Transit workers have been hit hard by the pandemic. Last year at least 100 from the Amalgamated Transit Union and 131 from the Transport Workers lost their lives to Covid-19.
Before Covid, transit unions in the Bay Area—six ATU locals, and one local each of TWU and the Teamsters—often faced their individual struggles in isolation. But during the pandemic, these locals united across the region and came together with riders to demand protections for all.
That unity forced reluctant politicians to make Covid safety a priority. It also set the stage for the unions and riders to team up again to stave off layoffs. And there are more fights ahead.
Tough Fights Across the Country
Transit workers in Detroit, Birmingham, and Richmond, California, were among the first to fight for basic protections for themselves and their riders against coronavirus hazards.
In March, a one-day strike by Detroit transit workers at ATU Local 26 won protective gear for drivers, fareless rear-door boarding, and upgraded cleaning of buses.
Yet in April, half of surveyed ATU locals still reported that basic protective gear was not provided at all, while 80 percent said service cuts had led to unsafe overcrowding.
In September, half of U.S. transit agencies surveyed had cut service levels by 25 percent or more, responding to reduced state and local revenues. Two rounds of federal emergency funding for transit, in March and December, fell $18 billion short of filling the gap. Many systems are facing major new service cuts and layoffs in 2021.
While ridership is down, transit remains more important than ever: nationally, it is estimated that 2.8 million transit riders are essential workers.
“On a normal day, essential workers account for 38 percent of transit commuters in New York City, 33 percent in Seattle, and 36 percent in Miami,” says the Transit Center, a pro-transit nonprofit. Many other riders are low-income people who depend on transit to get to essential destinations, like hospitals and grocery stores.
PUBLIC TRANSIT STARVED
More than two dozen public transit agencies serve the Bay Area. They include MUNI in San Francisco, Bay Area Rapid Transit, AC Transit in Oakland, Valley Transportation Authority in San Jose, and Golden Gate Transit, which links San Francisco with counties to the north.
As a public service, transit depends on government funding. Yet federal support for operations—keeping the buses and trains running—was eliminated in 1998. Since then, federal funding has been restricted to capital projects, like buying buses or building light rail.
This austerity led many transit systems to cut service and raise fares. With each new round of cuts, union jobs were eliminated and vacancies left unfilled. A “death spiral” set in: cuts and fare hikes drove riders away; fewer riders meant less revenue.
With the onset of the pandemic, transit ridership plummeted, most dramatically on commuter systems that carry white-collar workers to downtown offices. But local service became more important than ever. Today over a third of transit riders are essential workers.
In March, the CARES Act earmarked $25 billion for emergency transit funding. Departing from past federal policy, this funding was eligible for operating expenses to keep workers on the payroll.
A new regional coalition called Voices for Public Transportation had been taking shape in 2019, bringing together unions and riders to push for more transit funding. When the pandemic hit, this coalition turned its attention to the urgent organizing for safety measures, and participation continued to grow.
FIGHTING FOR SAFETY GEAR
In the Bay Area, the distribution of $1.3 billion in CARES Act funds among the region’s 25 transit agencies was up to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Transit unions and riders asked MTC to dedicate a portion of those funds to a COVID-19 Response Fund, to pay for such things as deep-cleaning of buses and protective gear for workers and riders.
In April, MTC refused. Claiming that ensuring worker and rider safety wasn’t its job, it instead created a Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force. With only two seats on the 32-member task force, labor had reason to doubt that its concerns would be taken seriously.
But after an ATU petition demanding strong protections for transit workers and riders got 1,000 signatures, MTC reversed course. In May, Commissioner Jim Spering was forced to commit that the Blue Ribbon Task Force he chaired would make its “first order of business” a plan to protect transit workers and riders from Covid-19.
But whose plan? Rather than consult with frontline workers and riders, MTC met secretly with the general managers of the various transit agencies to develop a “Healthy Transit Plan.”
Meanwhile, a second ATU petition with a list of 10 safety demands, such as providing riders with masks, racked up 3,500 signatures.
When MTC unveiled its plan in August, workers and riders were angered that not one of those demands was met. Worse yet, MTC’s plan permitted social distancing of only three feet, threatening unsafe crowding.
At MTC’s August board meeting, the Voices for Public Transportation coalition turned out to express its anger. The coalition counts among its members three labor councils, along with ATU and TWU locals and transit rider unions.
Jovanka Beckles, a Teamster who was running for a seat on the AC Transit board (she later won), captured the mood. She told the board: “The general managers may feel like they have a deal, but there is no deal until frontline transit workers and riders have our concerns addressed.”
ATU International Vice President Jim Lindsay drove the point home: “Under our contracts, we have the right to shut the service down because of safety. Guaranteed that will happen.”
The workers and riders won the day. MTC voted that state guidance recommending six-foot distancing would trump the “Healthy Transit Plan,” and agreed to require each transit agency to adopt its own implementation plan.
Within weeks, two of the largest systems, VTA and AC Transit, began providing free masks and sanitizer for riders on all their buses.
BLUE RIBBON VS. BLUE COLLAR
The joint struggle galvanized the solidarity of transit labor in the Bay Area. Roger Marenco, president of TWU Local 250A, which represents 2,500 workers at San Francisco’s MUNI, invited ATU and Teamster leaders to form a “Blue Collar Task Force”—labor’s response to MTC’s “Blue Ribbon” group.
The Blue Collar Task Force turned its attention to the threat of layoffs. The CARES Act funding was running low, with no new stimulus on the horizon.
The first domino was Golden Gate Transit. In September, ATU Local 1575 and the Inlandboatmen’s Union, representing 575 bus and ferry workers, received WARN Act notices that 220 of them could face layoff before Thanksgiving.
Rebuffing solutions the unions suggested, General Manager Dennis Mulligan proposed saving $26.7 million by eliminating 146 filled positions—140 of them union jobs—effective December 5. Management would contribute just $440,000 through a 10 percent compensation cut.
Workers and their supporters from across California turned out in force to oppose the layoffs.
STOPPING THE LAYOFFS
Bus operator JorDann Crawford, a mother of three, was ready when her local president approached her in the break room to encourage her to speak at a board meeting. “If I’m going to lose my job,” she said later, “I’m going to go down fighting.”
Crawford joined ATU Local 1575’s internal organizing committee and started talking to co-workers. She asked some for permission to tell their stories, including one who was ill with Covid. Others she encouraged to speak up for themselves. Bus operator Luis Luciana told the board in November that bus riders with low to moderate incomes, mostly people of color, were being “underrepresented, neglected, and shut out of this decision process, even though it greatly impacts them.”
It rankled workers that management would be taking just a 10 percent cut while 25 percent of the blue-collar workers would lose their jobs and health care. In a board meeting, ATU Local 265 President John Courtney mocked “poor Mr. Mulligan,” who was “willing to sacrifice 10 percent of his $416,000 salary. Can you imagine how he’s going to struggle?”
Instead of the layoffs, TWU’s Marenco offered two solutions that management had rejected: “Number one, use the more than $216 million in reserves. Number two, make cuts from the top.”
In the end the board approved the layoffs, but delayed them till January 4. That delay bought crucial time: on December 21, Congress approved $14 billion in new transit funding. Two days later, the board rescinded the layoffs.
ATU 1575 President Shane Weinstein credited this victory to the rank-and-file organizing committee that had “worked tirelessly” and the members who made calls to elected officials, board directors, and the press. Crawford said the experience has interested her in running for her local’s executive board.
WINNING OPERATING FUNDS
The fight against layoffs also targeted MTC. In November, the Voices coalition demanded that the regional funding agency make hundreds of millions of dollars available for payroll by delaying inessential capital projects—for example, Golden Gate’s plan to spend $6 million to repave an employee parking lot. The coalition letter, signed by six labor councils, a building trades council, 15 unions, and many other Voices coalition groups, attracted press coverage.
Among the non-transit unions expressing support was Local 5 of the Food and Commercial Workers. The president wrote that grocery workers, who were risking Covid infection every day so that people could get food and medications, depended on public transit to get to work.
MTC commissioners are mostly members of city councils and county boards of supervisors. Many depend on labor support to get reelected. Almost immediately, MTC proposed to make $450 million in federal capital funds available for operations. Less than a week later, MTC’s board unanimously approved that proposal.
TWU’s Marenco and ATU’s Courtney see important struggles ahead. Their goal for the Blue Collar Task Force this year is to engage more members as organizers. They’re now planning a Bay Area-wide virtual town hall to help organize transit workers into a fighting force. As Courtney says, “we need a movement.”
This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Richard Marcantonio is managing attorney at Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit civil rights and economic justice advocacy organization. He is a co-founder of the Voices for Public Transportation Coalition and a participant in the Blue Collar Task Force.