Members Strike Back at Amalgamated Transit Union Convention

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Adam Burch is a bus driver in Minneapolis and member of ATU Local 1005 (written in a personal capacity)

The highest decision making body for union members in Mass Transit across the U.S. and Canada is the Amalgamated Transit Union’s International Convention, held last month in Las Vegas. This event was a huge opportunity for the union to discuss and debate the challenges facing bus drivers and transit workers for the coming three years. Almost a thousand delegates arrived from all across the continent, looking for a way to unite and fight. 

Mass transit and mass transit workers have a host of challenges linked to the coming recession. Every state will face a revenue cash crunch. Additionally, rapidly rising price inflation is already here, there are bus driver assaults, the Uber and ride-share challenge, falling ridership, and the need to fight for fare-free transit. The topics the Convention needed to wrestle with were countless. 

Unfortunately, there was less than a peep from the International leadership about these challenges. Instead, the first days of the Convention included hours and hours of Democratic politicians paraded-in to clumsily boost the International leadership’s prestige. This was followed by the drawn-out election of International Officers: a celebration of individuals more akin to the Oscars than to a serious discussion on how the ATU should tackle the future its members face.

Crowded into the very end of the convention were the policy resolutions from ATU locals. At this point some debate opened up. Ryan Timlin, President of ATU 1005, and Socialist Alternative member, proposed the resolution calling for all locals to adopt and organize around the demand for COLA+1 (Cost of Living Adjustment plus a 1% raise) for upcoming contracts. Timlin argued that wages would be eaten alive by inflation and that we needed a popular demand to protect our union members’ economic security. Over 800 fliers with the resolution had been handed out by SA and ATU members. The resolution was passed unanimously. 

Unanimous Support for COLA+1 

COLA+1 is a serious demand that will have management in a panic and was likely opposed by the International leaders, but they were not willing to take to the mic to oppose it as unrealistic. Many labor leaders care most about taking the path of least resistance in any contract or campaign. They fight for just enough benefits to maintain their position at the top and not anger members. In many ways, today’s conservative union leaders are more aligned with the bosses rather than the workers they represent.

The greatest controversy at the convention was the attempt by the top ATU leaders to railroad a 30% raise above COLA for themselves. The proposal created bedlam. A combination of collective groans and angry yelling appeared to force the International President to back down, go to lunch and come back with an 18% raise for ATU leaders who already make around $250,000/yr. The newer proposal passed without opposition, due to bureaucratic maneuvering. Members were unclear if a “No” vote meant that the 30% raise would remain, and additionally full-time union officers crowded around mics to try to discourage discussion. So the top leaders got the raise they wanted, but not without an open, somewhat rigged, fight with the rank and file. 

In stark contrast, when local President Ryan Timlin mentioned that he only accepts a bus Operators wage for his pay, donating the rest to union and social causes, his speech was interrupted by stormy applause across the hall. That all union leaders should take a workers wage is as popular among workers as it is unpopular among top union leaders. We need union leaders that understand the lives of the members they represent and not protect their inflated salaries and prestige.

The resolution on supporting the establishment of a Workers’ Party, independent of big business, was debated and lost, with long lines of union officials at the mics arguing in favor of staying with our “friends” the Democrats. Despite the motion’s defeat, a large number of delegates will go away from this convention having first come across the idea of an alternative to the failed policies of depending on big business for political representation.

In the past, the ATU was seen as a union that was willing to break from the mold of business-as-usual unionism. The ATU supported Bernie Sanders’ run for President in 2016. The current leadership, however, has increasingly distanced itself from this past. The current President has even shown unwillingness to work with Mass Transit’s natural ally: the environmental movement. 

The Need for an ATU Opposition Movement

In the end, this Convention’s centerpiece was the members’ refusal to roll over to the massive accumulation of wealth in the pay and expenses of our union’s leaders, especially at a time when mass transit workers are struggling to make their mortgage payments, and pay their rent. This rebellion needs to find an organized expression in our union in an ATU opposition that will fight for a mobilized membership for demands that will improve the lives of members and a union that will link up with riders and the working class communities we serve. Future Conventions need to be less hoopla, instead we need more concrete policies and politics that affect ATU members and working people. It shouldn’t be a celebration of our dysfunctional relationship with the Democrats, who give us little to nothing and who see us only as robotic phonebankers for their election campaigns.

This ATU Convention definitely lacked any kind of strategy from the top. However, Local 1005 should be proud that its COLA+1 demand is now the official policy of the 200,000 transit workers in Canada and the US. Now we need to ensure that this policy is utilized to mobilize our members for the future we and our communities deserve as we head into bumpy economic waters. 

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