Notes from the Underground II: A profile of the Los Angeles and Vancouver Bus Riders Unions

by Eric Schaefer on January 24, 2005

Earlier, I wrote about New York’s Straphangers Campaign, a 25 year-old program spawned by the student-run New York Public Interest Research Group. The Straphangers have had a deep impact on New York’s subway system, pushing for $30 billion in investment that turned their city’s transit system around and making detailed information on each subway line and the system as a whole available to the public. San Franciscans interested in improving Muni’s responsiveness and level of service have much to learn from the Straphangers’ high level of organization and their focused use of information.

But as transit activists in our city so often point out, this is San Francisco. While the Straphangers are something for organizations like Rescue Muni and Transportation for a Livable City to aspire to, they are a long established organization in a vastly larger city. The Bus Riders Union (BRU) of Los Angeles, with the help of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, filed a civil-rights lawsuit against LA’s MTA in 1994 and won. Vancouver ‘s BRU is currently fighting a campaign against fare increases. Both are young organizations with a loud interest in social justice, and an emphasis on direct action.

In the words of its web-site, The LABRU presses for better transit “on the premise that affordable, efficient, and environmentally sound mass transit is a human right.” Their mission makes “human and ecological needs” a priority and “challenges the corporate profit motive and management rights as the arbiter of social policy.” The BRU is a tri-lingual campaign, with documents, posters and leaflets printed in English, Spanish and Korean. It is a project of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, which also operates a “think tank/act tank” and the National School for Strategic Organizing.

The BRU’s current goals include reducing the price of a monthly bus pass from $52 to $20, reducing a single fare from $1.25 to $.50 with free transfer, and introducing a $10 student monthly pass sold at schools. They also ask for a LA county-wide freeze on rail spending, which they say diverts money needed to fix the bus system.

The methods that the BRU uses to organize riders mirror the methods that labor unions use to organize factories. The BRU uses teams of volunteer organizers who board buses to ask riders about their experiences, hand out leaflets and recruit new members.

Most remarkable though, is the consent decree won from the MTA in 1996. The decree was the end result of a class-action lawsuit filed in 1994, which charged the MTA with violating Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by establishing a “discriminatory, separate and unequal” transportation system using federal funds. Under the ten-year contract, the BRU is the court-appointed class representative of Los Angeles’ bus riders. BRU and MTA representatives sit on a “Joint Working Group” to implement the transit priority, fare reductions, new bus purchases and new service that the decree requires. There is also a “Special Master”, a judge appointed by federal court, which monitors the MTA’s compliance with the decree.

The MTA has since replaced its old fleet of 2,100 diesel buses with cleaner models and has added 300 buses in order to reduce over-crowding from 135%to the court-mandated level of 120% by 2002. This would reduce the number of people standing in a bus at rush hour to eight. It also reduced the price of a monthly bus pass, agreed to freeze the basic fare at $1.35 for two years and introduce a 75-cent off-peak fare on some lines. The MTA refused, however, to purchase the 532 buses that special master Donald Bliss said were necessary to reduce overcrowding to the mandated level and appealed the special masters’ decision all the way to the US Supreme Court. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case in March of 2002 and the BRU and MTA have since wrangled over how many buses to purchase in order to provide the new service to schools, hospital and other community centers mandated by the consent decree.

The MTA’s continued appeals caused many people to doubt that they were negotiating in good faith. The MTA has said that it cannot meet the standards of the consent decree without reducing its investment in light rail projects across the county. The BRU demands a freeze on rail spending, which it says benefits only the suburbs, until bus service in urban areas improves.

The BRU has devoted much of its energy to ensuring the MTA’s compliance with the consent decree. When asked about the effectiveness of the legal settlement, BRU lead organizer Manuel Criollo said that although the MTA “assumed we would die out in a year or two” they were “deadly wrong.” He said that although the ten-year decree will expire in two years, perhaps without achieving its over-crowding reduction or new service goals, it has forced the MTA to invest over a billion dollars in its city bus system over the last eight years. He said that the BRU’s next campaign, which seeks an extension of the consent decree, would force the MTA to spend at least a billion dollars more. Criollo also said that much have of the increase in rider-ship seen since the consent decree had been offset by fare increases last January

A similar BRU was established in Vancouver, British Columbia in 2001. They formed in response to service cuts by Translink (the Vancouver transit authority) and list the Los Angeles union as their inspiration. The Vancouver BRU uses the same method of on-the-bus organizing and is also fighting a costly airport to downtown rail project, which they say is funded at the direct expense of in-city bus service. Vancouver’s Translink recently restored the late-night service cuts that the BRU had derided as a “curfew.”

On January 14, the BRU staged a one day “fare strike” to protest a 25 cent fare increase that went into effect on January 1. The union leafleted transit hubs and sent organizers onto buses to encourage riders not to pay. The BRU claims on its web-site that 5000 bus riders took part and says that it plans monthly fare strikes until Translink repeals its cuts. Vancouver newspapers reported on the fare strike, but did not speculate on how many people may have taken part.

Neither the Vancouver nor the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union is a perfect blueprint for San Francisco’s transit advocates to follow. San Francisco’s MTA does not deserve a lawsuit, and San Franciscans concerned about Muni should not attack BART or CalTrain. However, a Joint Working Group and a timetable of specific, like that provided by the consent decree, would make our MTA more directly responsible to riders. Such an agreement would be much like the contract between a labor union and an employer. Only a group that directly organizes riders to defend their own interests, like the BRU, could have the credibility and the resilience to do credit to such an agreement.

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