By JACQUELINE BOYLE
and DAVID WALSH
BOSTON-On June 12, over 300 Amtrak workers of the commuter rail system here attended a rally to defend their jobs. Members of the 16 rail unions gathered to oppose the contracting-out of the system to private companies and the resulting threat of mass layoffs.
The extensive rail system has been operated by Amtrak under contract for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) since 1987. Last year the MBTA announced that it would “unbundle” its agreement with Amtrak and accept bids for the operation of each department individually.
The first contract to expire is that for the mechanical department; four private companies, as well as Amtrak, submitted bids. Apparently, Amtrak’s was not “competitive” enough: The contract has been awarded to the newly formed Bay State Transit Services Co., which was able to underbid the competition by pledging to eliminate at least 200 jobs.
Workers have voiced growing concern about the problem over the past year. On Jan. 19, some 200 Amtrak workers staged a protest during the 100th anniversary celebration of Boston’s South Station. However, union leaders have restricted their response to a lobbying campaign directed at their “friends” in state government.
The possibility of a fightback appeared when leaflets began to be distributed to passengers and workers by a group calling itself Commuter Rail Workers United. The sheets offered information about the MBTA contract process and the backgrounds of the various bidding companies, and warned that “we would strike before we let them break our unions.”
Unfortunately, the final message of every leaflet was an appeal for readers to call the offices of the governor and state legislators to protest the changes.
One leaflet invited workers and their families to a rally to save their jobs. Workers (and some families) showed up at the rally in a fighting mood, filling the IBEW hall, carrying signs, and ready to cheer any call to action.
But there was no such call. The speakers who lined the platform were not the leaders of the laborers, mechanics, electricians, and all the others who keep the trains running for Boston. There was no open mike for the workers to voice their ideas.
Instead, the gathering was treated to the demagogic speeches of a dozen local and state politicians. They were introduced by Charlie Moneypenny, international representative of the Transport Workers Union.
Moneypenny, whose union stands to lose the most by the contract change, has been the chief organizer and spokesman of this campaign to petition Democrats to rescue commuter rail.
The politicians took turns heaping scorn upon the MBTA, giving sentimental tributes to organized labor, and making fervent vows to stand firm against the scourge of union busters-“and in return, remember us at voting time in 2002!” The less-than-rousing theme that emerged from several such speeches was that the next offensive in this battle must be a public hearing in the state legislature.
The only attempt at militancy was a call for a sickout by a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the only rail worker besides Moneypenny given a moment to speak.
It became clear, when a high-level Amtrak manager was gushingly introduced from the floor, that the rally was not the work of a broad inter-union committee, as implied by the name Commuter Rail Workers United. The group is actually a handful of local union bureaucrats working in collaboration with management, which is also at risk of losing a lucrative contract.
Although the workers who came out to the rally responded enthusiastically, the ranks of labor played practically no role in the event and were left without useful information or plans for future action.
But a plan is urgently needed. Even if Amtrak submitted a lower bid for the contract and were allowed to continue operating for the MBTA, the new, restricted budget would be the perfect excuse to squeeze further concessions out of its workforce. Layoffs, frozen wages, and deteriorating conditions are on the agenda for commuter-rail workers no matter which company becomes their employer.
The labor bureaucracy has no solution to this crisis. But they have to appear to be doing something. In order to maintain their shaky position between a restive membership and their bosses, they have to wring out the last ounce of credibility in labor’s Democratic Party “friends.”
Labor’s collaboration with politicians is a dead end. All Democrats and Republicans, no matter how sincerely they may speak about defending workers’ rights, are representatives of business interests. Relying on their good graces, rather than on working people’s own decision-making and strategic power, has resulted in decades of defeats.
The first step in an effective response will be to raise a discussion of strategy in every rail local. Then a democratic intercraft committee, with equal voice and vote for all, can begin to weigh the options available.
The only way to stop these attacks on jobs will be through the use of the time-honored tactics of the labor movement-mass demonstrations, outreach to labor’s real allies in the community and, ultimately, the strike.