While New York City’s striking transit workers were winning broad
sympathy and support from millions of working people this week, the mass media
swung into action with a predictably unanimous campaign of hysterical slanders
against the strikers.
This may have been predictable, but it was no less significant. Both print
and broadcast media, in every case the organs of billion-dollar corporate empires,
did their best to ignore the public support for the workers, while manufacturing
their own version of public opinion.
Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post was perhaps the crudest along these lines,
with an overline, “A message from New York commuters to striking workers,”
followed by the screaming two-word headline, “You Rats.”
On television, ABC News found someone unable to get to his brother’s
wake, which was blamed on the strikers. Television reporters cornered an emergency
medical technician and attempted to get him to say that the workers had endangered
the life of a patient whose trip to the hospital was slowed by traffic. Several
individuals were featured in 20-second sound bites with one-word punch lines
like “outrageous” and “unconscionable,” referring to
the strike. No transit workers or supporters were interviewed on camera.
The Daily News, owned by multimillionaire Mortimer Zuckerman, took the prize
for rabid labor-baiting verging on incitement to violence, with an editorial
entitled, “Throw Roger from the train!” referring to TWU Local 100
President Roger Toussaint.
“Roger Toussaint, we dare you to take to the Brooklyn Bridge this morning
to tell the cold, walking throngs why you chose to disrupt the lives of millions,
jacked up the expenses of tens of thousands, shuttered and crimped business,
opened the subway system to terrorism and generally threatened the public health
and welfare,” the News editors shrieked.
“It would be delicious watching you try to justify the reckless, lawless
transit strike that you have inflicted on the city—assuming your fellow
New Yorkers didn’t hurl you over the railing into the icy waters before
you got a word out ...”
In fact, although those crossing the Brooklyn Bridge no doubt include some
disgruntled middle class and wealthy commuters, it’s a safe bet that transit
workers would also be met with warm support there, as evidenced by drivers honking
in support of transit pickets, and even in numerous letters to the same papers
whose editors denounced the workers.
What passes for the “liberal” press joined in the attacks on the
union. The New York Times headlined its nervous editorial, “An Unnecessary
Transit Strike,” while Newsday denounced this “outrageous and illegal
The media attacks against the workers fall into two main categories: First,
the transit workers, averaging more than $50,000 annually in wages, are greedy.
Second, in the pious and hypocritical words of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “we
live in a country of laws where there can be severe consequences for those who
Talk of greed is a bit ironic from a man who just spent more than $70 million
to buy his reelection, or more than $100 for each ballot cast in his favor.
Bloomberg is mayor of the capital of world finance for one overwhelming reason—his
enormous wealth. No one who stops to consider his background and qualifications,
even accepting his claims to managerial expertise, can doubt for a moment that
he would never have been considered for the post, nor would his name even be
known to the vast majority of the population, if not for his wealth. He convinced
his fellow billionaires that he would do an effective job in defending their
interests, and he then bought the election, something that was not very difficult
considering the nature of the American two-party system and the complete political
disenfranchisement of the working class majority.
Shameless is too mild a word to describe the arrogance of the billionaires
who scream greed against workers who are paid barely enough to live on while
carrying out work that is physically and psychologically stressful. Meanwhile,
at this very moment, the Wall Street brokerage houses are handing out million-dollar
year-end bonuses to several thousand traders whose work includes nothing productive.
It is interesting to note, by the way, that in recent years the newspapers
have generally trumpeted the appearance of these year-end bonuses in the financial
services sector, pointing to them as a sign of vitality for the local economy.
This year, in the midst of the strike of the “greedy” transit workers,
the Wall Street bonus story seems to have disappeared.
What about the charge of illegality? We are ruled by a government in Washington
that was illegal and illegitimate from its first day in office nearly five years
ago. The figurehead for this cabal is a man who has been secretly authorizing
illegal wiretapping of thousands of US citizens over the last several years.
Last weekend George W. Bush proudly reaffirmed his right to make his own rules
and ignore laws he opposes.
None of the newspaper reporters covering the transit strike has asked Bloomberg,
the Republican mayor, for his opinion on the rule of law in this case. Perhaps
that is what he meant when he said that “there can be severe consequences”
for breaking the law. It does not follow automatically. The workers who courageously
defy an anti-strike law, a law comparable to the laws defied by the millions
who organized trade unions in the 1930s and fought against Jim Crow segregation
in the 1950s and 1960s, must be punished. A president who moves toward the destruction
of the most basic democratic rights is another matter entirely.
Behind the lies spread against the transit workers are very definite material
interests and a definite strategy being pursued by dominant sections of the
US political and financial establishment. The aims are spelled out in the Wall
Street Journal, the mouthpiece of extreme reaction.
The December 21 editorial explains what is at stake in the transit strike.
The editors are somewhat contemptuous even of Republican Governor George Pataki
and Mayor Bloomberg for having “caved” to the municipal unions in
the past. By this they mean that the big business politicians have been unable
to push through the kinds of attacks on the wages and benefits of public employees
that are deemed necessary.
The incredible polarization and explosion of wealth for a tiny handful on Wall
Street is not enough to assure the health of the capitalist system. The system,
by its own admission, in the words of the Journal, requires a relentless and
unending series of attacks on every gain that has been made by working people
over the past century. The editors seethe with fury over workers’ salaries
of $50,000 a year. Pensions and health care also have to go, especially to set
a precedent for literally millions of government workers elsewhere. Public transit
itself has to go, according to the Journal. “Pataki and Bloomberg ...
could use this strike as an opportunity to end the public transit monopoly by
legalizing all forms of private competition—including jitneys.”
In an Op-Ed column in the same issue of the Journal, Steven Malanga of the
right-wing Manhattan Institute think tank calls for New York’s Metropolitan
Transportation Authority to follow the example of Ronald Reagan. “Faced
with a militant public-sector union that violated the law with a walk-out, President
Reagan dismissed thousands of air traffic controllers in 1981 and rebuilt the
nation’s air traffic system with a new work force.” According to
Malanga, the strikers, with their “relatively unskilled unionized jobs,”
could be replaced.
The myth of Reagan as the union-busting Superman is greatly overstated, since
he would never have been able to crush the PATCO union without the active collaboration
of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, which refused to lift a finger in support of those
workers. Malanga’s main point, however, retains its significance. More
and more the spokesmen of big business are saying that the survival of their
system demands a never-ending race to the bottom, as far as wages and living
standards are concerned. This shows what is posed by the transit workers’
struggle and the venomous response it has engendered. For the transit workers
and every other section of working people to defend even the most basic elements
of their living standards and their futures, they will have to fight politically,
and they will have to answer the onslaught of big business with an independent
political struggle and a socialist program.