Calling mass transit “a genuine civil rights issue,” the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents transit workers across the nation, joined with the Occupy Movement, community organizations and transit riders to demand a revitalization of our transit systems. Citing such problems as “older vehicles, deferred maintenance and longer wait times for overcrowded buses and trains,” the ATU was also critical of service cuts and higher fares which have hit working class riders the hardest.
ATU national president Larry Hanley was inspired to ally ATU with the Occupy Movement when he learned of a proposal from Occupy Boston for a national day of protest around transit issues. Occupy Boston had issued this statement:
“In Boston and in cities around the country, our hard-won and necessary transportation systems are under attack. Their viability is being threatened by savage cuts and fare hikes in a calculated push toward privatization by corrupt and unresponsive politicians and their corporate benefactors.”
On April 4, the ATU led demonstrations in 15 American cities to draw attention to today’s transit crisis.
The ATU wants our mass transit systems to better serve the needs of poor people so that they can get to jobs and enter the mainstream of society. April 4 was the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination and ATU leaders made a point of calling public transit “a human right” and quoting from Dr King’s speeches. Dr. King began his career as a civil rights leader by heading up the Montgomery Bus Boycott which sought public transit equality for all people.
In Newark ATU leader Ray Greaves warned that $100 million in planned budget cuts will affect commuters who don’t use public transit because the cuts will put more cars on the road resulting in worse traffic jams as “gas prices are going through the roof.”
Here in Chicago between 75-100 ATU activists, Occupy Chicago members and transit riders gathered in front of the Chicago Transit Authority headquarters for a scheduled 6pm rally. As the CTA Green Line rumbled overhead every few minutes, ATU members passed out orange “Occupy Transit” T-shirts and signs supporting public transit.
ATU International Vice-president Javier Perez(photo on right) congratulated CTA workers for the excellent job they did in the 2011 blizzard, something even the Chicago Tribune acknowledged. But as Perez pointed out, the Tribune failed to mention that these were unionized employees. It seems that when unionized employees respond courageously and competently in emergencies, their union status is forgotten.
Perez went on to criticize the U.S. Congress for its ‘kick the can down the road” attitude toward transit funding. As an example he raised the issue of CTA maintenance employees who are forced to work in rat infested garages. At that point CTA workers raised a chorus of cheers. Perez made it clear that the ATU is tired of politicians and corporate leaders blaming public employees for city budget crises and he strongly stated his opposition to selling off public assets.
The issue of selling off public assets is a critical issue for Chicago public transit. Recently Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a massive 7 billion dollar package of infrastructure initiatives that had been largely cobbled together from previous proposals. What alarmed some longtime City Hall observers was Emanuel’s emphasis on “public-private” partnerships which they see as merely a back door method of privatization. Chicagoans are still reeling from the public-private leasing of the city’s parking meters which raised drastically parking rates while enriching Chicago Parking Meters LLC for the next 75 years. The Emanuel proposal includes private-public deals for transit infrastructure upgrades.
Members of Citizens Taking Action, a CTA riders organization, expressed their opposition to such deals in a leaflet passed out at the Occupy Transit rally. Charles Paddock, secretary of the group was quoted as saying:
”Public transit is a central municipal service, and we don’t put money into a fare box to make some guy rich. I foresee three things happening: loss of control by the city, increased or added fares and diminished service. You might want to add corruption on a scale never seen before. And once it’s done, there’s no going back. Sometimes these deals are for contracts lasting 99 years.”
A CTA rider makes her views clear
Jan Rodolfo of National Nurses United spoke passionately about how public transit connects us all, how it gets us to our jobs and school, how extended families are often spread across a distance and rely on public transit to come together. It also helps build communities and allows for different communities to connect. As befits a nurse, she made a comparison to the human body:
“Public transportation is no less important than the veins and arteries that bring blood and oxygen to our bodies. And to say that we are going to cut off a neighborhood or a community is like cutting off circulation to a limb and that is totally unacceptable.”
Jan Rolofo of National Nurses United
Karen Louis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union echoed Rolofo’s concern about schools and education while pointing out that the thousands of transit workers have children in the Chicago Public Schools and that teachers and transit workers will always stand together.
Missing from the April 4 ATU message about public transit was how our dependence upon the automobile is an environmental disaster. Automobile pollution is deadly. A 2008 study done in Southern California showed that car pollution killed more people than car crashes. Public transit takes cars off of the road which makes a huge public health difference. This could improve even more as we move toward sustainable energy generation. Indeed, sustainable public transit is crucial for limiting the dangers of climate change as well.
Hopefully ATU members will raise their voices at the upcoming April 22 Earth Day and show how their work is part of a liveable and breathable environment.