THURSDAY, JUNE 17 -- New York City public school students, aided in their fight by veteran organizers with the Transport Workers Union -- won a major concession from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority when an agreement was reached between State and City legislators and the Authority to continue to provide them with free bus and subway fares to and from school. The missing piece in the agreement was the State's willingness to kick in $25 million. The City of New York will pay $45 million, continuing its steady support of the program. That leaves the MTA with the bulk of the total cost.
Students mounted a number of impressive street actions to signal their anger at the MTA's unilateral decision, reached last year, to end the free MetroCard program. Rallying outside MTA public hearings where they confronted police officers, and later marching across the Brooklyn Bridge, they underscored the public's passionate resistance to the idea that public education would not come with free public transportation.
From the beginning of his taking the helm of TWU Local 100 in January of this year, TWU President John Samuelsen had made alliances with student groups a key element of his community organizing program. Community Relations Director Marvin Holland met with dozens of student groups, forging a relationship of trust and mutual respect. The Union's political action operation, under Vernon Thorpe, pushed legislators to take stands on the issue of the student MetroCards, and many did, making the issue one of the highest profile activist campaigns this year.
The smart money was that the MetroCard cuts were being used by the MTA as a tactic to blunt or divert public anger against bus and subway service cuts and layoffs, and that the students would win in the end. But a win is a win, and the victory was hard-fought. Student protests drew the ire of Mayor Bloomberg, who remarked after last weeks' Brooklyn Bridge march that the students should have been in class and would end up regretting the loss of study time. Others saw it as a valuable lesson in empowerment and democracy, just as important in its own way as book learning.
Said TWU Organizer Cheska Tolentino, who cheered and motivated students, often telling them not to lose heart and to believe they could make a difference: "They won it. I'm very proud of them."