Freedom/Libertad Issue 8

Articles from Freedom/Libertad, Issue 8

In this issue:
Peoples' Resistance to the 1%'s Attack on Transit
The Popular Roots of the Quebec Student Strike
Spring Comes to the United States

Peoples' Resistance to the 1%'s Attack on Transit

On July 1st, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) increased fares 23% across the Boston-area public transit system. In response, community, worker, and political groups—including Common Struggle—formed the Boston Fare Strike (BFS) coalition. According to their statement, BFS launched a fare strike on July 1st to “not only defend our public transit, but to improve and expand it to better serve the people of Boston and the surrounding environment.”

On June 16th, BFS kicked off their campaign: a 300-person March Against Austerity that ended at the Park Street subway station, where activists held the sliding doors open. More than sixty people stormed in without paying. Once in the subway, marchers handed out literature about the July 1st fare strike. Police, who had a strong presence during the march, made no attempt to stop the action.

On July 1st, BFS held a public training in Copley Square in an effort to spread the tactic. Presentations included a history of fare strikes, the economics behind the hikes, a training on how to organize with riders and speak to MBTA employees, and lessons on fare evasion. Afterward, sixty people stormed Copley Station to practice what they'd learned. This time, dozens of other riders in the station followed through the open gates.

On July 13th, the coalition held a “Fare Free Friday.” Though this evasion was publicized widely, the police were unable to stop over fifty people from getting a free ride at Chinatown and then riding to five different stations. The activists “liberated” each station, holding the gates open for about ten minutes before moving on to the next, allowing hundreds of thankful travelers a free ride.

According to the Boston Herald, the tactic is well received in Boston's working class neighborhoods. Bryon Bell, 49, reports the Herald, told BFS to “Come to the hood! Come to the heart of the problem...Come to Ruggles Station, come to Jackson Square, where people ride the bus in bulk. ” Phoebe Nugent, a 32-year-old Dorchester waitress told the Herald, “If they are going to increase the fares, they should increase the minimum wage.”

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo is less enthused, saying, “The group’s tactics are misguided and serve to do nothing more than worsen the MBTA’s already fragile financial condition.”

The Tea Party has even joined the war on public transit, showing which class they serve. New York Times reports the Tea Party is taking action against “expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space,” claiming that these attempts “to control sprawl and conserve energy” are a U.N. conspiracy “to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities.”

While for the working class good public transit offers an affordable way to commute, reduces pollution and our reliance on oil, and provides union jobs, the rich class (which sets public policy) is concerned only with maximizing profit. Multi-national banks and other institutions of the 1% set off the recession, yet continue to get richer; meanwhile, workers are asked to shoulder more of the burden. Instead of raising taxes for the rich, the ruling class uses austerity measures to pass the cost of the recession onto those who can least afford it. Along with rampant layoffs, benefit reductions, rent and tuition hikes, and evictions, working people around the world face attacks on the public transit systems we rely on.

Transit riders and workers are uniting to resist.

New York City workers from the Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the Amalgamated Transit Union, along with Occupy Wall St activists, conducted mass fare evasions on March 28th at over twenty Metro stations. According to their press release, “No property was damaged. Teams have chained open service gates and taped up turnstiles” allowing tens of thousands of people a free ride to work. Chicago has seen two fare strikes in the last decade which helped defeat service cuts in 2008. In 1998, the LA Bus Riders Union not only stopped a fare hike, but pressured LA into buying more busses to reduce crowding. Fare strikes in Ireland, France, Sweden, Greece, and Spain prove that this is a popular and effective tactic.

In Boston, New York, or any other city, when transit workers, riders, and other working class people come together in collective direct action, we can win.

The Popular Roots of the Quebec Student Strike

By Peter Marin, edits by Bernardo (for the full, original article go to www.linchpin.ca)

Early on the student strike in Quebec adopted the slogan “it is a student strike, and a popular struggle.” Over the course of this unprecedented strike, the slogan has become a reality. People from all sectors of society have joined the students in opposition to the government of Jean Charest and his Liberal party, the raising of tuition, and the whole agenda of austerity, where the working class pays for the crisis in capitalism.

As this is written, neighborhood committees are forming in Montreal and daily protests, including the now famous casseroles (pots and pans) protests, are occurring across Quebec – including in small towns and regions not known for their militancy. The legitimacy of the government and its police force is being called into question as tens of thousands defy its “special law 78”, which criminalizes spontaneous protests among other measures. The student strike has indeed become a popular struggle. While no one could have predicted that the student strike would spill across society, this development is not entirely without a foundation in recent struggles. This foundation is best exemplified by the Coalition Against User Fees and the Privatization of Public Services.

Founded in the spring of 2010 in response to the austerity budget of the Charest government, the Coalition consists of 137 member-groups, including community organizations (e.g. anti-poverty, health, housing), student unions, feminist groups and various union locals and district labour councils. The community groups are one of the two driving forces of the Coalition. These groups, whose members are most sharply affected by austerity, have a history of militancy unlike anywhere else in Canada.

The student unions, led by the syndicalist Association for Student Union Solidarity or ASSÉ (the leading student federation of the strike movement), has been the second main driving force of the Coalition. With the major Quebec union federations opting not to join the Coalition – because of their inability to effectively lead it – and the member union locals playing largely a secondary role, it has fallen on ASSÉ and the student movement to mobilize large numbers behind the Coalition’s actions. And according to Nicolas Phebus, who works for the Popular Action Front on Urban Redevelopment (FRAPRU), a housing group and member of the Coalition, ASSÉ “has done the heavy lifting of the Coalition,” bringing thousands of students into the streets and adding a force to the Coalition's actions that the community groups alone could not muster.

The Coalition realized that the union movement was not serious about organizing for a social strike modeled on the Ontario Days of Action (a series of rolling, one-day general strikes in different towns and cites, involving not only unions but also many social movements and community organizations, 1995-1998). “It became clear this was a pipe dream” says Phebus. The Coalition decided on a strategy of escalating disruptive direct actions, including numerous aggressive occupations of politicians’ offices. The painted red handprint emerged as the symbol of the Coalition after members began dipping their hands in red paint and leaving hand prints on the walls of MPPs offices.

According to Phebus, the Coalition's members – especially the community and feminist groups and some rank-and-file public sector workers – have undergone a real radicalization over the past two years in the course of these actions, and this has continued during the course of the student strike. “We are seeing in Quebec a reinvention of social action'' says Phebus. “Direct action has gone from a catch phrase to a mass practice of economic disruption.”

Spring Comes to the United States
By Bernardo

May 1st–International Workers' Day was marked this year not only by demonstrations of bigger, more
militant unions overseas, but also by unusually large numbers in cities across the United States. This May Day was the first time since the massive 2006 Day Without Immigrants that a nationally coordinated day of action successfully called large numbers of people out of work and school and into the streets. Far less of a general strike than in 2006, 2012 suggested that more people from more backgrounds are rethinking what is possible and acceptable in the era of austerity.

In solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, 50 students at Paul Robeson High School in New York City walked out of classes, in protest of the school system's dysfunction, police oppression and the racist murder of Trayvon Martin. Elsewhere in the city, the Wildcat March of non-unionized militant workers marched unpermitted through Chinatown despite police violence and interference, and later joined the 30,000-strong march from Union Square to Wall Street demanding immigrant and worker rights. In Boston, a group of revolutionary organizers, Voces del Pueblo/Voices of the People, held a family-friendly community event in East Boston using the theme of the general strike as a way to focus on the need to build popular movements. They organized three popular assemblies, attended by 50 – 100 participants each, in the months leading up to May Day. The assemblies focused on popular education with discussions on the economic roots of migration, workplace organizing, tenants' rights, and featured a Spanish-language educational skit called "How to Lose You Home in 72 Hours.” In Seattle, a multiracial and multigenerational crowd of thousands, which included striking high school and college students, participated in three separate marches through downtown and attended performances by over 40 local musicians in Westlake Park.

Although the Occupy experience was often a difficult one full of tough debates, winter seems to have given way to a spring where the movement has matured somewhat. A mutual respect over differences in tactics has emerged, based on the understanding that while sometimes people with masks and shields can mean extra police attention, it can also mean having a group of people to stand between you and the cops. By that same token, those who are more into damaging corporate property–sometimes called a “black bloc”–understand the safety in having as many bodies in the street as possible. In LA, the black bloc proved especially invaluable, keeping the march moving by pushing through the police who were trying to block in, or “kettle,” the peaceful demonstrators.

While the moderate wing of the movement is in election mode, the rest are still in the
streets with an understanding that change comes from below and not above. Labor activists may notice that the Democrats they've been supporting all these years are busy meeting with the Chamber of Commerce, while Occupy activists have consistently come out to labor pickets in places such as Longview, WA, San Francisco and New York City. Perhaps this is why the call for a general strike, although it did not gain the momentum many had hoped, found widespread sympathy at a time when labor, organized or otherwise, is taking a beating. In an interview with Common Struggle, Joe Burns, author of Reviving the Strike has this to offer:

If you look at how most general strikes in the United States have come about, it’s because there’s been strike activity in the local community, people have built bonds of solidarity. And then, let’s say one Local goes out on strike, they put out an appeal for other Locals to help them, and then eventually it breaks out beyond the bounds of the dispute between just them and their employer and becomes a generalized dispute between all the workers in the city and the employers in the city. So it really happens as part of a process of solidarity being built step by step.

The rest of the interview can be read at www.CommonStruggle.org