Radical media, politics and culture.

Kevin Keating, "Failed Transit System Fare Strike in San Francisco"

Kevin Keating writes:

Muni Social Strikeout

Kevin Keating

A critique of our efforts to foment a mass "self-reduction" movement on San Francisco's Muni public transit system.

In early 2005, bureaucrats in San Francisco's Municipal Transit Authority announced plans for a fare increase and service cuts for Muni, SF's main public transit system. Fares had been hiked in 2003 from $1.00 to $1.25, and the 2005 fare hike, slated to begin Sept.1st, was to be from $1.25 to $1.50. Several dozen bus lines would see drastically reduced service; other lines would be cut altogether. Plans were also announced for mass layoffs of Muni employees, focusing in particular on bus drivers.

In response, a small group of anti-authoritarians initiated an effort aimed at uniting Muni riders and drivers in large-scale action that could spike the attacks.

Our effort, modelled on similar actions in other parts of the world, especially Italy during the unrest of the 1970's, aimed at fomenting a city-wide "social strike" where Muni drivers and riders would act together, drivers would let people ride for free, and the fare collection system would collapse until the fare hike, cuts and threats of layoffs had been rescinded. The events would jump off on the date the fare hike and cutbacks were to begin, Sept. 1st, 2005.

An action like this around mass transit would be an arena of conflict between proletarians and capitalism that hadn't yet been colonized by the left, the left-wing of capital; the pro-wage labor, pro-state, culture of leftist failure that is what passes for an opposition to the powers-that-be in this part of the world.

Unfortunately the people behind the action, in the typical manner of contemporary US anarchists, lacked backbone and nerve, practical solidarity with one another and political cohesion.

The result was that the spineless anarchists ceeded the political initiative in the Muni action to the first Leninist-led/culture of leftist failure group that came along to hustle them. The culture of leftist failure crowd, with the anarchists sheepishly trotting along behind them, couldn't catalyze enough widespread and decisive resistance to defeat the austerity measures.

The fact that the fare strike didn't stop the service cuts and the fare hike wasn't in itself a failure. The failure was that the people behind the fare strike succeeded in turning the Muni action into a single-issue campaign, robbing the effort of any potential to be something new under the sun. The efforts of the leftists went ignored by the overwhelming majority of Muni employees and riders. In a much more important sense, an arena of potential autonomous working class resistance to ever-increasing exploitation and impoverishment has now been colonized by the leftist culture of failure crowd.

This article examines this failure. These problems aren't etched in stone. A rigorous critical examination of what happened with the failed 2005 Muni effort can contribute to a better, more aggressive, more far-going effort next time.PART ONE: A GENERAL THEORETICAL OVERVIEW
In the days of the old IWW, and later, in the big labor struggles of the 1930's, a labor dispute at several auto plants, a trucking company or a depratment store would sometimes lead to sympathy strikes spreading among working people. A strike at a large enterprise would sometimes become general and an entire city could be shut down.

Now workplaces tend to be smaller and more spatially dispersed than in the era of the classical worker's movement. In part this has developed as a kind of preemptive strike by the capitalist class against possible disruptions to their wealth and power that resulted in the past from labor stoppages at large enterprises employing many wage earners.

Today even a strike at a number of relatively large workplaces located relatively close to each other, like the recent San Francisco hotel strike, is now easily isolated by employers, acting in tandem with their loyal business partners, the unions, and aided significantly by the general absense of working class solidarity and collective class consciousness. Working people in the US are more easily fucked over by capital today because most working people have no direct experience of collective action against the exploiter class and their system.

But class conflict isn't limited to labor disputes in workplaces. Class conflict breaks out in other areas of social life as well, wherever we confront market relations and the state. Our potential power is greatest wherever we come together in large numbers. Today, big city bus and subway systems probably bring together more members of the modern slave class that any other capitalist enterprise.

A big wildcat action in a mass transit system, where bus, streetcar and subway operators "look the other way when people don't pay" has a great potential to give contemporary wage slaves a small but real experience of effective, direct, collective power against an ever-intensifying regime of exploitation, poverty and police repression. Even a small, limited success in an action linking riders and operators could lead to much bigger and better efforts in the future. And, prior to the summer and fall of 2005, one of the things that was best about this was that nothing like it had been attempted by the Bay Area's left-liberal protest ghetto, which fails to frame social problems in terms of class conflict, or by ostensibly more working-class-oriented Leninist groups, with their essentially pro-capitalist and historically bankrupt equation of class struggle with militant trade unionism.

The idea for all this comes from movements for "self-reduction" of prices in Italy in the mid to late 1970's:

"With...widespread unemployment, and increasing repression, Italy's current economic crisis shows how far capital is willing to push its attacks against the living conditions of the working class.

"One of the distinct marks of the crisis -- in Italy as well as in other capitalist countries -- is the extent to which class conflict has widened, involving directly the area of social consumption. The dramatic increase in the cost of living is in fact setting off a wave of struggles dictated by the working class need to protect their wage gains, and to ensure adequate access to essential goods and services such as food, housing, utilities and transportation...

"The practice of 'self-reduction - i.e., the refusal to comply with price increases of essential services - is the answer that has emerged from this terrain of struggle...

"Self-reduction is not an entirely new phenomonon in Italy...What is new is the way in which this practice has spread to other sectors of essential social consumption, such as public transit, electricity and home heating.

"When viewed in the context of parallel practices -- such as squatting and organized mass appropriation of groceries from supermarkets - this struggle becomes more than a merely defensive one. It becomes -- as some militants have called it -- a struggle for the re-appropriation of social wealth produced by the working class but unpaid by capital."

("The Working Class Struggle Against the Crisis: Self-Reduction of Prices in Italy," by Bruno Ramirez, February 1975. Available in 'Midnight Oil,' from the autonomist Marxist Midnight Notes collective.)

Before the inception of Muni Social Strike, the only "opposition" to the fare hike and service cuts had come from a gaggle of left-liberal political panhandlers called Coalition for Transit Justice. With a name that only a social worker could love, Coalition for Transit Justice's version of resistance consisted solely of hustling groups of low-income Muni riders into venting harmlessly in public meetings at City Hall. This going-cap-in-hand to the powers-that-be approach failed to stop the planned fare hike and cuts, and on March 1st the MTA annouced it was going ahead with these. At that point the way was open for a new type of mass direct action response that could do an end-run around the conventional decision-making structures of a democratic regime.

The 2005 effort to foment a "self-reduction" movement on Muni against the fare hike to $1.50, service cuts, threatened layoffs and intensified exploitation of Muni operators was in part insipred by similar actions a few years ago in Chicago, intitiated by the group Midwest Unrest. Info about their effort, "Fight or Walk," can be found here: http://www.midwestunrest.net/fightorwalk/

Some Midwest Unrest people were in turn inspired by efforts some of us were involved in around San Francisco's Muni in 1993, and in "Friends of Black Bart" around BART at various times in the early and mid-1990's. This was a good example of how subversive efforts can cross-polinate. Info about those efforts can be found here: http://www.infoshop.org/myep/love2.html

A group called Bay Area Anarchist Council in turn formed a group called Muni Social Strike to spearhead the 2005 effort.

From the beginning everyone in Muni Social Strike agreed that this was going to be an anti-market economy action. And we wouldn't hide that in our public statements and propaganda, either. The "social strike" beginning Sept.1st would aim at maintaining the socially necessary aspect of mass transit (transit operators would keep the buses and trains rolling) while short-circuting the use of money to gain access to the transit system by working people. This action wasn't going to be presented as a public policy issue, or a question of good politicians against bad politicians, but of class against class. A social strike could indeed be seen as a truly communist act; market relations, on one admittedly very limited level of distribution/consumption, would be briefly abolished by the collective rebellious action of large numbers of proletarians, taking what we need, sharing the wealth we produce as a class, without buying and selling.

The small goal and the larger one cannot be separated from one another.

This also meant recognizing that unions in general, and the Muni operators' union TWU 250a in particular, are a part of the apparatus of social control. With this in mind we started the effort with mass leafletting of Muni bus, trolley and light rail drivers, calling for them to join Muni riders in a on-the-job wildcat action, outside of and against the control of TWU 250a, the union representing Muni operators.

"Communism is not a program one puts into practice or makes others put into practice, but a social movement. Those who develop and defend theoretical communism do not have any advantages over others except a clearer understanding and a more rigorous expression; like all others who are not especially concerned by theory, they feel the practical need for communism. They have no privilege whatsoever; they do not carry the knowledge that will set the revolution in motion; but, on the other hand, they have no fear of becoming "leaders" by explaining their positions. The communist revolution, like every other revolution, is the product of real needs and living conditions. The problem is to shed light on an existing historical movement.

"Communism is not an ideal to be realized: it already exists, not as a society, but as an effort, a task to prepare for. It is the movement which tries to abolish the conditions of life determined by wage-labor, and it will abolish them by revolution. The discussion of communism is not academic. It is not a debate about what will be done tomorrow. It is an integral part of a whole series of immediate and distant tasks, among which discussion is only one aspect, an attempt to achieve theoretical understanding. Inversely, the tasks can be carried out more easily and efficiently if one can answer the question: where are we going?"
("Capitalism and Communism," in 'Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement,' by Gilles Dauve and Francois Martin.)

In an action like this, we must start at the center and work our way outward; the employees of the transit system are the most crucial people to begin the effort with. They are in a position to make a mass self-reduction effort fly. Under the best circumstances this means they would initiate the event themselves as a wildcat, on-the-job tactic. Under the most pessimistic scenario it would mean drivers at least passively going along with a mass action started by riders.

We leafletted bus drivers at one end of Mission Street at Steuart, in the Financial District, and also in front of the Transbay Terminal; many of the city's bus line converge at these points. We also leafletted streetcar drivers in the Muni underground and electric trolley operators (these trolleys are buses powered by overhead electric cables) at the entrance to the Presidio trolley yard. The response to the leaflets was overwhelmingly positive; a number of drivers and streetcar operators asked for more copies to distribute to co-workers. "I heard this is a good one!" one trolley driver exclaimed at the Presidio yard.

With the initial phase of the action underway, and having distributed several thousand leaflets among Muni's 2600 operators, Muni Social Strike put together several "Town Hall" meetings. The first Town Hall meeting, held on May 1st in SF's Mission District, was attended by about 70 people. We tried to get the word out in a big way at this event, and the response was enthusiastic.

Our leafletting of Muni drivers included a flyer inviting drivers to come to the first Town Hall meeting. Among those attending the first Town Hall meeting was Victor Grayson, a long-time Muni bus driver and key member of the Drivers Action Committee, a group of dissident Muni operators. Victor spoke on how Muni management and the leadership of TWU local 250a were out to get Muni operators to go along with plans for service cuts and a massively increased speed up through the General Sign Up. The General Sign Up allows Muni operators to move from one division of Muni to another and get training on new equipment. The GSU for 2005 would lock service cuts and a significantly increased work volume into place. For Muni operators this new schedule would mean that stress, high blood pressure and on-the-job injuries would skyrocket; the new schedule would literally kill drivers. But if Muni operators refused to participate in the sign-up, the new schedules and the increased pace of exploitation could not be implemented.

At a membership meeting of Local 250a on April 19th, the Drivers Action Committee had gotten a resolution passed that called for Muni drivers to refuse to sign on schedules based around service cuts and speed-ups. The Drivers Action Committee newsletter for April called for operators to refuse all service and run cuts, to go for a sign up based on existing schedules, and seek unity with riders in a joint fight against service and run cuts and the fare hike.

Victor's presentation was the first big step toward joint action between wage earners who work for Muni and the wage earners who ride Muni.

In subsequent weeks we continued leafletting Muni operators and made photocopies of the Drivers' Action Committee bulletin. Members of Muni Social Strike attended meetings of the DAC. Some of the people in the Drivers Action Committee invited people from Muni Social Strike to meet with drivers in the Gilley Room (a break room) of the Flynn Division, the home division for Muni's fleet of articulated buses, at 1940 Harrison in the Mission District.

Thirty-five or forty Muni operators were in attendance. Operators were steamed about threats of layoffs of the most recently hired drivers. Fewer drivers would mean less headway; this means less space between buses and a major increase in the stress level for workers performing one of the most stressful jobs in contemporary society. Operators discussed the proposed 3 & 3 scheme. This was an incentive to encourage early retirement. It would have added 3 years of service and three years of age to the retirement package of Muni operators with enough seniority to qualify. It would also have resulted in a freeze on new hirings for two years. Operators also discussed the resolution from the April 19th union meeting, and the possibilty of joint action with the riding public. And employees were royally pissed off at the leadership of TWU 250a.

I made the point that unions weren't defensive organizations of working people anymore, that all unions had become capitalist business organizations. Seventy years worth of increasingly repressive labor legislation have also turned the unions into mechanisms for imposing the bosses laws on union members in workplace disputes. I said that what we needed was for everyone who worked for Muni and working people who rode Muni to act together in a wildcat action that would do an end-run around Muni management and their rent-a-cops, the union apparatus. I argued that the different schemes Muni management was floating about firing recent hires might indicate dissaray in the Municipal Transit Authority, and drivers and riders should keep that in mind and exploit it if possible. The right kind of aggressive large-scale action might force them to back off.

A cliche among leftists and anarchists is that you can't diss unions to militant working people but I haven't found this to be the case, at least not all of the time. Many of the people at the meeting were responsive to my attack on TWU 250a. I put forward the idea that the Drivers Action Committee could become an informal rank and file organization parallel to the union. But soon the meeting was interrupted by the appearance of union functionary Nelson Pino, hollering, "This is my fucking house! No one asked me if they could have a meeting here!" This asshole was invited to stay and pipe down, but he yelled that he was going to call security on everybody in the Gilley Room.

Sometime after the meeting, Pino and Union President William Sisk got management to bring disciplinary charges against two of the people at the meeting, Ellen Murray and Anthony Jones. The Gilley Room meeting was the only meeting that we were able to attend on Muni property. (Pino and Sisk's antics are described in the May 2005 Drivers Action Committee newsletter, "Union Leadership and management WORK TOGETHER to Attack Muni Operators!")

We continued mass leafletting of operators. Some weeks after the Gilley Room meeting a cover story in the San Francisco Examiner described how as many as 75% of Muni operators were prepared to stage a wildcat walkout on June 30th, the same day that Bay Area Rapid Transit workers' contract with management would expire. ("Muni Drivers Threaten Walkout at Month's End," Examiner, June 17th)

The article quoted Drivers Action Committee members Victor Grayson and Bari McGruder's account of TWU 250a President William Sisk's consistent collusion with Muni management against the interests of Muni employees and riders:

"Union leadership and Muni management have been in bed for years...it's time to put the cards on the table and say it's time to stop..." Grayson said. "...The wildcat action is not being done for selfish interests, it is in conjunction with workers and all working people who ride the buses."

TWU 250a union goon Sisk was quoted siding with management. "If they do that, [Muni] can fire them...management has a right to change the schedule."

After this article appeared, Sisk went to bat for management in a big way, singling out militant workers Grayson and McGruder for victimization. After the June 17th Examiner piece, Grayson received a letter of suspension from the executive board of TWU 250a, dated June 24th. McGruder received a similar letter. The union convened a "trial" of Grayson and McGruder at the union offices on June 28th. Members of Muni Social Strike staged a picket line outside the union offices in support of Grayson and McGruder, and Sisk called the SFPD on the demonstrators. The Executive Board suspended Grayson and McGruder from the union for three years and fined them $1,500 each.

This "trial" was intended to "scare people" (Victor Grayson) It appears to have worked. At that point in time the rank and file was not ready to mount a fight, and the threatened one-day wildcat strike did not materialize.

Soon after the second town hall meeting another group, called Muni Fare Strike, sprung up like a toadstool, positioned to the immediate political right of Muni Social Strike. It quickly became clear that Muni Fare Strike was going to be just like Muni Social Strike, only with all the radical elements shaved off.

The leaflet that became the main tool for MFS's perspective said nothing about joint action with drivers; this could only undercut the practical effectiveness of the effort and was flat-out politically wrong. An effort like this is all about drivers and riders acting together, against the corporatist division of the wage-earning class into job categories under capitalism. This effort would not fly if the drivers weren't at least passively going along. And mass action like this can never be mostly about the immediate smaller goal -- it must be mostly about the bigger goal; the creation of a mass movement of working people acting around our needs against capitalist social relations, rooted in the everyday life conditions we face in the main problem country of the world.

That means all exploited people together; not just some exploited people balkanized into a sort of sub-identity as an interest group of transit system riders.

The Muni Fare Strike leaflet was bereft of any argument for why Muni riders should engage in an action that doesn't have any precedent in this part of the world. Their leaflet made no effort to pursuade. Being un-persuasive and un-radical in five languages only compounded the political worthlessness of the Muni Fare Strike leaflet. Working people around here need a convincing argument for why they should try something that might get them ticketed or arrested; this isn't Italy or Argentina, there's no collective culture of resistance right now in the US, here people are generally very timid and mystified. From beginning to end nothing Muni Fare Strike did or said articulated any larger opposition to the world of wage labor and the market.

The key figure in this doppelganger group was a singularly unimpressive Leninist hustler named Marc Norton. Norton had previously been involved in an abortive attempt to rally opposition to the 2003 fare hike. Transit activist Tom Wetzel, who was also involved in that effort, attests that Norton made it clear that his goal in conflicts over mass transit was to put together a Muni riders union, modelled on a similar Leninist-run Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles. Aside from the many other counter-subversive problems that a formation like this would create, this riders union would, in Norton's schema, be run by a Central Committee that would not even be elected by the bus riders' union members. The Central Committee would consult the membership, then make all the decisions -- and this self-selected Central Committee would no doubt include Marc Norton.

None of the anarchists in Muni Social Strike demanded that Marc Norton explain what his politics were all about, or why he and others had formed a seperate group from ours, or why it was that if they needed to form a seperate group they were still supposed to be able to attend all the meetings of Muni Social Strike and camp out on the socialstrike on-line discussion list. My efforts to clarify these points were consistently shot down by servile anarchists. The anarchists demanded nothing from Marc Norton and his underlings -- most importantly no commitment of time and effort to the actions we'd already committed to doing. One anarchist gushed to the Leninist Norton that anything he and his buddies wanted to do was fine with her. At this point the devious Leninist must have known he had the gullible anarchists in the bag.

Marc Norton made it difficult for the anarchists of Muni Social Strike to assert their uncompromizing libertarian principles, since Norton is politically fly enough to refrain from wearing his particular brand of counter-subversive dogma on his sleeve. He doesn't walk around with a stack of unreadable Maoist newspapers hanging over one arm, he doesn't wear a Che Guevara T-shirt, and his facial hair doesn't directly mimic that of Lenin or Trotsky. Even a fairly hapless guy like Norton could get over on what was now turning out to be a typical bunch of easily hookwinked anarchists.

Paraphrasing Gilles Dauve, one of the historical functions of the left is to hold the future endlessly hostage to the failures of the past, and Marc Norton's role in this effort was a good example of this. Norton was hell-bent on dragging this potentially new type of anti-capitalist mass action backwards into statist-leftist-loser-land. He would be energetically aided in this by a resentment-fueled 220-pound political liability named Gifford Hartman, and some of Gifford's fellow beerhall philosophers.

After the May 1st Town Hall meeting a law of steeply-diminishing returns took effect, with each of the two subsequent meetings drawing fewer people.

The third and last one, at the end of June, was attended by barely two dozen people.

At that point we'd had sufficiently detailed discussions to have a clear idea of where to go next. We'd started off strong; by that point we'd given out around 1400 leaflets to MUNI's roughly 2400 bus, streetcar, trolley and cable car operators.

So by the end of June the third Town Hall meeting should have been devoted to specific, practical tasks aimed at getting the word out to the vast majority of public transit riders in San Francisco. We then had a little more than two months to get the word out, and to get the word out with clear emphasis on a larger direct action, anti-capitalist, working class oriented worldview before the usual ragbag of liberals, social workers, Lenin devotees and other work-within-the-system types glommed onto the cause.

My proposal was that the third Town Hall meeting should focus on a specific plan for covering the city with posters. In the past, postering has been an effective way to introduce large numbers of people in SF to a radical take on issues affecting their lives. Ultimately in this effort the stickers Muni Social Strike came up with worked much better, but this could only be learned in the doing.

In response to my proposal, one of the more predictable dimwit liberal-anarchists fretted that to plan anything specific would be "authoritarian." This is of course the great anarchist bogey-man, and serves as an endless excuse among circle-A-scenesters for all kinds of incapacity and equivocating bullshit. In any case, nothing practical resulted from the third meeting. It was a lot of empty talk, spinning our wheels and rehashing vague proposals that had already been bounced around in the first two public meetings.

And, if the inability to make a clear decision displayed by the anarchists at this meeting wasn't enough to give pause, there was an even more discouraging development; after that meeting Muni Social Strike collapsed for five weeks. The group ceased to exist. One other individual and I were the only ones left standing; apparently Anti-Authoritarian-Attention-Deficit-Disorder had carried off the others like the 1918 Spanish flu.

Muni Social Strike falling apart coincided with some other anarchists organizing a demo in the Mission coinciding with the anti G-8 events going on in early July in Scotland. The San Francisco demo drew several hundred people, and ended up evolving into a sort of anarchist-subcultural-scenester, just add-water-and-mix riot.

From a communique posted by some of the marches' participants (available here: http://www.indybay.org/news/2005/07/1752559.php) it's clear that the event and many or most of it's participants had subjectively anti-capitalist motivations. Making a connection between global capitalism and the gentrification of the Mission resonates personally with me. I like the way it sounds. I like the way it makes me feel. I have more of a will to believe in stuff like this than most people in this society, but ocassionally my ability to think critically gets the better of my gut impulses. The riot led to a little damage to some deserving capitalist enterprises and a dust-up with some cops -- but it didn't communicate anything to anybody, other than giving some of those involved the illusion that they were rebelling against something.

Whether stuff like the anti G-8 riot is ever of any real use is a big question. In San Francisco at the beginning of July 2005, this event mostly served to siphon away energy that should have gone to the mass action around MUNI.

After the G-8 demo I spoke with one of the anarchists, and this person ran down a list of all the actions they were equally committed to participating in that season; four seperate efforts. Each of these would demand at least a 75% to 85% level of commitment -- if the person involved is for real, and not just a dilletante with a short attention span. Dividing their attention four different ways meant at very best a 25% level of commitment to each effort; in other words, a superficial and necessarily mediocre involvement with each effort. This is consistent with contemporary US anarchism being largely an entertainment culture phenomenon, where the value of activity is contingent on how much personal satisfaction it gives circle-A-scenesters, and not on whether the activity has a potential for impact against the larger society around us.

There's both a quantitative, and more importantly a qualitative difference, between a few hundred circle-A-subculturalists venting their anger at a few legitimate targets -- a wholly symbolic experience -- and a large-scale movement of opposition to an aspect of increased impoverishment and exploitation, potentially by a hundred thousand proletarians; average, socially conservative, mostly a-political people who don't give a fuck about anarchism or Marxism; acting around their own needs, antagonistic in a small but significant way to commodity relations and to the democratic state that commodity relations generate. The G-8 shenanigans in the Mission District made it clear to me that the people I had spent several years trying to build a substantial, long-term, subversive political relationship with weren't capable of making sound judgement calls, or aspiring to anything more substantial than choosing one of every item from the apparent-rebellion menu. Any large-scale subversive potential that the mass action around MUNI might have had was probably wrecked by this.

Around the beginning of August people put electric paddles on the chest of the moribund Social Strike effort and brought the thing back from the dead. The main thing that had happened in the previous five weeks was that predictable anarchist flakiness had by now wholly handed the political agenda in this effort to the culture of leftist failure crowd, embodied at this point by Muni Fare Strike.

With the anarchists having put their directly democratic, federalist and self-managed auto-destruct program into effect, the initiative in the effort to foment a city-wide self-reduction effort on MUNI passed wholly to Muni Social Strike's doppelganger Muni Fare Strike. With the anarchists no longer providing their anti-authoritarian style model of flakiness, irrelevance and incompetence, Muni Fare Strike's brand of old-school leftist ineptitude was able to rise mightly to the fore.

Muni Fare Strike's piss-poor politics were matched by their piss-poor communications skills. Muni Fare Strike failed to effectively communicate a message that would resonate with contemporary wage-earners. The Muni Fare Strike group was openly and honestly antagonistic to voicing any wider critique of life under capitalism as it might emerge in the context of a city-wide fare strike. Their conception of a fare strike was that it should be a way to petition city officials to be more responsive to the needs of a disgruntled citizenry. The entire trajectory of Muni Fare Strike was to make a city-wide fare strike into a mechanism for petitioning City Hall.

Some of the smarter and more aggressive anarchists were unhappy about this, but collectively the anarchists were as always incapable of anything other than tagging along behind the more decisive, work-within-the-system left-liberals.

Muni Fare Strike organized a "press conference and speak out" to call attention to the impending austerity measures on MUNI, and to the fare strike in response. This event was held on Monday August 29th at noon, at the 24th and Mission BART plaza. Groups endorsing the press conference included Mujeres Unidas y Activas, People Organized to Win Employment Rights, The Chinese Progressive Association, St. Peter's Housing Committee, La Raza Centro Legal, The SF Living Wage Coalition, and CARECEN (Central American Resource Center) Muni Social Strike and Muni Fare Strike.

In terms of its effectiveness in drawing attention to the call for a fare strike among the vast majority of MUNI riders, who pay no attention to leftist politics or itty-bitty Bay Area protest scene events, this press conference was as effective as using white spray paint to put grafitti on a white wall:

1. As real estate agents say, location, location, location. The site chosen for this event was a poor one in the extreme. Obviously the organizers of the press conference/speakout were seeking much-needed proletarian street-cred by holding the event on the 24th Street BART plaza in the Mission District. These sentiments were well-placed, but this was still a bad call, since the rally was at 12 noon. The only time to hold a rally about a fare strike at one of the Mission's two BART plazas would have been during either the morning or afternoon commute periods, when large numbers of transit system riders are flowing through the plaza areas.

At noon on a weekday the effective center of San Francisco, and the best possible location for an event of this type, is downtown, on the Market Street sidewalk near the entrance to the Montgomery Street BART station, near the McKisson Building. At this location and time an event conducted with a little style and nerve would have an audience of many thousands, possibly tens of thousands of wage-slaves, not only from all parts of San Francisco but from all parts of the Bay Area. Instead Muni Fare Strike naturally gravitated towards a spot where they and their message would be easily ignored by both the news media and by MUNI riders; the leftists chose to watch life and the working class pass them from a vantage point usually favored by the graying, geriatric members of the Maoist Revolutionary Youth Brigade and six different flavors of howling pentecostals. Like followed after like in this case...

2. Endorsements by groups not actually putting time and energy into the fare strike effort didn't effectively extend the reach of the fare strike. The press conference/speakout didn't draw new people into the action. Most of the groups participating in the press conference/speakout gave a paper endorsement, and nothing more than that. In fact, on the Muni Fare Strike groups' website, you'll find that most of the speakers' organizational affiliations are listed under the caveat of being "...for identification only." Unless I am mistaken this means the groups that the speakers came from didn't even endorse the fare strike, let alone put a commitment of time and effort into getting the word out for it among MUNI riders and drivers.

I think the only group providing speakers at this event that put real time and effort into the city-wide fare strike were the SF Day Laborers. By all accounts the Day Laborer's involvement was a substantial plus for the overall effort.

Did any of the other groups devote real time and effort into getting the word out among MUNI riders and drivers? My guess is that they didn't. If I am mistaken I look forward to hearing about it.

3. I haven't exhaustively examined the politics of most of the groups that had speakers at the Aug. 29th rally. For the sake of argument, let's assume that each and every one of these groups is involved in some kind of real resistance to exploitation and dispossesion by working class and poor people. I'll assume that not one of these groups is hooked up with the local Burton-Brown Democratic Party political machine, that none of them are beholden to city government or Federal funding, that none of them are out to hustle exploited and dispossesed people into having illusions about the character of their powerlessness in a democratic capitalist society, say, by getting poor people to vote for liberals. In other words, let's assume that none of these groups are part of the weak arm of the capitalist state.

Even assuming the very, very best about each and every group at the Muni Fare Strike press conference, the combined audience of all of these groups put together is probably less than two percent of the city's wage-earners and poor people, and probably a still smaller percentage of those who ride MUNI. The endorsement of a fare strike by these groups did not effectively communicate anything to anybody who wasn't already well within the small penumbra of these groups and their politics.

The final measure of the ineffectiveness of Muni Fare Strike's "press conference and speakout" can be gauged by the fact that this press conference received next to no actual press coverage. There was a brief mention in the SF Chronicle, and some mention on some local evening news reports, all of which presented the event as just another empty ritual episode of the Bay Area's professional protesters vaguelly whining about something. From the respective points of view of both capital and proletariat this negligible event and the skim milk politics behind it were easy to ignore.

At this point the anarchist-initiated group Muni Social Strike had effectively become an aerosol formation. The few non-space cadets among us distributed several thousand copies of the Chinese-language version of a leaflet on Stockton Street in SF's Chinatown; as with the mass leafletting of drivers the response was enthusiastic. Several times elderly people came up to me pointing at the leaflet and saying, "Refuse to Pay!" It was a popular idea. Other than that we also hung posters and put stickers up as well.

Others from Muni Social Strike would get way-baked on weed and put stickers up in the sort of discombobulated spots that are the natural choice for people who have Humboldt dank making their political decisions for them.

In this vacuum, a UC Berkeley grad student and compulsive protest scene guy named C.C. assumed a decisive roll in our aerosol formation. C.C. possesses the kind of impressive organizational skills that make for a good career office manager, and he put them to use here. Unfortunately in C's case these skills exist in inverse relation to the impoverished content of his politics, politics which are typical of what's found in the non-working class oriented left-liberal US protest ghetto:

1. C. helped organize a Reclaim the Streets event in April, shortly before the first of the Muni Social Strike Town Hall meetings. Although the people putting the RTS event together knew about the plans for the upcoming Muni action there was no mention of it in any of the propaganda put out by Reclaim the Streets. The info they produced was all to the effect of, we don't care if they jack up the fare on Muni, because we're all hippies, and we'll just ride our bikes anyway. In retrospect this was just as well, since the Reclaim the Streets event was a dance party for hygenically-challenged drop-outs playing bad music loudly. It was self-indulgent subcultural rubbish of no relevance to anyone who doesn't dumpster-dive and live off trust fund checks.

2. C. repeatedly expressed enthusiasm for plans to detour discontent with fare hikes and service cuts into the creation of a transit riders union.

People who see a conflict over fare hikes and service cuts as being solely a mass transit issue are looking at life through the wrong end of the telescope. The main question here is whether a particular method of agitation or an organizing strategy will tend to widen the conflict, or isolate it. Again, this is a class issue, not a micro-management of public policy issue; mass transit is simply one among a number of potential points of mass collective conflict between working people and the capitalist system.

Outside of a period of large-scale social struggle a transit riders union would attract no more people to it than a more radical effort, like what Muni Social Strike had the potential to become at its inception. Alternately, a transit riders union could become an organization with a largely passive, strictly on-paper membership, and a small number of active members speaking and acting on behalf of this passive, led-and-manipulated membership, the way it is with the LA Bus Riders Union.

We need to make the problems of this society an exclusive problem for this societies' owners and managers. A transit riders union would tend to mollify discontent with deteriorating social conditions by giving us the illusion that we can gain something by participating in the conventional decision-making apparatus of commodity society. Working people are under no obligation to take responsibility for the management of Corporate America's declining infrastructure, and this is exactly what a transit riders union would lead to; an attempt to have a more fair and democratic voice in the management of one aspect of the worsening conditions of life today. A transit riders union would be just another group of single-issue protesters braying on the front steps of City Hall. It would channel a potentially rich source of resistance by the wage-slave class into a work-within-the system, petitions-to-politicians, culture-of-complaint cul-de-sac. It would be a dead end.

3. Even as the capitalist labor brokerage TWU 250a was fucking over Victor Grayson and Bari MacGruder, our main contacts among Muni employees, C.C. wanted what was left of Muni Social Strike to inform the scumbags of the TWU 250a leadership about what we intended to do. Only adamant advice against this from our contacts among Muni drivers dissuaded the elite university grad student from this asinine move.

4. As C.C. played more of a role in creating Muni Social Strike's propaganda, like the fake transfers that we would give out when the action jumped off, the anti-commodity and class-conscious perspectives of the earlier effort disappeared. C.'s vision was that the Muni austerity measures were just one more thing to protest on an endless shopping list of protest culture complaints.

Like others in Muni Social Strike, C.C. appears to be a compulsive protest scene guy mostly because it provides him with a social life. When I first landed in Berkeley in the late 1970's dedicated compulsive protest scenesters like C.C. were usually Maoists or Moscow Stalinists, or some other flavor of Marxist-Leninist; in the 1980's they wore Che Guevara T-shirts and picked coffee beans for state capitalism in Nicaragua. Today they are anarchists; anarchism has become the dogma du jour for a certain type of left-liberal protest ghetto habitué. They've changed the name, but it's still the same old gas.

The US left-liberal protest ghetto and its actions and ideas are assiduously ignored by the overwhelming majority of US wage earners, by virtually everyone who works for a wage, or suffers poverty from their inability to sell their labor power for survivable wages in this country. Dedicated protest ghetto habitués return the favor in spades by assiduously ignoring everything of direct relevance to the eveyday life concerns of working people in this society. The left-liberal protest ghetto and its anarchist camp followers are a harmless fixture in the political life of democratic capitalist society, and not an organic expression of exploited people's resistance to exploitation. Protest ghetto activity is one of the signal empty gestures of life in this society. It has no impact on the economy. It has no impact on the political power of our rulers. It has no effect on our rulers war moves and war-fighting strategies. Protest ghetto activity changes nothing and communicates nothing. It serevs as a sort of steam valve allowing slightly discontented citizens to indulge in the illusion that they are dissenting against something. The protest ghetto cannot contribute anything to the emergence of resistance to exploitation by the wage slave class, among other reasons because career protesters don't even know how to speak in the language of anybody other than their fellow career protesters. In the United States, attempts to transplant the communication methods and preoccupations of the protest ghetto to the world of contemporary working people are bound to go nowhere. You can take the compulsive protester out of the protest ghetto, but you cannot take the protest ghetto out of the compulsive protester, and the anarchists of Muni Social Strike proved this in this effort from beginning to end.

To their credit and unlike the anarchists, the conventional leftist culture of failure crowd in the Muni Fare Strike group didn't bail on their commitment to organize a city-wide mass refusal to pay. In the days leading up to Sept. 1st the Muni Fare Strike people demonstrated excellent organizational skills, getting together groups of protesters who would target eight or nine key points in the Muni bus and streetcar system with picket signs, bullhorns, leaflets, banners and fake Muni transfers.

Two signs that the effort was heading in the right direction as it began were the fact that the city-wide fare strike on Muni drew indifferent and/or negative coverage from the repugnant corporate liberals who produce the SF Bay Guardian, one of San Francisco's two free weekly tabloids. And the San Francisco Police Department responded in force on the morning of Sept. 1st, stationing groups of officers at the key points where fare strike protesters gathered, repeatedly threatening to cite us for giving out fake transfers. Here again the Day Laborers played a significant positive role, concentrating their efforts on the Mission District BART plazas at 16th and Mission and 24th and Mission. Some of us rode different bus lines and gave out fake transfers to Muni riders; sometimes drivers let me on without paying to do this. The corporate media low-balled the number of riders and drivers participating in the effort; again, hostility from capital's media apparatus can be a small sign that an effort is on target, or at least has some potential to damage the interests of the private sector elite.

Several thousand people rode Muni without paying on the first day of the event. But my surface impression, and more importantly the impression of all the several dozen Muni drivers who I surveyed at random, is that the fare strike didn't really take off the way it needed to on day one, and after that the number of people riding and refusing to pay rapidly dwindled away.

On top of the massive service cuts, the 2005 fare hike was the second installment in an effective 50% fare increase in two years. Given this, it's inconcievable that the fare hike and massive service cuts wouldn't have triggered spontaneous anger and a refusal to pay among some Muni riders. When you add the number of people involved with the two main anti-fare hike groups, and the fact that public opposition to the Muni austerity measures was launched four months earlier, the limited number of riders' participating and the very short life of the event was telling.

Austerity measures like those on Muni in Sept. 2005 could only be defeated by a widespread refusal to cooperate with the new set-up by a very large percentage of Muni drivers and riders. This would have to jump off in some confluence of favorable circumstances, and exactly what those specific circumstances are isn't clear to me. A few small groups of protesters can't organize it. But a small group of people can get a transparently clear, uncompromizing message out, a message that taps into other sources of discontent with life under the dictatorship of the market, and the right kind of message communicated effectively can maximize the likelihood of an effective large-scale response. Even if a well-broadcast message hadn't led to defeat for the fare hike and service cuts, it could have served as an opening for a more successful effort the next time around. This didn't take place in San Francisco in the summer and fall of 2005.

The anarchists who initiated the Muni effort flaked wholesale at the beginning of July. They contributed little in any consistent, organized manner to making the fare strike happen. From the point when the anarchists folded like napkins the Muni effort was a product of the politics and vision, or lack of vision, of the Muni Fare Strike group. Marc Norton, Gifford Hartman and others were determined to turn the Muni effort into their private property. They succeeded in this. The subsequent Muni fare strike was a flop, and they deserve some credit for this.

From their content-poor and unpersuasive leaflet, ignoring Muni drivers altogether, to a press conference that failed to attact press coverage, staffed by the standard-issue, lets-have-a-press-conference-on-the-steps-of-City- Hall crowd, to Marc Norton's soporific a-political Letters to the Editor in the SF Examiner, the Muni Fare Strike group was so determined to make the effort around Muni into an innocuous, single-issue phenomenon that they ultimately succeeded in making the fare strike invisible to the vast majority of Muni riders and operators.

Muni Fare Strike was loyal to a script written for it by many decades of leftist irrelevance to the vast majority of US working people. Their stunted communication skills were an organic expression of their stunted social vision. They had little to say, they did a poor job of saying it, and no honest critical examination of this failure has been produced by them -- or is likely to be, either. "...in the performance their interests prove to be uninteresting and their potency impotence...the democrat comes out of the most disgraceful defeat just as innocent as he was when he went into it." (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)

A blurb on the Muni Fare Strike web page says, "Vote Tuesday, March Thursday." On November 10, with the strike having lived out its unfortunately brief lifespan, a march and rally was held, proclaiming, somwhat ridiculously, that the strike was still going on. With this, the effort against the service cuts and fare hikes on SF's Muni had cycled back to where it had begun, in a wholly ineffective petitioning of City Hall, like with the Coalition for Transit Justice.

In capitalist society, there are capitalist politicians who win most of the time. There are capitalist politicians who lose most of the time. And then there are capitalist politicians who lose all of the time, and that's the left in the US. A march to City Hall or a rally at City Hall is always an effort to petition officials in City Hall, a wholly feeble way of playing the conventional game. As I outlined at the beginning of this piece, the only kind of action that will deliver the goods, figuratively and literally, is collective direct action, on the terrain of everyday life -- where we work, where we live, where we shop, and how we get around. That means direct action alone, and not direct action as one small facet in a schema of conventional, tried and failed protest methods. Effective resistance to ever-worsening social conditions will only jump off this way. There's no shortcut through the ballot box, or by chanting slogans while collaborating with capital's managers.

An action like a fare strike must be fueled by aggressively tapping into discontent with other aspects of life in this society. A single-issue campaign around fare hikes and service cuts can be successfully portrayed by the media as a lot of silly whinning about one of the trivial and inevitable minor inconveniences of modern life. In 2005 some SF media clowns used the tired bit about being a grown up and paying your fair share. The media play their social control function very adeptly. Against their barrage of lies it isn't likely that enough people are going to get pissed off enough about a single issue campaign to animate protracted resistance.

A direct action-to-the-exclusion-of-all-else perspective was present at the beginning of the 2005 Muni effort. If the entire fare strike effort had been animated by this perspective the immediate results would probably have been the same. The fare hike and service cuts would probably have gone through. But a fare strike lost on these terms would have been a step forward in any case. It could have led to a victory on similar terms in the future. Instead we got a defeat on the same old terms. The perspectives and practical acts of leftists and career protesters are going nowhere.

By the time of the November rally and march some of the few clear-slighted anarchists realized they had been snookered in the Muni effort by pro-state, pro-wage labor leftists of the Marc Norton stripe. And, with the strike having followed a course that had largely been a product of the conventional leftists' politics, the wisest move for Muni Social Strike would have been to not endorse the march to City Hall and not even bother to show up; they should have let Muni Fare Strike take all the credit for the fare strike -- especially for it's failure. It would at least have shown some minimal political smarts, and shown that the anarchists had actually learned something from what had turned out to be a debacle. But the words "demonstration," "march" and "rally" elicit an irresistible Pavlovian response in the Toys-Are-Us, just-can't-say-no stripe of anarchist. So the mighty anarchists trotted along at the rear as the anti-authoritarian rump of a rump event. And, always eager to please, they even posted a notice from the Muni Fare Strike group that included a call to vote in the November 2005 election on their internal Bay Area Anarchist Council e-mail list. In the US it's always the same old story; the anarchists are against leaders because they are more comfortable being followers.

Kevin Keating
July 2007