Today’s Transit Workers’ Union (TWU) strike has brought New York City’s subways, buses and commuters to a halt. But it also offers an opportunity to reflect on the position of labour in a country where labour was once king.
This TWU strike is therefore remarkable — not for its power to bring a city to a halt, but having the guts to take the decision to do so. New York’s geography and land economics result in more than 4 million people using busses and the metro system to get into and about the city everyday. So on this 22F morning, there are literally millions of people striding the frigid streets on an unusual morning commute.
This kind of experience leaves opportunity for reflection and a kind of kinship. But what will the prevailing attitude of the walkers be? Ticked off at being inconvenienced? Bitter because the TWU deal is already better than their own contract? Supportive of the union for its principles and stand on defending the rights of future members, the so-called ‘protection of the unborn’?
Since labour died its slow death here, and hyper-competetive individualism has reigned, an interesting atmosphere prevails. It’s most noticeable today in the vox pop interviews with walking commuters on their opinion of the strike. Many voice the view that because they personally don’t have such a good deal, no one else should either. “They don’t deserve anything!” one irate woman spat at a NY1 camera.
Of course there is a gap in the logic loop here. Unionists would argue that if more people were unionised and unions had more power, than that exact reason would not exist. i.e. working people would all have a better deal.
But in a land dominated by large corporations, their lawyers, lobbyists and public relations firms, “labour” here is all bad.
Coming from South Africa, a country where labour holds kingmaking power, I have a different experience to reflect on. Applied judiciously, unions have the power to appropriately improve the lot of the working person, but taken to its extreme, they can be debilitating anchors on a national economy.
So ultimately, it is in everyone’s best interests to have a balance between the awesome power of corporations and the productivity halting power of unions.
And today on our walk to work, perhaps we should all take a moment to remember that with only a few exceptions, we are all workers.