Alex Garland/Seattle Transit Riders Union

Unions may be dying off in the workplace. But could they make a difference on the bus?

They tell a favorite story within the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union about the moment when the barely two-year-old organization first began to wield real power in the city. It was 1994, and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority was preparing to raise fares and eliminate the monthly bus pass on which many low-income riders depended. The Bus Riders Union filed for a temporary restraining order against the changes. And a judge actually gave it to them.

"For us, that was the single biggest breakthrough, and we knew the entire county was not going to be seeing us in the same way again," says Francisca Porchas, an organizer with the union today. "We were the people who had actually stopped the fare increase from going into effect."

With the help of the NAACP, the Bus Riders’ Union went on to sue the MTA for violating the Civil Rights Act in creating separate and unequal transit: one aging and overcrowded bus system for the city’s predominantly low-income, minority population, with newer rail investments for the region’s upper-income suburbs. The MTA ultimately signed a 10-year consent decree – doggedly monitored over the years by the Bus Riders Union – requiring substantial reinvestment in the bus system, with added hours of service, new vehicles and a new weekly bus pass.

This sometimes-controversial history has made the L.A. group, housed within the Labor/Community Strategy Center, the most well known transit riders union in the country. For that reason, a lot of people from outside of L.A. have been calling over the past few years, ever since the national recession trickled down and settled into municipal budgets, threatening transit service everywhere.

"Every major city in the nation was facing operational deficits," Porchas says of calls that started coming in 2009. "And it was pretty clear they were going to be raising fares or cutting service. I think that was a huge, huge motivation for a lot of organizations to start." Riders wanted to get organized in Memphis, Tennessee, and Birmingham, Alabama, and Detroit and Colorado and New Mexico. There's now Bus Riders Unite in Portland, Oregon, and the Transit Riders Action Committee in Harlem.

It’s ironic that unions are catching on with transit riders as the model is dwindling in power in the workplace. But these two ideas were closely related when the L.A. group first got started in 1992. "We see the bus as a factory on wheels," Porchas says, particularly in the post-industrial economy where fewer workers are meeting on factory and shop floors. "This is the place where we felt we found the multi-racial working class."

The bus has in a way become the logical next organizing venue. In Porchas’ mind, there is a kind of continuity to the fact that the civil rights movement had its roots in bus organizing. These modern-day challenges of transit access and fares are social (and now environmental) justice issues, too.

"The analogy with labor unions is interesting, because it’s obviously different in the sense that we don’t all work for the same employer, we can’t strike and bargain with our employer for benefits," says Katie Wilson, one of the founders of the six-month-old Transit Riders Union in Seattle. "But it’s more of a political thing. This is the new working poor, organizing and trying to win political gains."

The Seattle group was organized in response to a potential 17 percent service cut by King County Metro. The county bought a temporary reprieve with a car-tab fee to cover its $60 million budget deficit. But that solution is a temporary one (and Wilson worries about long-term funding solutions that pit drivers against transit riders). Even as the latest major crisis has now passed, she says, transit riders face myriad smaller ones.

In September, King County Metro eliminated a ride-free zone downtown that had existed since 1973. Over the years, many social service providers had located there precisely because people could access them for free. For now, the Seattle union is trying to restore that zone, among other campaigns. It’s a daunting task for what’s now a group of about 40 dues-paying volunteers, most of whom Wilson says are themselves under- or unemployed (L.A., to compare, has about 3,000 dues-paying members chipping in $10 to $50 a year out of average household incomes around $15,000).

In San Francisco, transit riders were also pushed into organizing out of fear of service cuts and fare hikes. The city’s particular political culture, says organizer Ben Kaufman, empowers lone individuals to quash transportation plans throughout the city. In 2006, resident Rob Anderson sued the city over its bicycle plan (more bike lanes, he argued, would cause stalled cars to emit more smog, requiring a full-scale environmental impact review). For four years, the city was prohibited from implementing bike improvements. Now, as they're trying to advocate for bus rapid transit, Kaufman and other members of the San Francisco Transit Riders Union worry about speaking with a voice loud enough to overcome similar rogue objectors.

"Even in liberal San Francisco, we have elected officials and transit officials that are really nervous to push back against the conventional wisdom of the car being really the king of the road," Kaufman says. "Even if they are saying it rhetorically, they’re still kowtowing to their constituents who are saying 'don’t give away my parking space for this, it isn’t worth it.' It’s hard to think of the collective good when there’s one guy who keeps on nagging and poking you saying 'don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this.'"

The city’s bike community is remarkably well organized, with a 13,000-member coalition and a multi-million dollar budget. Dave Snyder, who started that group, is also one of the organizers behind the transit union, and Kaufman says they hope that that group will similarly grow in influence. Today, it has about 200 members each giving $25 a year (or 10 hours in volunteering). Their biggest success to date sounds small, but it’s something: In July, the union pushed the Municipal Transportation Authority to institute all-door boarding.

The whole idea for most of these organizations isn't just to fight for current service and fare levels (some of which are clearly financially unsustainable), but rather to build better transit systems for the long run. Elected politicians and transit officials won’t necessarily get there on their own. History is full of examples, Porchas says, of unempowered people who've had to organize for what they need.

"We’re in a crisis," Kaufman says. He wasn't referring to peak oil, but the more mundane crisis of congestion, of transportation paralysis, of a system in San Francisco where buses and trains run at 8 miles per hour, often transporting with the least efficiency the people who can least afford to sit there. "This is really the only solution. The Google self-driving car, cars that are going to run on water – those are really cool technologies. They’re exciting. But they’re not going to solve our congestion problem."

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