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Does it have to be bus driver union contracts vs the Transit Millage?: Organizing Movements for more than either or outcomes

October 30, 2017

A few weeks ago, we posted a brief article highlighting some of the tension between the ATU (bus drivers union) and the group Equity PAC. 

The ATU has been working without a contract for 2 years and will likely advocate for people to not support the bus millage as long as they are working without a contract. Equity PAC disagrees with the ATU tactic and believes that the union should put riders, particularly those most marginalized, first on this issue.

Last Tuesday, over 50 people spoke during the Grand Rapids City Commission meeting and most of them were advocating for an Equal Services policy to be adopted by the city, which would make it so city employees (including police) NOT ask people about their immigration status. However, what was interesting about those who spoke, is that most of them were also advocating for the city to push for a fair contract resolution for the bus driver’s union.

This was a powerful display of solidarity, because immigrants, union members and allies  came together to make the statement, “immigrant rights are workers rights!”

This relationship between the ATU and Movimiento Cosecha GR, did not come out of nowhere. Since the early part of 2017, bus drivers and their allies have been participating in marches, strikes and boycotts that Movimiento Cosehca GR has been organizing. This growing relationship was evident at the City Commission meeting on Tuesday night, especially for those who have been following each groups struggle in recent years.

The solidarity between these two groups demonstrated that they not only could work together, but they could walk together on the journey to justice and collective liberation.

Short Term and Long Term strategies for Movement Building

In terms of the Millage Vote, which will be determined on November 7, there may not be any short term solutions, since both the ATU and Equity PAC seem firm in their positions. However, what if both agreed to sit down and discuss some long term strategies about building a more powerful grassroots movement that can demand and win on issue after issue?

Of course, this not only applies to the ATU and Equity PAC, but to a whole host of groups that claim to be for social justice – racial, economic, gender, environmental, immigrant, LGBTQ and disability justice.

However, let’s keep the issue focused on the local transit system, in order to use a current dynamic with groups that are fighting for equity and justice.

According to The Rapid, their budget for 2017 was $87,899,101. Besides rider fees and grants, the transit system needs other sources of funding to maintain the current services. Having people vote on a transit millage every so many years on one level makes sense, but what if we used our political imagination and thought about funding in a much more expansive and radically just way.

The question isn’t whether or not there is enough funding available for efficient mass transit systems, it is a question of priorities. For instance, the US military budget annually is the largest in the world and contributes to a whole range of injustices – such as bombing people, the use of drone warfare, direct military intervention and maintaining nearly 1,000 US military bases across the globe. What if some of the military funding that left Grand Rapids (in the form of tax dollars) was used to fund the existing mass transit system and to expand it?

According to the National Priorities Project, $264.72 million in taxes leaves Grand Rapids every year to fund US militarism. This amount is roughly three times the amount of funding needed for The Rapid on an annual basis. However, The Rapid operates in several other communities outside of GR. Therefore, if we looked at the amount of tax money that goes to the Pentagon each year from Kent County, that total would be $958.16 million. This amount is 10 times what the annual budget of The Rapid.

So what would it take to get people organized to fight for this type of economic conversion?

First, we would need to get together labor groups, groups focused on equity, environmental groups, disability groups, groups calling for racial justice, immigrant justice, queer justice and climate justice. Second, a platform would need to be created that all the groups could agree upon, which would provide a framework for how to organize. This is what some of us call Points of Unity, which provides some vision and accountability for the work ahead.

So lets say that people recognize that US militarism contributes directly to white supremacy, gender violence, environmental destruction, climate change, refugees, etc. We would see that people experiencing poverty, which are disproportionately black and brown communities, are targeted by military recruiters. We would see that most of the fossil fuels that are being extracted in North America, which fuels the US military, is being extracted from Indigenous lands and/or the pipelines runs through Indigenous lands. This recognition would allow each of the groups involved to make it clear that it was in the best interest of their constituents to support such an effort, but more importantly it would facilitate the possibility that we reorient our struggles around fighting settler colonialism, colonialism and white supremacy.

Third, an educational campaign would need to be developed, along with strategies using direct action. However, we must not limit ourselves to electoral strategies, since they have proven to be rather ineffective. We need strategies that builds grassroots and autonomous power for the long term. The Movement for Black Lives provides an important model.

Fourth, those involved in such a movement would agree that we support each other’s struggles and recognize that it is the economic and political system, which are the real problem, not each other. One thing we need to do in movement building is spend way more energy on directing our rage at the systems of power and oppression than we do on other people with whom we probably have more in common with than we think.

Fifth, such a movement also facilitates that we do not operate in silos and are always thinking about how issues are connected. More importantly, it means that those involved in such movement building are spending more time together, which means we would be developing healthier long-term relationships with people doing the hard work of organizing. In the feminist relational organizing model, developing relationships is equally important to whatever work we are doing, since we ultimately need to trust and nurture each other over the long haul. 

These dynamics are counter to how we organize now, which is short-term, fighting for the same funding sources, in our silos focused on single issues and spending more time arguing with each other than fighting the systems of oppression, which are the real culprits.

There are lots of other ways to think about how we can organize for collective liberation and dismantle systems of oppression, but it is paramount that we think differently about how to achieve those goals and to operate outside of a business as usual model that so many progressive and grassroots groups tend to mimic.

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