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Hitting the Brakes on Transit Cuts and Fare Increases

May 8, 2012
By Marc Bussanich, LaborPress City Reporter
Larry Hanley, Amalgamated Transit Union President, one of the few U.S. international union presidents to speak at this year’s Labor Notes Conference in Chicago, told the conference attendees, many of whom wearing orange “Occupy Transit” T-shirts, that “the fight we have is bigger than our own.”

“There are far more riders for every transit worker. It would be dumb to think it’s our fight alone [resisting cuts to public transit],” said Hanley.

He added, “Eight-five percent of transit systems across the country have raised fares and cut services. Here in Chicago, a 14 percent service cut took effect and in New York City, the country’s biggest public transit system, there have been service reductions. Where is the voice of the riding public?”

Hanley provided a couple of examples of how the ATU is trying to build coalitions with riders and different community organizations to fight back against transit agencies and companies from cutting service, which ultimately results in laid-off transit workers and reduced transit options for the riding public.

But he also stressed that transit unions must learn the lessons from a contractual fight that occurred last year in Chicago. As a Chicago ATU local was preparing for a new contract, it learned in the newspaper that the Chicago Transit Authority’s President, Forrest Claypool, said there were about eight items in the contract he considered outrageous, one of them being a paid 10-minute coffee break.Occupy Transit reacts to Hanley's speech

Hanley read the contract and the supposedly outrageous coffee break wasn’t a relaxation break at all but a contractual requirement that CTA workers check the brakes and steering of their buses and train cars after completing a route and before embarking on another route!

After being reported in the press, Chicago’s new Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, then went on record claiming transit workers are paid too much for coffee breaks, according to Hanley. 

“Emanuel knew, despite all his power, he couldn’t beat us without forming a coalition with riders and taxpayers. Take note of the Mayor’s actions. We cannot work alone. We need to act out of the box and find people who have the same interests as we do,” said Hanley. 

After his speech at the main session, Hanley sat on a panel with ATU local officers and presidents from around the country where they discussed how the union’s new strategy is progressing despite challenges and obstacles.

Darlene Lombos, Executive Director of Community Labor United, facilitated the discussion among panel members. The organization is leading a campaign to strengthen public transit in Boston. She stressed that the organization’s main role is to facilitate cooperation between the city’s transit unions, the riding public and community groups, which is a sharp turnaround from the days when transit workers and riders opposed each other.

“Historically, the transit unions and the ridership were against each other because the unions didn’t want service cuts while the public didn’t want fare increases,” said Lombos.

That history also reflects the racial divisions that existed because the union members were mostly white and the ridership mostly black.

“But we’re in a new day now. We’re very excited because both riders and transit workers have a unique perspective on how the system should work. Our collective demands are, ‘Fund it, Fix it and Make it Fair,’” Lombos said.

Gary Pires, President/Business Agent for ATU Local 1037 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the former whaling capital of the world and the setting for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick novel, said that he and his fellow officers, thanks to the boot camp trainings that Hanley created for ATU leaders to learn the necessary skills required to work with community-based organizations, have been working with CLU.

Some of the transit issues affecting New Bedford residents before the union and the community coalition started working together were no service after 7:00 pm on weekdays and no service at all on weekends.

Because of the campaign, however, The Southeastern Regional Transit Authority, serving 10 communities including New Bedford, restored holiday service.

But Pires candidly said that the progress and success of the coalition doesn’t happen at the snap of a finger.

“You have a lot of egos and people believe they’re ideas are the right ideas to lead the campaign. But the CLU has been very helpful in mediating misunderstandings. The important lesson for coalition members is that they shouldn’t be discouraged if their ideas aren’t incorporated. They should keep coming back to the meetings,” said Pires.

When a bunch of ATU locals are gathered under one roof, the French-based Veolia Transportation Services is bound to be discussed. Indeed, Mike Lowery of ATU Local 1395 in Pensacola, Florida, said despite operating in a very politically conservative part of the state, the city’s commissioners did not renew the contract with VTS because, among other things, the North American subsidiary sent back to corporate in France about $500 million in revenue rather than reinvesting the money in its fleet or enhancing service.

Although not on the panel, TWU Local 100’s President, John Samuelsen, said the experiences recounted by the ATU officers illustrates the age-old game to pit riders against transit workers.

“What is needed is a challenge to the prevailing paradigm that riders and transit workers have opposing interests,” said Samuelsen.

He added, “New York is a great example. We’re still suffering from service reductions in 2010, which nets $53 million per year for the State. But on January 1, 2012, the State’s richest individuals got a multi-billion dollar tax cut. While transit workers are working without a new contract and riders are suffering from painful service reductions, rich people are walking away with a raise.”

The greatest irony in transit is that as ridership continues to increase, partly due to astronomically high gas prices, transit agencies are cutting back their investments. One way the MTA could stabilize its finances is to hire back the 460 station agents that former MTA Chair Jay Walder dismissed before he took off to Hong Kong to run the Mass Transit Railway.

“We told him that the amount of fare evasion is astronomical. If the MTA put a uniformed station agent in front of every set of turnstiles in the City, the agency would bring in triple the amount of dollars than what they would have to pay station agents. But, instead of putting people to work to earn more money for the system, the agency laid them off,” Samuelsen said. 

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