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The Meaning of Solidarity
By Ray Quan

Fri, 24 Jan 2003

"A UNION IS BUILT on its members. The strength, understanding and unity of the membership can determine the union's course and its advancements. The members who work, who make up the union and pay its dues can best determine their own destiny. If the facts are honestly presented to the members in the ranks, they will best judge what should be done and how it should be done. In brief, it is the membership of the union which is the best judge of its own welfare; not the officers, not the employers, not the politicians and the fair weather friends of labor.

Above all, this approach is based on the conviction that given the truth and an opportunity to determine their own course of action, the rank and file in 99 cases out of 100 will take the right path in their own interests and in the interests of all the people"
First of ten guiding principles of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union

The above quote is one that all Union leaders say they believe in.  But in reality, this principle is seldom followed.  Decisions are made on a daily basis in most Unions that circumvent membership control.  I would like to share a perfect example of why this principle can and will work.

I have worked in the Oakland Shop at BART for 21 years.  I have been associated with the Track Department as a support mechanic, a Union steward and as a co-worker.  For almost the entire time, Track has been beset with infighting.  Lines were drawn between classifications (welders, operators, laborers, foreworkers), between the "old timers" and the newer workers. An arbitration was recently won, based on a 1996 grievance, resulting in a fairly large monetary settlement.  The Chief Steward, Brent Coulter, and I went down to the night shift, when the large majority of Track members work, to see how the money would be divided up.  As usual, we expected a contentious meeting.  I could already envision the arguments, based on who was qualified to do the job, who was adversely affected by management¹s violation, how long people were affected, who pushed the grievance forward, etc.  However it came out, we were determined to let the members decide for themselves.

Joe Montgomery, former Chief Steward, gave one of the most compelling speeches I have ever heard from a co-worker.  He stated that everyone in Track was affected by management¹s wrongful actions and therefore, everyone should get an equal share of the award.  When our contract is violated, everyone suffers.  He further stated that too often we preach unity, but when it comes time for a benefit, then we all think of reasons why "the other guy" should get less and we should get more.  If we really believed in Union solidarity then now would be time to show it.

In a truly unprecedented vote, Track workers voted unanimously to share in the arbitration award equally, regardless of classification, seniority, promotion, retirement or death (Sam Williams¹ family will get a share.) I have never, in my life, been as proud to be associated with a group of co-workers as I was at that moment, and I will carry that memory as long as I live.

Respectfully submitted,
Ray Quan
Vice-President, BART Chapter, SEIU Local 790

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