New York City’s school-bus drivers and matrons have gone back to work after a month-long strike failed to win any concessions on job security from the Bloomberg administration. The administration refused to negotiate after soliciting bids for new contracts that don’t include the employee-protection provisions the workers went on strike to defend, and the union leaders decided to take their chances that the next mayor will be a Democrat and more sympathetic.
“We appreciate the hard work our bus drivers and matrons do, and we welcome them back to the job,” Bloomberg said in a statement issued Feb. 15. “In the city’s entire history, the special interests have never had less power than they do today, and the end of this strike reflects the fact that when we say we put children first, we mean it.”
That statement oozes with slimy dishonesty. If Bloomberg appreciates the drivers’ and matrons’ work so much, why did he push so hard to slash their pay and eliminate their job security? He prattles piously about “the children,” but who hit who first? And why are working people who want to make $18 an hour instead of $7.25 a “special interest” when the politically connected developers his administration has fed aren’t? How are school-bus matrons a “special interest” when the city is using eminent domain and taxpayer money to get rid of scores of auto-repair shops in Willets Point so the Related Companies and the Mets’ owners’ private-equity fund can build a shopping mall (and maybe a casino)? When the city rezoned the Williamsburg waterfront so it could be packed with luxury high-rises? When millions of dollars in 9/11 recovery funds went to banks and building luxury housing in Lower Manhattan?
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language.” Instead, they are justifications for things that can only be defended “by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties.”
Orwell wrote that in 1946, and since then, it’s been amplified by the techniques of advertising. When Senator Rand Paul sponsors a bill to outlaw the union shop, he doesn’t say he wants to help employers cut wages, security, and benefits by undermining the strongest source of power workers have. He says it will “preserve and protect the free choice of individual employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations, or to refrain from such activities.” This is also why Michael Bloomberg calls organized working people a “special interest.”
Rand Paul and Michael Bloomberg do not say openly how much they hate the idea of working people making a decent living, of having time off and dignity and security on the job. Their mentality is “fire them all and replace them with people who’ll take minimum wage.” Paul, a Tea Party ideologue, probably opposes the very idea of a minimum wage. Bloomberg, a so-called “moderate,” has supported a token increase in it, at least when it didn’t have much chance of getting passed.
He’s right, however, when he says that organized labor has not had less power since the 1930s. In the Great Depression, American workers unionized at unprecedented rates. They built the foundation for the period of greatest working- and middle-class prosperity in American history. The Great Recession of the last five years has seen the opposite, massive outsourcing of once-good jobs and attempts to obliterate the remaining union workers by governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Snyder in Michigan. Even so-called “liberals” like Gov. Andrew Cuomo make cutting teachers’ pensions their top priority, and Barack Obama is more likely to cut Social Security than he is to expend more than a few inspirational clichés on defending workers’ rights.
In the bus strike, the workers picketing in the cold and going without regular paychecks suffered. The kids in wheelchairs and their parents who had to find some way to get them to school suffered. The kids who couldn’t go on field trips suffered. The mayor and his financial bureaucrats didn’t. They could have sat on their asses until June to break the union.
The workers might have had more leverage if a bigger union, such as the teachers or transit workers, had gone out on strike in solidarity with them. Without a creative pretext, that would have been illegal. On the other hand, the only way people can win anything in a rigged system is when solidarity trumps obedience.