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Golden Gate Transit

Bay Area Transit Unions Join Forces to Win Safety Protections and Beat Back Layoffs

By Richard Marcantonio - Labor Notes, January 12, 2021

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.

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.

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