I first got involved in transit-related activism in 2010 through my support for organized labor. A major public funding gap threatened the solvency of Pittsburgh’s public mass transit system, and—in line with so many recent attacks we’ve seen on public-sector unions—the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) was taking the brunt of the blame for the projected 30% cut. The myth of the “overpaid” bus driver as an excuse and scapegoat for draconian government austerity measures was hardly unique to Pittsburgh (see, for example, Oregon, Madison, and New York). The gross exaggeration in such accounts of the $100K-per-year driver is beside the point. It’s a line of classist rhetoric that depends upon invoking a sense of meritocratic rage against decent compensation for workers who are perceived to be “unskilled.” Most frustratingly, it shows how easily workers can be divided against one another in a climate where most accept neoliberal economic scarcity as a given.
Pittsburghers for Public Transit (PPT) was founded as a coalition of riders and drivers to fight rampant layoffs, service cuts, fare hikes, and privatization while building solidarity among the working people who operate and use transit. Indeed, public transit is essential to Pittsburgh’s urban labor force, and over half of all workers in the city’s major employment centers use it for their daily commute, accounting for 86% of all ridership. Service cuts were tantamount to job losses not only for drivers but also for many riders. And yet, the same riders often did not see union drivers as allies in the fight to save their service, lower their fares, and improve the system as a whole.
PPT sought to open the lines of communication and understanding among all people whose livelihoods depend on mass transit. In so doing, we also hoped to reframe the cultural conversation about nationwide transit crises as a funding problem rather than a spending problem, as an issue of human rights and shared needs rather than of profitability, austerity, or “welfare.” Transit workers, users, and supporters came together to draft our core beliefs statement, the Transit Bill of Rights, which the President of the ATU’s Local 85 boldly recited on the marble staircase of the capitol rotunda in Harrisburg before we delivered it with 5,000 signatures to Pennsylvania’s then-governor Tom Corbett.
Now, one major transportation funding bill later (an act, I might add, that passed in spite of a Republican administration and majority in the state legislature), PPT offers a strong case for the power of worker coalitions to change not only the conversation but also the policy around public transit to better serve working people.
The unlikely success of this statewide lobbying effort was a substantial victory, but PPT’s most exciting organizing efforts have taken place after that campaign. Since the passage of the bill that secured most of their jobs, drivers continue to participate in PPT, and the ATU’s support for the organization has not flagged. In the big picture, the ATU International has become an increasingly progressive and activist union in recent years, spearheading events like Transit Action Month. PPT was invited to speak at the concluding D.C. Rally as a representative of the type of union-community coalitions encouraged by the International’s leadership. However, PPT seems unique in its close and enduring collaboration with Local 85.
Since our transit agency has adequate funding to maintain existing service for the time being, we’ve been able to focus on how to improve both our (still woefully insufficient) system—down from 235 routes in 2006 to only 101 today—and our own organization. Specifically, PPT’s current campaigns have emerged out of thinking about how to work together with people at a local level to ensure we all have a meaningful voice in public transit planning processes. In its first few years, PPT led several mass demonstrations and marches against service cuts, but only a handful of committed activists participated in our day-to-day organizing. Now, PPT has begun working with communities to identify their specific needs and help mobilize their own community-led efforts to meet them.
PPT had tried similar tactics in the past, but the response was discouragingly minimal and quickly petered out, making the effort impossible to maintain with our limited resources. Unions are one of the few sources of support available to working-class movements. The volunteer hours of rank-and-file members have made a significant difference for us over time—even more than funding or other forms of institutional support (which often come at a price). Transit workers’ involvement is absolutely central to the success of PPT’s grassroots campaigns. Operators who used to drive routes that were eliminated or who live in underserved communities have taken a lead in identifying neighborhoods and residents that are in dire need of service and have the will to fight for it. Their inside knowledge of the system and relationship with regular riders has been instrumental in mobilizing transit activism.
Rallying with 1000 union members to call for federal transportation funding was an exhilarating moment of movement building, but the most powerful thing I’ve seen as an organizer is members of PPT and Local 85 sitting around folding tables in a borough building auditorium brainstorming with their neighbors about how to bring service back to our communities that have been cut off.
These conversations shape the vision and identify concrete priorities for more inclusive and equitable public transit. To its credit, Pittsburgh’s transit agency has been soliciting public feedback and involvement much more than in the past, but those outreach efforts tend to reinforce the divide between riders and drivers by posing community members first and foremost as customers in a business rather than co-owners of a public service. (For instance, an advisory panel including many finance experts recommended “hospitality training” and improved “service attitude” to “enhance customer experience.” At the report presentation, the panel’s chair noted this as an especially economical improvement since “a smile doesn’t cost a thing.” I doubt that drivers—faced with increasingly demanding routes and passenger loads—agree.)
Public transportation has traditionally had an “image problem” insofar as it was seen as a vehicle of necessity rather than choice. Now that it’s hip to be green and live in cities with compact land use rather than commute from the ‘burbs in gas-guzzling SUVs, public transit is getting a cultural makeover. In the process, mass transit systems sometimes fail to serve those people who have no other option. The focus on innovative infrastructure, like Bus Rapid Transit and transit-oriented development, tends to prioritize those already best served by the system and exclude many dependent riders. Instead of making life better for all residents, transit-oriented development often heralds gentrification that leaves working-class people in a paradoxical bind: they cannot afford to live in places that lack good access to public transportation, but they also cannot afford to live in places that have it.
The riders and drivers of PPT have pushed against such priorities that leave the working class stranded. Public transportation is more central than ever to social, environmental, and economic justice. Worker coalitions organizing locally can help build the cultural movements we need to initiate systemic changes and strengthen public control of resources that are crucial to more sustainable and equitable futures.
Alicia Williamson is a founding member of and former organizer for Pittsburghers for Public Transit. She now works as a freelance writer and editor in the UK. You’re invited to sign on to The Transit Bill of Rights!