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Free Public Transport and the Right to the City

By Yavor Tarinski - Resilience, July 25, 2018

“Free public transportation implies many changes, a completely new way to look at the city, both in terms of how we move and how we tax, but also how we live, where we live, how we relate to each other as a society, and our broader relationship to the urban, regional and global eco-system.” Judith Dellheim & Jason Prince [1]

Who’s Afraid of Fare-Free Public Transit?

By Josh Cohen - Next City, May 25, 2018

Elizabeth Bauerle is a research scientist at the University of Washington’s medical center. To get from her home in the north Seattle suburb of Shoreline to her job on the Seattle campus, she can either drive or take two buses.

The Dirty Truth Behind New York’s Transit Crisis

By staff - League for the Revolutionary Party, January 14, 2018

Editor's Note: The IWW does not advocate organizing through political parties, and instead proposes organizing a revolutionary union of the working class. That said, the criticisms made in this article are sound and the overall demands entirely reasonable.

This is an edited version of a Revolutionary Transit Worker pamphlet distributed at transit workers’ meetings and at protests against the MTA in Fall 2017.

Underfunded and deep in debt, New York City’s subway system is falling apart. Derailments, fires, electrical failures and equipment malfunctions have become everyday events, multiplying the perennial problems of overcrowding, delays and cancellations. On-time performance has dropped precipitously, from 84% in 2012 to 63% in April 2017; monthly delays are up to 70,000 from 28,000 in 2012.[1] The purpose of the subway system ought to be to get workers to work rapidly and enable people to get around the city cheaply. But its six million daily riders cannot be confident of getting to work on schedule or to get anywhere reliably.

While the entire riding public suffers from the long-lasting and deepening crisis, the worst effects fall disproportionately on the working class and especially poor people of color. Their subway stations are the least maintained, and many workers in the “outer boroughs” have to take slow-moving buses to even get to the subways. Frequent fare hikes hit hardest those who can least afford them, forcing more and more people to jump the turnstiles and risk arrest. And under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Broken Windows” policy, which directs police to crack down on minor violations in poor neighborhoods, the cops seize tens of thousands of mostly young people of color every year for fare evasion.[2]

The effects of the transit crisis on the riding public are obvious and intolerable, but the system’s workforce is also under severe stress. Management has been increasing pressure on workers to maximize effort, while allowing decades of understaffing as well as often dirty and unsafe working conditions. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has only recently started necessary large-scale hiring, with plans to bring on 2700 new Maintenance of Way and Car Equipment workers. But there is no plan to alleviate the burden on train operators and conductors, bus drivers, station agents and cleaners, whose numbers are far too low for the system to operate in anything close to a humane way. And all transit workers face forced overtime as well as demands to sacrifice working conditions, wages and benefits.

The spike in subway delays, derailments, and fires gave rise to the tabloid label “Summer of Hell” in 2017, the culmination of a long-term failure to modernize the system. Governor Andrew Cuomo responded by declaring the subways to be in a “state of emergency.” At the same time, Cuomo and de Blasio both denied responsibility, each claiming that the other was in charge. The truth is that the MTA is a nominally independent agency of New York State, set up to insulate politicians from being held accountable by voters for the system’s failures. In its present form, however, the governor and his upstate allies control a majority of the votes on the MTA board (the mayor controls a few). So the buck ultimately stops with Cuomo.[3]

And Cuomo is no friend of the subways. When public outrage at delays and overcrowding spiked last summer, Cuomo grandstanded that “New York is going to put its money where its mouth is” and trumpeted a $1 billion cash infusion for the MTA. But that pledge was a flat-out lie, since he was really cutting funding for subways by more than a billion dollars! He had already cut $65 million from the MTA’s budget by reducing the state’s annual reimbursement for the $320 million in annual funding it had lost in 2011 when Cuomo granted new tax exemptions to a range of business enterprises. And after his pledge, Cuomo had the MTA cut $1.2 billion from its subways budget, funds that had been earmarked for improving the signaling and communications systems.

That money was redirected toward favored projects that serve his capitalist backers – like the ill-conceived AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport that would head away from the central business district and be no faster than the current bus-to-subway connection, in order to benefit corporate developments around Willetts Point in Queens. Cuomo also took a profusion of self-promoting bows when the Second Avenue line opened in January 2017. This line runs only to Manhattan’s higher-income Upper East Side, with fancy stations built to make ample profits for developers. It does not go to the Lower East Side, East Harlem and the central Bronx, working-class neighborhoods served by the elevated lines that the new line was originally designed to replace. Indeed, since the 1950s there have been no new lines and few extensions in the outer boroughs where 80 percent of the city’s population, including most workers, live.

Further, in 2016 Cuomo had declared that the state would fulfill its budgetary commitments to the MTA’s capital plan only once all other possible sources of funding had been exhausted. Then he got the state to dramatically raise the MTA’s debt-ceiling by $55 billion, to an astronomical total of $123 billion, so that it could issue more bonds to Wall Street profiteers. Of course, demanding other possible sources of funding sets the stage for more service cuts, attacks on transit workers’ wages and working conditions as well as more fare hikes every couple of years.[4]

It’s not just Cuomo. The Flushing line extension, built under the city’s previous mayor, billionaire Republican Michael Bloomberg, was designed to service property development near the Hudson River waterfront. De Blasio likewise has joined the real estate party and is pushing projects which will encourage new luxury housing and shops, including a streetcar line, the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), along the East River waterfront. This project will encourage new luxury housing and shops; it threatens the homes of hundreds of thousands of mostly Black, Latino and Asian working class people, who are protesting the gentrification project vociferously. There is a crying need for Brooklyn-Queens crosstown lines, but workers are right to oppose the BQX that is planned at their expense.

Cuomo, de Blasio and a succession of prior governors and mayors have presided over the underfunding and decay of the transit system in order to satisfy the profit demands of the capitalists they serve. Real estate tycoons have demanded that funding for the system’s maintenance and development be deprioritized in favor of projects and lines that will enhance the profitability of their investments. And Wall Street bankers insist that the system be increasingly financed by bond issues that guarantee them regular returns, rather than through progressive taxes that they would have to pay. Debt and interest payments to Wall Street now account for almost 20% of the MTA’s budget. Thus, despite capitalism’s financial crises and long-term stagnation (see below), New York’s public transit system has become a source of steady profits for capitalist parasites.

Labor and climate groups support Transit Equity Day

By Bill Onasch - Socialist Action, February 1, 2018

On Feb. 5, civil rights, trade union, student, church, and environmental activists in communities across North America will come together in a variety of events to call attention to a looming crisis in public transit.

The diversity of these groups indicates that they recognize not only the urgent need to save what we have but also the potential crucial role transit expansion can play in providing affordable transportation that is accessible to all, that can reduce traffic fatalities and congestion—and that can curtail greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.

But today, New York City’s subways—moving a record 5 million passengers a day—are on the verge of collapse, a major line is being shut down for renovation lasting for more than a year, and their buses aren’t doing much better. Washington, D.C., has neglected even routine maintenance, leading to accidents and delays on the Metro.

Transit-union contract negotiations remain highly contentious in Washington and Chicago. Some public agencies continue to contract work out to non-union penny-pinching private outfits who can do it cheaper only by providing inferior service and paying substandard wages. Washington, D.C., is moving to privatize the Red Line subway. More of the same—and even worse—are in store.

This is not the first crisis for transit. After setting record ridership numbers during World War II, when there was full employment, no new cars were being built, and tires and gasoline were rationed, the ruling class took America into a very different postwar development scheme. From the end of World War II on, highly subsidized urban sprawl promoted a massive exodus of residents and jobs to new suburban areas. The streetcar and bus lines in the urban cores did not follow them.

In many cases, such as in Los Angeles and Kansas City, consortiums of auto, oil, and tire companies became silent owners of transit properties. They dismantled their impressive electrified streetcar and trolley bus networks—which would require many billions to replicate today—replacing them with diesel buses produced by General Motors, as they steadily slashed service. One result in Los Angeles was the introduction of a new word to our vocabulary—smog. Out of sprawl an important new division in the working class soon emerged—either car dependent or transit dependent.

Because a high percentage of the transit-dependent population remaining in the depleted urban cores are African Americans, transit has often been on the agenda of the Civil Rights movement. The chosen date in February marks the birthday of the late Rosa Parks, who became famous for an act of civil disobedience that launched the well-planned boycott campaign to end racial segregation on Montgomery, Ala., buses in 1955. This pivotal action, initiated by Black trade unionists led by E.D. Nixon, is credited with launching the revival of the mass Civil Rights Movement in the South—and propelling Dr Martin Luther King into national prominence.

Transit Riders Unions vs. Climate Change, White Supremacy and Disaster Capitalism

By Desiree Hellegers - CounterPunch, June 19, 2017

Over the past few weeks, Portland, Oregon has been catapulted into the national spotlight as the site of clashes between antiracist and antifascist activists, on the one hand, and white supremacist and militia groups like the Prayer Patriots, Oathkeepers and American Freedom Keepers on the other. The right wing militia groups, along with other assorted Trump supporters, descended on the city in the immediate wake of the May 28th deaths of two out of three men who intervened to stop 35-year old Jeremy Joseph Christian, a self-professed white supremacist, from harassing two young Black women, one of them wearing a hijab. The attacks occurred on the city’s light rail or “Max” line on the eve of Ramadan.

Unremarked, however, in national media coverage of the attacks and their aftermath is the fact that the attack came in the midst of a growing debate in Portland about the militarization of public transportation. The attacks, in fact, came within days of a May 24 vote by the board of Trimet—the tri-county agency that manages Portland’s public transit system—to spend $9.9 million dollars to construct a new transit police facility and jail, and an additional $1.6 million to ramp up policing of public transportation.

The standing room only crowd at the May 24 Trimet Board meeting represented a cross section of Portland progressive community.  At the center of the organizing work was the people-of-color-led statewide Portland-based NGO OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, and its member organization Bus Riders Unite! (BRU).  OPAL and BRU worked to turn out a strong showing for the hearing, which included activists with union, disability rights, fossil fuel/climate justice, immigrant, houseless and renters’ rights activists, and police accountability activists from Black Lives Matter, Don’t Shoot Portland, and Portland Copwatch. Police violence became a particular flashpoint for the hearing, coming as it did on the heels of the police shooting of a 24-year-old Black man named Terrell Johnson. The shooting occurred within two months of a grand jury decision not to pursue charges against the officer who, in February, shot and killed another Black man, 17-year-old Quanice Hayes.

The shooting occurred within two months of a grand jury decision not to pursue charges against the officer who, in February, shot and killed another Black man, 17-year-old Quanice Hayes.

Barely a month earlier, OPAL activists and their allies in Oregon’s Just Transition Alliance also mobilized thousands to turn out for an April 29 march, part of the global People of Color’s Climate March, calling attention to the disproportionate impacts of climate change on frontline communities of color worldwide. On the same day, white supremacists and Trump supporters held a march down 82nd street, in a neighborhood that has increasingly become home to immigrants and people of color, many of whom have been forced out of the city’s urban core by decades of gentrification. As the Reverend Joseph Santos-Lyons, a long time OPAL board member and Executive Director of APANO (the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon) wrote in an op-ed in the Oregonian, “The sight left me with a feeling of deja vu. I was born and raised in Oregon and I had heard these chants before: ‘Go home,’ ‘Get out of our country,’ ‘You do not belong here.’ Only there was a key difference. The white supremacists were more confident, less ashamed. And perhaps for good reason. Their views are amplified nationally.” . Present on the scene at the April 29th march was Jeremy Joseph Christian, who would go on to slash the throats of three men on the city’s light rail, killing 53-year-old Ricky John Best, and 23-year-old Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, of Southeast Portland, and severely injuring 21-year-old Micah Fletcher.

With OPAL activists and their allies regrouping from the April 29 marches and mobilizing to turn out activists for the May Trimet board meeting and budget vote, Portland’s Willamette Week newspaper published a front page story headlined “Governor Kate Brown Might Sell Four Agencies to Private Bidders to Keep Oregon Afloat.” Among the state “assets” slated for sale, as a subheading indicated, is “Portland’s light rail system.” A primary impediment to the sale, the article indicated, however, would be “TriMet’s union employees [who], reporter Nigel Jaquis noted, “exert enormous power and would oppose a sale of any TriMet functions.”

Nationwide, state and local governments are facing increasing pressures in the wake of the manufactured debt crisis, to include public transportation among “assets” to be liquidated in corporate fire sales. The Willamette Week story, and the prospect of the Democratic governor selling off state agencies met with a predictably celebratory response in the conservative Weekly Standard, which responded gleefully to the prospect of the governor “burning the [state’s] household furniture to say warm” , and “rechristen[ing] the University of Oregon ‘Nike U.’” The prospect of the privatization of Portland’s light rail system is a barometer of Brown’s willingness to pursue neoliberal austerity measures, and the power that corporations like Nike and Intel exert in a state with one of the lowest corporate income taxes in the country.

The possibility of privatizing light rail ought to send shock waves throughout Portland. The city, after all, is at the forefront of the national battle to divest from fossil fuels and convert to more sustainable forms of energy.  Few cities nationwide are better situated, then, to form a united front to push back against this regressive proposal, given the intersectional organizing already at work in a city that has been profoundly shaken by the resurgence of white supremacy and creeping fascism.

Vigorous Campaign Revives Transit Union in Right-to-Work Virginia

By John Ertl - Labor Notes, May 31, 2017

Going into its latest contract, the transit union in Fairfax County, Virginia, was in tough shape. People weren’t active because they didn’t believe the union could do much—and the union couldn’t do much because people weren’t active.

Management never budged on the issues that stewards brought up. Grievances piled up, unresolved. And since Virginia is a “right-to-work” state, half the workers in the bargaining unit weren’t even members of Transit (ATU) Local 1764.

But after a robust union campaign, in a matter of months the Fairfax Connector went from a unit at risk of decertifying to a strong union shop.

Fairfax County is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation—yet the 600 bus drivers, mechanics, and utilities staff at the Fairfax Connector have no pension, because they work for a private company rather than the county. Many can’t afford to live in the affluent Washington, D.C., suburb where they work.

Workers were seething because they had been cheated out of a retirement plan. In the previous contract, they had given up a 2 percent raise in exchange for a pension. But when a pension plan could not be set up according to the contract’s poorly written terms, the company exploited the loophole and kept the money.

“People saw that the union wasn’t working on their behalf, and they saw that management just did whatever it wanted,” said bus driver Rachid Mhamdi. “There was no trust in the union.”

Ten Reasons Why Transit Privatization is Bad for the District:

By staff - ATU Local 689, May 30, 2017

1. Privatization does not guarantee savings.  Proponents of privatizing transit often make lofty claims about savings through private sector efficiencies. But frequently these claims couldn’t be farther from the truth. Public agencies are often more efficient because no profit margin gets siphoned off to shareholders.

• In Phoenix, Veolia demanded an additional $27.5 million on top of its existing $386 million contract. Veolia threatened to leave on short notice during contract negotiations if the city did not meet its demands. 1

• Officials canceled a management contract with First Transit in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The public agency experienced a cost savings by managing the system in-house.

• Veolia was dropped after 3 years by Chatham Area Transit (CAT) in Savannah, GA after the CAT chairman concluded that the private operator “was becoming too expensive.”

2. Service issues may rise: any savings often come from cutbacks.

Contractor claims about service should be taken with a grain of salt. Up-front savings are often coupled with cutbacks, hurting the most vulnerable users like the disabled and children.

• In San Diego, First Transit promised $10 million in annual savings by taking over the North County Transit District. Modest cost declines were primarily due to service cutbacks. First Transit operated 14,000 fewer service hours while other costs shot up by $1.4 million primarily due to administrative fees. 

• Between 2008 and 2010, MV Transportation was fined 295 times for bad service in the city of Fairfield, CA, which had turned to the private operator as a solution to budget shortfalls. Officials concluded that the private operator “exhibited mostly negative trends in all areas” related to performance and efficiency.

• In Nassau County, NY Veolia slashed service to close a $7.3 million budget gap. More than 30 routes saw cutbacks, in all 60% of the system experienced service declines. 

• After 19 years of privatized service in the Toledo, OH area, paratransit riders complaints

were so numerous that the agency fired First Transit.