Transit Struggle

Pittsburgh Transit Struggle Shows the Need for a Labor Party

On Sunday, March 27, working people of Allegheny County suffered a terrible blow to their standard of living. Under the direction of County Executive Dan Onorato, the Democratic Party’s candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania in 2010, the Port Authority instituted a devastating 15 percent service cut.  An estimated 12,000 people across the county have completely lost access to transit services that they once relied upon, more than 180 unionized Port Authority workers have been laid off, and the rest of Allegheny County’s workers face longer waits for more crowded buses and a substantial increase in fares, commute times and traffic.

These cuts came in spite of the dogged resistance of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 85 and Pittsburghers for Public Transit (PPT), who had been working together since September 2010 to organize a series of actions in the struggle against the cuts.  On March 19 more than 500 people—transit workers, transit riders, union members, and transit activists—came to a spirited march through Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood in opposition to the cuts.  Energy and enthusiasm were high, and earlier that week PPT had produced and distributed 20,000 copies of a free tabloid newsletter simply titled “Pittsburgh Needs Transit!”  In the weeks leading up to March 27, ATU Local 85 held demonstrations at various local government meetings, culminating in an inspiring 24-hour protest in front of the Port Authority’s offices in downtown Pittsburgh.   These efforts garnered a great deal of media attention and plenty of bad publicity for the Port Authority’s management and the corporate-owned politicians that control it.

In an attempt to appear as if he cared at all about the demise of transit in Pittsburgh, Onorato made eleventh-hour overtures to ATU Local 85, appealing for a negotiated settlement with the union to avert the cuts.  Once they reached the bargaining table, Onorato demanded that the union give up $20 million per year in concessions, which would have included big increases in the amount workers pay into their pension and healthcare funds, the loss of a week’s worth of paid vacation, and changes in work and overtime rules.  Local 85’s officers attempted to come up with the $20 million, arriving at a figure of slightly more than $19 million per year in concessions.  Enraged, Onorato replied with a new demand for $30 million per year, which the union’s officers were unable to stomach.  The next day, Onorato’s demand jumped to a staggering $60 million per year in concessions, at which point negotiations broke down.  The union attempted to sacrifice itself for the sake of preserving public transit for the people of Alegheny County.  But this only highlights the fact that weakness and the accepting of concessions and cuts will only invite even more aggression. The bosses’ hunger for more for them and less for the rest of us will never be satisfied unless it is stopped by concerted mass action to fight back.

OronatoWhat is most disturbing about Onorato’s behavior is the fact that the Port Authority’s projected deficit at the time of these negotiations (just before the March 27 cuts hit) was only $30 million per year—and Onorato was demanding that the union give up $60 million per year.  This was clearly not about balancing the Port Authority’s budget—it was about busting ATU Local 85 and destroying its members’ standards of living. Such disgusting behavior should earn Onorato a spot next to Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker in the Union Busting Hall of Shame! 

Only the Beginning

In the wake of the cuts, the struggle to protect and expand public transit in Allegheny County reached a low ebb as transit workers and the community absorbed the blow.  Local 85 largely demobilized, and PPT lost much of its momentum owing to the exhaustion experienced by its core activists.  However, the fight is by no means over.  As the Workers International League has explained, this will be a long battle, and the March 27 cuts were only the beginning.

Pennsylvania’s state government faces massive budget deficits and carries a great deal of public debt (despite the fact that nearly two-thirds of corporations in the state pay no taxes!). Following the pattern of austerity being imposed by capitalist governments around the world, Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature and its Republican Governor forced through massive cuts to public education and social services in the recently passed 2011–2012 budget. While the transportation budget remained almost entirely intact for this year, this does not rule out state funding cuts in coming years. The capitalist economic crisis will continue to impact Pennsylvania’s budget, and capitalist parties will inevitably resort to attacking other areas of the working class’ standard of living, and transit could very well end up in their cross-hairs next. The Port Authority relies on the state for nearly two-thirds of its funding, so any cuts from Harrisburg will have devastating consequences for public transit in Allegheny County.

Even if this scenario does not come to pass, funds from the Port Authority’s $45 million December “bailout,” which staved off a 35% cut, will run out in late 2012, again raising the specter of massive cuts.  Needless to say, the state’s budget crisis will be a problem for the foreseeable future, and transit funding will always be steps away from the chopping-block.  

Only a Mass Party of Labor Can Reverse the Cuts, Improve Transit, and Protect Our Unions!

Local 85 and PPT both played important roles in the fight against the March 27 cuts, and will remain important avenues of struggle in the fight that’s being prepared against even greater cuts.  Even though it is currently a young organization, PPT shows great promise, of being able to organize effective actions and spearhead a movement against the cuts that are being prepared for the near future.  As this article goes to press, PPT is planning new marches and demonstrations, along with a series of neighborhood forums on the topic of the transit cuts and how to fight against them, which are good steps to take in order to rebuild momentum against the cuts. In addition, the broader labor movement is beginning to organize against Gov. Corbett’s proposed cuts to education and other social services, and the struggle against transit cuts is bound together with this effort.

However, the fact remains that workers in this state and this country still do not have a party of their own in the halls of power.  So long as this remains the case, unions and workers’ movements against austerity will be fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. 

And yet, all of the unions (ATU Local 85 included) backed Democrat Dan Onorato during his two races for Allegheny County Executive and his 2010 race for Governor. In 2010 alone, the unions gave Onorato tens of thousands of dollars, mobilized thousands of volunteers, and dedicated dozens of paid staffers to get out the vote for him and the rest of the Democratic slate.  According to the website, the ATU gave Onorato $2,500 during his race for Governor, at exactly the same time Onorato was doing everything in his power to bust Local 85.  Due to the Democrats’ spectacular failure to deliver on the “change” they promised in 2008, millions of workers who had previously supported them stayed at home on Election Day or even voted for Republican candidates out of protest, delivering the election to the GOP.  Dan Onorato wasn’t even able to win Allegheny County, a traditional Democratic stronghold which he currently presides over as Chief Executive (given his savage attacks against our transit system, this shouldn’t be surprising!).

As we explained in Issue 58 of Socialist Appeal, it is imperative for the labor movement to break with the Democrats and begin fielding independent candidates in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and nationally.  These candidates must stand on a labor platform, which must include unwavering opposition to cuts and privatization, attacks on Local 85 and other unions, and steadfast dedication to the expansion and improvement of our public transit system. Such a position on transit will be a breath of fresh air and will inspire massive support from workers all over Allegheny County who are disgusted with attacks on the transit system from Democrats and their constant double-speak on this issue.

ATU Local 85 should be at the forefront of this effort, as it has borne the brunt of the Democrats’ assault on public sector unions.  Unfortunately, the attention and energies of the Local are currently being exhausted in meaningless squabbles over the replacement of outgoing local President Pat McMahon, and are not being directed into either the struggle against the transit cuts or the effort to forge a labor party.  

We believe Local 85 needs a leadership that will mobilize the rank and file and broader working class in a militant fightback against the attacks coming down on transit and its unionized workers.  Furthermore, Local 85’s leadership should consistently and clearly demand that the union not only cease all financial and political support for Democrats and Republicans, but that it throw these resources into the running of independent labor candidates, as a first step toward the creation of a labor party.  If Local 85 were to take such action, other unions in and around Pittsburgh would surely follow suit, and a party of, by, and for working people would become a reality sooner rather
than later.

* Continue the struggle against the transit cuts in Allegheny County. Make the rich and big business pay for their economic crisis, not the workers. Let the mass movements in Greece, Egypt, and Wisconsin serve as an inspiration to our fightback!

* No to cuts or privatization of public transportation. No increases in transit rates or fares. No layoffs, concessions, or cuts in compensation for transit workers!

* For a fully funded and expanded mass transit system, democratically controlled by representatives elected by the transit workers, the unions, and the 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 and lead this struggle. All union locals that are part of the council must support this call. The full power of the labor movement, in alliance with the community, if seriously mobilized and organized, can stop these attacks. An injury to one is an injury to all!

* The leadership of Local 85 should call on the national ATU leadership to mobilize, along with our sisters and brothers in the Transport Workers Union (TWU), a nationwide campaign against cuts in mass transit and link this to a battle against cuts in the public sector and throughout the economy.

* Set up a Boardmen’s and activists’ committee to mobilize the rank and file and strengthen ATU’s fightback. Labor must break with the politicians and parties responsible for these attacks—the Democrats and Republicans. Local 85 can show the way forward toward the creation of a mass party of labor by running independent labor candidates.


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