Report from Twin Cities:
affects all working people
Broader social justice issues are at stake
by Chris Nisan
“If we had a government that really represented the people, they would arrest the insurance executives for extortion and tell them to find the money and then we will let you out of jail,” said Dave Riehle, referring to claims by government officials and insurance company executives that there is no money to provide health care for bus workers.
Riehle, who is local chairman of United Transportation Union Local 650, which represents train employees on the Union Pacific Railroad, made the remarks at a solidarity rally for striking transit workers last Saturday night [March 27] in South Minneapolis.
We are posting this article for the information of our readers, because of its first-rate summary of the issues at stake in the four-week-old bus strike in the Twin Cities, the metropolitan area of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Our magazine stands in complete solidarity with the views expressed here, especially those by strike supporter Dave Riehle and by strike leader Michelle Sommers..—The Editors, Labor Standard.
The article was written for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder by Chris Nisan, and was first posted on the Internet on March 31, 2004.
The strike, which is entering its fourth week, has brought many issues of importance to working people to the foreground in a way that that has sparked a wide-ranging discussion among transit workers and within the wider community.
Chief among these issues is the question of health care and who should pay for it—workers, or the companies they work for and the government?
“We all deserve medical care because we need it,” said Donna Standifer, a bus driver for the last seven years. Standifer was standing on the picket line at the Heywood bus station in North Minneapolis. “The companies and the government should take on the responsibility and help with health care costs,” she said.
The cost of medical coverage is the biggest issue in the strike. The proposal from the Metropolitan Council, the body that runs the bus company, calls for workers to pay sharply increased costs for their medical coverage and begins the process of phasing out coverage for retired workers.
For most workers who have family coverage, this would mean greatly increased premiums. The yearly price for the best coverage would jump from $463 to $3,650 in 2004. In 2005, the price would rise to $4,813, a jump of $1,163.
Standifer expressed a sentiment held by an increasing number of working people—that the companies and the government should pay for health care for all. “Why is it that only the working people and the poor should be asked to give up stuff and not the rich? Take it from the rich,” said
Michelle Sommers, vice president of American Transit Union local 1005, which represents the 2,154 workers on strike.
The discussion about the strike and health care has taken place off the picket line as well. The issue was raised at a meeting called to discuss the current political situations in Haiti, Venezuela, and Cuba.
David Bird, a retired member of the Teamsters union, responded to a quote by Peter Bell, chairman of the Metro Council, which recently appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Bell told the paper that transit workers had “Ferrari” medical care. Bird said, “Bell thinks it’s a bad thing for bus workers to have a ‘Ferrari’ health plan. The thing is, all workers should have a ‘Ferrari’ health plan.”
Sommers echoed Bird’s sentiments: “We should be fighting to get it [health care] for everybody, not take it away,” she said.
Solidarity and community support
The issue of winning solidarity and community support has become an important part of the fight. Two weeks ago, in a move widely seen by transit workers as an attempt to bolster support for the government’s position, the governor and the Met Council announced that they would make money available to social service agencies to organize transportation for their clients.
This move, and a steady public relations campaign to convince working people in the area that the bus drivers’ demands are unreasonable, has sharply posed the question of the union organizing to gain public support.
Many workers on the picket line are thinking about and discussing other questions of strike strategy and how to win solidarity. “We should be reaching out to the community so that the governor knows that people need the buses,” said Tracy Williamson, a worker in the transit information center at the Heywood facility.
Williamson has three teenage children and is one of the workers who would be hardest hit by the increase in health insurance cost. “We have to educate the community on the issues,” she said.
In answer to the question, “How would you explain to another working person who does not have health care why they should support your strike?” Williamson said, “I would explain that by supporting us, it would make it easier for him to organize a union at his job and fight for medical coverage. And the ATU would support his fight.”
“We have to maintain relationships with community groups after the strike is over. Otherwise we look like we got our $20 an hour and we’re all right,” said Chuck Robinson, a tech worker and union activist. Despite union members’ understandable desire to strengthen their efforts at reaching out to other working people, many in the community identify with the fight, and some groups have even organized actions in solidarity with the strikers.
One such action took place on March 26. A group of disability activists rallied across the street from Bell’s office at the Met Council. The activists heard speeches, sang songs, and a smaller group met with Bell after the action.
In an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Rick Cardenas, co-director of Advocating for Change Together, a social service group in St. Paul, said after the meeting that Bell “tried to point out that it’s about the budget, and I told him it’s not about money, but it’s really about values. So he disagreed with me.”
Unions and the fight for social justice
More and more workers are coming to the conclusion that it is in organized labor’s best interest to be actively involved in the struggles of working and oppressed people—whether these fights take place inside or outside of unions.
“The next time I see a flier for a protest about an issue of social justice, I’m going,” said Sommers. “They pit working people against working people when we should be fighting together for justice. Any time you hold one group in society down, it holds everyone back,” she added.
“We need a bus riders’ union,” said Standifer. “The union should organize a vehicle for working people who are not in the union that can fight for their issues. We want them to be one with the Metro Transit workers.”
“This is not just about union workers,” said Sommers. “It’s about all workers. It’s about workers’ rights—the labor movement is just in the forefront.”
The ATU local 1005 is forming a community support committee. If you would like to join, or for more information, call 612-379-2914 or write firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Nisan welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.