Thoughts on the New York City Transit Strike - And Quaker Class Narrowness
Since I was not at Meeting for Worship last Sunday (the first time in a loooong time that I missed it), I haven't had any opportunity to discuss the strike with local Friends or to learn what their take on it is. I doubt that there is any one position that all of us adhere to, and I don't think there needs to be. Personally, I am very sympathetic with the union. I recognize that the strike was economically damaging to many people, including the transit workers themselves and also including some folks whose circumstances are even worse than those of the transit workers. For that reason, I can well understand why a person of good will could consider the strike unjustified. Yet I can't bring myself to put all or even most of the blame for the strike on the union. It seems evident that the leadership would not have exposed itself to heavy fines or its members to punitive loss of wages if they didn't feel there was a desparate need to take a stand.
The MTA made extreme last-minute demands on the union, thus precipitating the strike, but for some reason absorbed almost no criticism from the press and none at all from the mayor or governor. Instead, the mayor and governor swaggered and threatened and insulted in public, while hypocritically resuming talks (thank God) in the background. Meanwhile, where is the public anger at the erosion of health and retirement benefits throughout our society? Or - for that matter - at the demeaning treatment transit workers and many other workers routinely receive from high-handed management rigidly enforcing nit-picking regulations? This week's Village Voice has some good articles about the latter.
But the reason I wanted to post about the strike on this Quaker-related blog is that it has sharpened my awareness of the narrow spectrum of social and economic classes included in our Quaker Meetings. Some Friends may have favored the strike, and some may have opposed it or resented it. But no Friend in New York, as far as I know, has an intimate acquaintance with the issues derived from having actually been a transit worker. Among the 500 or so Quakers in New York City, I don't believe that any are transit workers (or cab drivers, or telephone linemen, or fire fighters, or deli-counter workers, or people in the garment trades, or bank tellers, or ... you get the idea). I don't believe this is purely a matter of chance. Consider the following rough calculation of the chances are that a random collection of 500 New Yorkers would not include any members of the transit union.
1) Assume there are a total of about 10 million New Yorkers. (I haven't checked the actual census figures, but I believe this is in the ball park. Corrections are welcomed).
2) Assume there are 33,000 members of the transit workers union local 100. (This figure has recently been quoted in the press).
3) Dividing 33,000 by 10 million, the chance that a single New Yorker, chosen at random, is a member of the Transit Workers Union is .0033 (33 ten thousandths). Therefore the chance that a single New Yorker chosen at random is NOT a member is 1 - .0033 = .9967
4) The chance that 500 New Yorkers chosen at random are ALL non-members of the transit union is therefore approximately .9967 multiplied by itself 500 times, or .9967 to the 500th power. According to my calculator, that comes to just a hair over 19.15%. In other words there is a less than 20% chance that a random collection of 500 New Yorkers would include no members of the Transit Workers Union. (I realize that this calculation is not quite accurate. I have neglected the fact that each time a person is chosen the pool of ten million shrinks by one and the probabilities for the next selection alter slightly. The impact of that simplification is small and the difficulty of doing the math correctly is a little beyond my grasp).)
What is the purpose of this calculation? Frankly, I had hoped before I did it that it would come out differently and would show that the absence of transit workers from our Meetings is only due to random chance and to the fact that there are so few Friends in such a big city. Even after doing it I thought briefly "Oh, less than a 20% probability isn't such a long shot. Maybe it's just chance after all." But then I thought of all those other categories of working-class folks mentioned above and reflected that all of them are either unrepresented or grossly under-represented in our meetings. What are the chances of that? Let's face it, for all our talk of "inclusion" and "universalism" we are a pretty narrow sect and it isn't just because of chance.
What is the real cause of this narrowness? And what could be done about it? I don't know.
But I think I know some of the things that are not the real cause.
- It is not because Quakerism is a subtle, profound faith for intellectuals (it isn't).
- It is not because working-class people are prejudiced against us.
- It is not because working-class people are too busy to worship.
- It is not because working-class people reject peace.
- It is not because working-class people can't stand silence.
- It is not because God wants it that way.
Many of the first venturers into the Quaker faith were people of "low estate" in the world. They were unusual people because of their convictions, but not because of their social class or income or education. Perhaps they were "narrower" than us because their views were more definite and "dogmatic". They were not models of racial inclusiveness, as African-American scholars among Friends have recently begun to point out to us. But when compared to Friends today in the Meetings I know about they seem to have been much more accessible to a whole spectrum of social and economic classes. They were a "great people", not an elite.
Comments are - as always - welcome.
Labels: Quakers and class