One thousand members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 gathered this past Sunday, March 19 for the first general membership meeting since the eruption of the disaffiliation crisis a month and a half ago. Having been consistently denied a voice in the matter up to this point by the union bureaucracy, the rank and file workers of Local 113 voiced their anger in droves, and in the process delivered an unequivocal message of no confidence in the elected leadership. This represents a fundamental transformation in the situation within the union, one which will most certainly have reverberating effects in the months and years to come.
Two days prior to the meeting, an interesting twist transpired with the resignation of local president Bob Kinnear being announced suddenly by the local's executive board to the media. Having been the instigator of the whole crisis, Kinnear's resignation might have led one to think that the matter had been resolved. Quite the opposite was in fact the case though! While the defeat of Kinnear's disaffiliation attempt did ultimately represent a victory for the workers, the manner in which it was carried through drew their ire. Fundamentally, the task of beating back right-wing business unionism as represented by the disaffiliation attempt is the responsibility of the rank and file, to be exercised through the structures of their workers' democracy. This task was denied by the leadership of ATU International, the parent union, which stepped in and imposed a trusteeship literally not a day after Kinnear's plot came to the light of day back in early February. As a result of this, the functions of our local democracy were suspended, and the whole matter was handled bureaucratically without the participation of the rank and file.
An important turning point in the whole situation occurred in late February with the release of a taped recording of a phone conversation between two executive board (EB) members. In this conversation, Tony Barbosa (since resigned) explains to John DiNino in lurid detail Kinnear's scheme to initiate a process of disaffiliation and deliver the Local to the giant Canadian private-sector union Unifor, a plan apparently hatched months before the trusteeship ultimately came down. The most scandalous aspects of the conversation that stood out were (a) the general manner in which the members of the local were characterized as cattle to be herded around from one union to the next and (b) the explicit suggestion that was made, naming names in several instances, that a majority of the executive board may have actually been secretly recruited to Kinnear's plan, possibly with the promise of lucrative positions being offered in exchange. Once the trusteeship came down firmly on Feb. 3rd, however, whatever support Kinnear may have actually patched together dissolved, with 14 of the 17 executive board members publicly opposing him. This seeming flip of opinion among many of the EB members would suggest that ultimately they were concerned primarily with keeping their jobs, as opposed to taking a principled stand in any one direction or another. Not a single EB member took the stand that really would have mattered, which would have been to defend the interests of workers' democracy against both disaffiliation and the trusteeship.
All of the above served to harden the opinion of the union members. Worker after worker came to the microphone to demand a vote of no confidence, and that the entire EB should resign. These demands were met by the most resounding applause from the thousand in attendance throughout the course of the entire meeting. The response of the executive board at the front of the room, by contrast, was that of a stony silence. The rank and file wanted new elections in which new candidates could present themselves to take the union in a new direction, one not tainted by the past. It is important to remark at this point that this marks an exceptional moment in the history of our union. Typical membership meetings in the past would bring out as little as fifty to a hundred of the local’s 11,000 members, with participation from the rank and file being notably minimal. This can be said to be the result of a systematic lack of effort on behalf of the leadership to engage with the rank and file over the years; in other words, a disinclination to mobilize the membership and encourage the formation of a healthy culture of rank and file activism within the union. On the basis of events, however, this situation has been suddenly transformed, and the membership has taken to action and asserted itself forcibly.
There are still, however, notable barriers to overcome. Despite the overwhelming lack of confidence directed against the leadership on Sunday, the remaining executive board is refusing to resign and is seemingly committed to serving out the rest of its term. They allowed members to vent their anger and frustration at the meeting freely, chairing only very loosely and permitting the normal orders of business to be suspended for over three hours. Their hope in all likelihood is that this will have been a one-time letting off of steam by the rank and file, after which they could return to the status quo going forward. This was visibly demonstrated by the fact that, going into the fourth hour of the meeting, the attendance had trickled down to just a few hundred members. The energy level was also notably lower at this point, which allowed the normal order of business to resume. This is illustrative of the general fact that workers are pragmatic people, without time to waste, and in a context of a meeting in which it was clear that the executive wasn't going to obey the will of the majority and that the issue was not going to be resolved then and there, the members made their statement and left in order to fight another day.
The natural question that arises out of all of this, of course, is what is to be done next? The executive board is currently hiding behind the fact that the democratic right to recall elected representatives does not exist within either our Local's by-laws, or within the ATU's General Constitution. An officer can of course voluntarily resign, or in more extreme cases charges of disloyalty, malfeasance or corruption can be brought down on an officer; however, the basic right to recall of an officer who is not living up to expectations is not present. This must be changed! These documents are not bound in scripture to remain unchanged for all perpetuity.
The members do have a democratic right to change the by-laws of our local with a two-thirds majority vote. Within the context of the current crisis, and the desire of the rank and file for change, amending the by-laws is the next logical step to further the present struggle. The by-laws should be amended to include the right to recall. The membership must be able to replace an executive that it has lost confidence in.
Grassroots members need to start organizing within the local to push forward a militant democratic perspective that can build a healthy union on the basis of democratic workers’ control. Overall, it is a tremendous step forward that the voices of the rank and file have finally been heard from as of this Sunday; now it is time to translate that collective voice into action.
For a democratic right to recall! Hold the executive board accountable for its failure to stand up for workers' democracy!
For the election of a new executive board on the basis of militant class struggle! Shake the union up from top to bottom!
Now is the time for the grassroots to get organized!