Chicago Transit Workers and Allies Fight Back!

Written by a ATU 241 comrade
Transit Workers and allies are speaking out against fare increases, work speed-ups, unjust firings and unequal pay between workers. These problems have only increased during Democratic Party Rahm Emanuel’s administration and his appointments to the Chicago Transit Agency (CTA). CTA has shown their lack of public accountability and respect to working people in Chicago and their outward hostility towards the two union locals that represent bus and metro workers at CTA.

With Budget Cuts, Fees Go Up and So Does the Pressure on Transit Workers

Corruption and mishandling of public funds is one of the main reasons why the CTA is broken and looking to fire workers and increase in fares. In 2018, transit fares went up by $0.25 per ride, the first increase since 2009, to $2.50. CTA officials mention that the fare increase is to cover the $33 million deficit in state public funding, which is a true problem. They fail to mention, however, their own responsibility in the dire situation of the transport agency.
It is clear that the austerity policies of Gov Rauner (Rep). which included more than $200 million of state cuts in the current budget to human services, agriculture programs and transportation are hurting working people and especially public workers. Unfortunately more is to come, as Rauner’s new budget proposal for next year includes an even more vigorous attack to the unionized public sector: “In his fourth budget proposal — just weeks before a primary election — Rauner is seeking to cut $228 million for Chicago teacher pensions, and $101 million from university pensions.[1]
It is important to note that management officials at the transit agency show a purposeful lack of respect for the complex and dangerous work done by transit workers, who are treated as replaceable cogs in the Chicago transit system, while creating work speed-ups which ramp up the grueling and dangerous nature of our work. This continual focus on “productivity” takes a toll on bus and metro driver’s bodies with repetitive injuries and extreme mental stress. In addition transit workers are inevitably verbally and physically assaulted, or involved in vehicle accidents, and in most cases instead of supporting the workers in this unhealthy and dangerous working conditions,  managers use their massive surveillance of our work alongside punitive and excessive discipline policies. When there is an accident, or an attack to a bus driver, the go-to practice for the CTA managers is to fire the worker. In the manager’s corporate and legalistic minds, it is most “cost-effective” and “safe” to discipline or fire an innocent worker, even when they have the proof he or she did everything by the book. As a result the union has been embedded in an utterly and exhaustive defensive battle, where local union stewards spend several hours every week defending their co-workers and implement their existing rights, instead of being able to organize to improve their working conditions.
Recently ATU 421 workers approved a contract that does not increase fares nor contains cuts to services at this time. After two years without a contract and discussion of striking among workers, the CTA gave an increase in wages for workers that does not even cover cost of living increases. The CTA forced into the contract a super-exploitation of a section of the workforce who have minor criminal records. The contract does not address some of the main concerns of workers and passenger such as: Dangerous sleeping and work schedules. Not enough time or safe locations to use the washroom. Violence from the legitimate anger of the passengers, the too-high bus fair and a massive cut in government services for people with mental and physical disabilities, the homeless, and the poor. Repetitive stress injuries and a criminalization of workers who try to take time off work to heal or help our family. Massive surveillance of our work alongside punitive and excessive discipline policies. Two-tiered working conditions. Forcing us to pay more for less health care.

CTA’s Pattern of Corruption and Mishandling of Public Funds

The Chicago Transit Authority network is the U.S. second-largest transit agency. It provides around 240 million rides annually in the Chicago area, and has around 10,000 employees. CTA’s former president Forrest Claypool led an ongoing austerity and anti-worker mandate firing roughly 900 employees, mainly bus and train drivers between 2011 and 2015.[2] He left CTA in 2015 to become the CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Yet he was finally forced to resign amid serious allegations of ethic violation, being accused of engineering a “full-blown cover-up” during an ethics investigation concerning the school system’s chief attorney.[3]
Two years ago newspapers revealed that current CTA president since 2015, Dorval Carter Jr, was collecting a pension as a supposedly “retired” public employee since 2009 while working as a lawyer for Obama. Carter benefited from a little known early retirement program, – except Carter did not retire. He was thus “double-dipping as a federal government official while also collecting a pension from the CTA [which] allowed Carter to take home a combined taxpayer-subsidized income that reached $283,679 a year, records show. Now 57, Carter collected $754,762 in pension payouts between November 2009 and this April, when he accepted Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s offer to return to the CTA for his third stint there, this time as its $235,000-a-year boss.”[4] What a way to set an example as a public servant!
Additionally CTA’s recent history is plagued with cases of nepotism,[5] favoritism in awarding contracts, and misuse of public funds, like it was the case with the 2006 projected “superstation” which was never built and has been long-abandoned. According to NBC reporters the projected cost of the station was “somewhere between $771 million and $1.5 billion”.[6] Laurence Msall and the Civic Federation (an independent government research organization) calculated that by 2015 $400 million had already been spent and counting. The problem is that CTA’s got in debt for this project:  “The original bonds were going to be 12 years,” he said. “And when the Chicago Transit Authority refinanced those bonds, they pushed out the payments another 12 years, adding that “the taxpayers and the riders of the CTA will be paying for this project, 20 years after it was stopped…,” he said.”[7] This means Chicagoans are paying for this absolutely irresponsable planning and financing move roughly until 2026.

Transit Workers and Riders Organize

This untenable situation had to stop. Thus, after the fare hikes were announced in December 2017, transit workers who had been unjustly fired and their allies drafted and organized around a petition to the CTA with the following demands:

  • “Lower the fare. Expand public transportation, especially to the communities that need it most.
  • Go on a massive hiring campaign to train front-line public transit workers and pay all of them at union-scale wages and benefits. Immediately return to work all of the unjustly fired transit workers. Hire transit retirees as advisers and trainers, etc.
  • The work must be slowed down to safe speeds. More needed breaks and days-off from the stress of the work must be provided to workers.
  • Transit workers and passengers are the experts who are directly affected by transit – we must directly make the decisions. We call for greater worker and community oversight and direct control of transit scheduling, work-flow, infrastructure, and budgets.”[8]

The petition started with over 100 handwritten signatures from transit workers at one bus garage and is now spreading online. The goal is to build a public campaign in support of public workers and organize rank and file workers to organize through their unions to put an end to management’s constant harassment and attacks.
In addition, transit workers from ATU Local 421 (bus transportation workers) and Local 308 (railway transportation workers) are beginning to hold common meetings and identify common issues they share. The point of unity of their campaign is now expanding, for one of the key issues they have identified is the existing inequality between workers’ pay and working conditions across sectors and jobs. They have thus decided to start organizing also for “equal pay for equal work” campaign.
The proposed Rauner budget includes a $37.6 billion spending plan — with $1.3 billion in savings coming from shifting pension costs onto schools. The budget calls for increasing education funding by about $550 million.
Perez, Juan Jr., Bill Ruthhart and Hal Dardick (8 December 2017). “CPS chief Forrest Claypool resigns after being accused of ethics probe cover-up“. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved January 5, 2018.

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