Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Valley Metro: Driving Us To Work

Phoenix Insurgent

Providing more evidence of the growing attack by the bosses on us workers (and highlighting the capitalist irony that we don't even want to work in the first place), various news outlets report the impending firing of four light rail operators. Using the (dubious) excuse of increasing costs, the bosses have imposed a literal speed up on drivers, forcing the remaining workers to produce more in the same time. That's nothing new: bosses commonly use bad economic times (although, do we workers really know any other kind?) as an excuse to broaden and intensify their attacks on our lives and the way we organize work.

In the New Times coverage, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1433 president Bob Bean lamented the false promises given to light rail drivers: "You held town hall meetings where you preached to these operators about how they were going to be treated, and when asked about continuous work you told them they had no worries."

Valley Metro is driving us to work.

I can certainly sympathize with the position the workers are in. When I was in the APWU, as work volume steadily fell thanks to increasing computerization, the bosses and union politicos called a joint meeting and assured us all that our positions were quite safe. "Don't go getting second jobs," I remember them saying. Of course, the predictable layoffs followed just weeks later.

That was twelve years ago and I was a young, naive anarchist at the time with an incomplete understanding of the true recuperationist role of union leadership and absolutely no idea that Capital used technology to shift control from the shop floor where we workers can use it for our own purposes into the hands of management and a trusted cadre of technicians. Considering Valley Metro's stated plans for a driver-less "sky train" system "connecting" to the light rail and circling the airport, perhaps this is a lesson worth learning. How much power and freedom will train operators have at work once those things take over the entire system?

Valley Metro's proposed driver-less "sky train".

But my union had marched in the Labor Day parade with one of those infamous "workers and bosses working together" banners with the shaking hands and all. That should have been the first clue about what was to follow, but I was glad just for once to be making a decent paycheck. The betrayal by the local as well as some by my so-called "fellow workers" certainly opened my eyes. I'd just signed a new lease on a new, better apartment a month before. The job I got to replace it paid half what the old one did. Of course, I'd still rather not have been working at all. But capitalism demanded I do so if I wanted such luxuries as a roof over my head and food in my body.

The funny thing was, we were losing our jobs to a sort of speed up. A speed up imposed by technology. The computers were doing more and more of the work that we used to do, leaving those of us low on the seniority ladder competing with the careers who regularly (out of proficiency and boredom) did the work of two or three lower level workers. We could have stopped those layoffs if we just stuck to our work quotas, but the union wouldn't have it. In the pocket of management, they lied up until the day we were booted out the door. Now, I wonder if those remaining workers can do anything at all to fight the boss, what with the bulk of the work taking place in the silicon chips guarded in far away server farms. Would a strike be noticed at all under those conditions?

I bring this up because when I hear Mr. Bean threaten to escalate things to a "higher level" if the union isn't satisfied with the reasons for the dismissals, I am deeply skeptical. Why accept the layoffs at all? Nevertheless, an escalation of this class war is exactly what is needed. One thing is for sure, regardless of the politics driving union leadership, the power to do something is in the hands of the train drivers themselves.

Light rail: All about the money.

As Valley Metro's own figures testify, ridership is way up and the light rail has become and integral part of many people's travel to work and back. I've written about the light rail before and the role it serves as both dutiful servant of Capital and handmaiden of the ever-expanding control grid. While we workers may use it on the weekends sometimes (if we have the time) to entertain ourselves, the primary purpose of the new train system is the re-ordering of our lives and the re-making of the city to be more efficient for the business class who sought primarily to link the yuppie parasitic colony downtown with what was hoped to be a complementary yuppie settler outpost in Tempe. The yuppies in the million dollar condos in Tempe could travel back and forth to their cubicles at work without rubbing shoulders with us common folks on the bus. Likewise with the downtown bourgeois class.

Like the trains that crossed the West, bringing war to native peoples and exploitation to workers trudging towards California to escape serfdom in Europe and drudgery in Eastern factories, and likewise moving Capital and resources (now summed up in the succinct phrase, "human resources") across the plains, the light rail remade our city and our relationships.

The yuppies moved in. The rents and house prices went up. Some of us were forced to move out to the dreary plastic suburbs to make room for them. The dreams of the new architects of the "creative class", now as empty as the twin towers that loom over Mill Avenue and the vacant storefronts of downtown Phoenix. They look ridiculous to us now. Of course, we never believed in them anyhow. I guess we were never "creative" enough to see it. Those of us who slaved away our 40 (or 50 or more) hours a week made up for our falling standards of living with credit card debt and rising home prices. Now that's gone too. And here we are, finally talking about a fight back. Let's get to it then!

So, while the fantasy has faded, the light rail is still there, taking people from place to place day after day. It is a weak spot in the capitalist armor. If local rail workers can strike at the local rail in way that disrupts the ordinary operation of Capital and at the same time broadens the opportunities for riders to control their own lives, they may have a chance at not only hitting back against the bosses' assault at work, but also at making connections that aid the larger fight to control our own lives for ourselves.

Under capitalism, our lives are a blur...

Creative thought is necessary. What if, instead of a slow down, rail workers offered a free day? Perhaps we could have a "general strike" in the form of a city-wide "take the day off and ride for free" campaign. If there's one thing the bosses understand, it's revenue. Deny them a day of their "taxation on movement" (i.e., fares) and offer everyone else a chance to disrupt the ordinary capitalist organization of their day. Watch the bosses cringe as their surplus value disappears for a day. Let's take back the control of our day with the gift of some free movement. Maybe take in a baseball game or something. Maybe go to a park. Maybe go to a museum or the library. Go visit grandma. Maybe hit some bars up and do some delightful day drinking. They all sound better than working. Let's turn this from a labor dispute into a dispute with laboring! If the union bosses don't like it, that doesn't mean we can't still do it!

How about linking demands for no layoffs to a reduction or elimination of the fare? If the train benefits the capitalists, why don't they pay for it? Or how about demand that anonymous travel is a human right and dispense with the security cameras and various other Big Brother technologies that have turned the light rail and it's park and ride lots into just another extension of the police state apparatus? How much would be saved by eliminating those jackboot security contracts? Let's boot Wackenhut from security! How about eliminating management? That would save a lot. No to advertising on the light rail: must every place be covered with the propaganda of capitalism? How about demanding the hiring of more drivers so that you all can work less for the same pay? 40 hours a week is tyranny. Use your imagination. Then think what else you can imagine imagining. What would you really want, if you could get it?

Find connections where possible. Grocery workers have authorized a strike, is there anything that can be done together? Think creatively about tactics. A few years ago I saw wildcat taxi drivers block City Hall by loading Washington Street up with cabs and then walking away, locking their keys inside. Think of the possibilities... and then think where it could lead. Maybe we can do without the boss entirely. Make a struggle creative and broad enough and there is no end to the possibilities.

Our lives belong to us, not the boss. Let the fightback start now! Occupy the light rail: Occupy our lives!

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