across 18 months to coincide with a 15% service cut in March (as opposed to the previously-scheduled 35% cut). While the exact details of this plan are yet to be announced, ATU Local 85 and several transit activists are already voicing their opposition to it — with good reason.

The alternative to the 15% cut in March is the specter of the full slate of cuts hitting in June/July, an eventuality which promises massive public outrage. Instituting a 15% cut over an 18 month span allows the Democrats to hide behind their kinder, gentler cut while the Republicans inevitably prepare a bigger one at the end of that timeframe.

The capitalist strategists are clearly hoping that by holding off on larger cuts for a few more months they will take the fight out of Pittsburghers and the PPT. They have used this strategy before. Allegheny County workers were forced to accept small cuts twice within the past ten years, thus preparing the way for even bigger cuts this time around. This is a clear example of “death by a thousand cuts!”

The bosses of Allegheny County are haunted by scenes from France, Greece, Spain, and the United Kingdom from 2010 — they will go to great lengths to keep Europe’s 2010 from becoming America’s 2011. As workers, subject to years of cuts in all public services, we must work to make their nightmare a reality, as it is the only way to end these injustices. We expect and demand that our transit service be fully maintained and soon upgraded! We will accept no cut, no matter how “small,” no matter how “necessary,” no matter how much time Tom Corbett and the Republicans “need” to simply impose the full slate of cuts in 2012!

We therefore need to view these demonstrations and our modest successes so far as only an escalation of the struggle against the cuts, not as the culmination of our efforts. PPT has gained visibility and public sympathy, and has shown the way forward in the fight for public transit. However, this battle will end in defeat and the cuts will remain in place if our level of activity remains confined to the current size and scale. Only a genuinely mass movement with broad working class support can succeed in this struggle. Right now, our movement is only growing its baby teeth — if it is to succeed, it will need fangs.

What is to be Done?

The Workers International League believes that one set of “canines” must be large, mass actions that shut down entire streets — and eventually, the entire city if need be — for hours and even days at a time. Our working class sisters and brothers in Greece, France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, not to mention Tunisia and Egypt have given American workers a marvelous example to follow in the fight against the austerity measures that are coming down on working people in every country on the planet. Mass demonstrations, “days of action,” and general strikes can disrupt commerce and paralyze the economy to the point where even the bosses’ politicians have to pay attention to our outrage and fold to our demands for an efficient, affordable, convenient, and permanent public transit system funded by money that might otherwise be spent on wars or simply given away to the ultra-rich in the form of tax cuts and bailouts.

However, such mass-scale actions will only be possible if the entire Pittsburgh labor movement, starting with the Allegheny County Labor Council (ACLC) adopts this perspective for the struggle and throws its energies and resources behind coordinating and mobilizing throughout the city and beyond. The leadership of every Pittsburgh area union local, starting with ATU Local 85, should go to the ACLC and ask it to mobilize a mass movement against these cuts. A successful struggle against the transit cuts will help strengthen the labor movement throughout the Pittsburgh area, both in the public and private sector, and could even become an example for the nation.

The other set of “teeth” must be the running and financing of independent labor candidates, and in the final analysis, the creation of a mass party of labor, armed with a class-conscious, pro-worker, pro-public transit platform that can challenge and defeat the anti-worker politicians of both bosses’ parties.  These candidates and this party can and must be based on the resources, experience, and infrastructure of the unions, which presently spend many millions of dollars and give hundreds of thousands of volunteers and paid staffers every election cycle in support of bosses’ politicians who may talk a good talk, but in the end, always stab us in the back.

If such resources were instead mustered behind a genuine working class party that was dedicated to fighting for services like public transit, protecting the jobs of unionized workers in all sectors, and generally raising the standard of living of all working people, it would rapidly become the major political party in America, leaving the Democrats and Republicans to fight it out for the status of “third party.”

In the final analysis, the WIL firmly believes that only socialist policies and the socialist transformation of society can provide a lasting solution to this and other problems facing American workers. Many Americans are scared of the world “socialism” and have a knee-jerk reaction against it. But most workers, once they find out what it actually means, are surprised to find out that not only do they consider themselves socialists, but that they have had socialist sympathies for a long time without even knowing it.

Because socialism would mean nothing more and nothing less than the working class majority having ownership and control over the key corporations, industries, banks, and resources of society — for example, the Fortune 500 — and running them democratically as part of a rational plan to best meet the needs of everyone. It has nothing to do with the Stalinist caricature of socialism, with gulags, forced labor, and a lack of freedom and democracy. It is not about nationalizing the local mom and pop shop or small businesses in general.

In fact, genuine socialism would be the most democratic form of society humans have ever organized, with everyone having a real say in how things are done, with political representatives that are directly elected and accountable to those who elect them. This is why we believe that only socialism can ensure that the question of transit is approached from the perspective of what is best for the working class majority, not of a handful of rich individuals and corporations interested only in their own profits and power. This is what we in the Workers International League are fighting for, and we invite you to join us in this struggle.

The working class of Pittsburgh and of the hundreds of other cities nationwide involved in similar struggles are on the front line in the struggle against the corporate politicians, parties, and movements like the Tea Party that would see our public transit, and in fact our entire standard of living, stolen from us. Join the Workers International League in the fight to defend and expand our public transit system!

  • No to cuts or privatization of public transportation! No lay-offs or cuts in compensation for transit workers! No increase in transit rates and fares! Make the rich and Big Business pay for the economic crisis!
  • For a fully funded and expanded mass transit system, democratically governed by representatives elected by the transit workers and riding public, not an appointed board of political lackeys doing the bidding of Big Business!
  • The Allegheny County Central Labor Council should heed the call of ATU Local 85 to lead this struggle.  All union locals who are part of the council must support this call!  An injury to one is an injury to all!  The full power of the labor movement, in alliance with the community, if seriously mobilized and organized, can stop these attacks!
  • The leadership of Local 85 should ask the national ATU leadership to mobilize, along with our sisters and brothers in the Transport Workers Union (TWU), a nation-wide campaign against cuts in mass transit and link this to a battle against cuts in the public sector!

The working class of Pittsburgh is on the front line in the fight back against the corporate politicians, their parties, and movements like the Tea Party that would see our public transit, and in fact our entire standard of living, stolen from us. Join the Workers International League in the struggle to defend and expand our public transit system! Contact us for more information!

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