Sheila Adams, a single mom of six, lives in Atlanta’s Bowen Homes housing project. Every day she rides the bus to Mays High School where she works as a cafeteria food assistant. Like many Atlanta residents, she depends on the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) to get to work. She hates the idea of fare hikes and route changes, which the transit agency proposed in 2004 to close its $18 million budget shortfall.
“Before you make changes to try to save money,” says Adams, “you need to look at the community and see who’s gonna get impacted and find out who can afford to pay a little more or take a different bus.”
Among the bus routes MARTA proposed to cut was Route 61, one of only two routes that go to the Bowen Homes and the one that Adams rode. As the proposed hikes and route changes loomed, Adams and other Bowen Homes residents began organizing with Atlanta Jobs with Justice (JWJ) and its Workers’ Rights Board (WRB). They demanded a halt to fare hikes and service cuts and called for state funding to support the transit system. They also stood up in support of transit workers, whom MARTA tried to pit against riders to make gains in union contract talks.
Jobs with Justice, a national coalition of labor unions, community groups, religious organizations and students, established WRBs in 1993 as a way to build solidarity between workers and their neighbors and force local institutions to respond to their needs. The Atlanta board is one of 20 nationwide. In most cases, board members are also JWJ members. Local JWJ chapters start the boards, recruit members and work with them to achieve coordinated campaign goals.
The idea behind WRBs is that workers’ rights struggles must be part of a broader campaign for community-based economic and social justice. Workers’ rights are civil rights, not just a matter of concern for labor unions, but for the entire community. Workers, after all, aren’t just workers. They are neighbors, people of faith, students, caregivers and family members. Attacks on their rights are attacks on the stability and well-being of neighborhoods, schools and families. WRB members use moral and political persuasion, along with personal authority and community status, to mobilize support and intervene on behalf of residents and workers.
A Labor Dispute and Riders’ Rights
In November 2004, while Atlanta’s Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and MARTA were in contract negotiations, the local WRB and JWJ groups began discussing ways to kick off the new year. The ATU, which represents Georgia’s only unionized public employees, had asked for a 3 percent annual wage increase over a three-year contract. MARTA countered with wage freezes and higher health care premiums and proposed outsourcing some jobs to non-union labor. In an attempt to weaken public support for the union, MARTA also hinted that fare hikes and changes to or elimination of routes were necessary in order to meet the union’s contract demands.
The Atlanta WRB decided to organize a public “hearing.” WRBs use this term for meetings where they shine a spotlight for the public and media about a perceived injustice. “We wanted to expose the serious, systemic, racist underfunding of public transportation,” says Terence Courtney, Atlanta JWJ organizer. “The MARTA system…is supposed to be a regional system funded by a number of different counties,” he says. “But the majority white, middle class, affluent counties originally contracted with MARTA wanted to keep blacks out of suburbia. So they voted to defund MARTA. They wanted to limit MARTA’s access and revenue source to the impoverished inner city and limit the influence of the union. If MARTA expanded, not only would its revenue expand, but the ATU, a predominantly black union, would also expand.
“We asked ourselves, ‘How do we get the attention of the Georgia Assembly? How do we draw attention to 50 years of transit system racism?’ We decided to connect the WRB hearing with two recognizable events in history.” WRB members organized the hearing to coincide with the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day march and the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott.
As the hearing approached, WRB and JWJ members met with workers and the people who use public transit. “We wanted to avoid divisions,” says Courtney. “Other efforts to make MARTA more responsive to public concern lacked the support of the drivers and operators. We wanted to connect the riders and the workers politically, to show that their interests are connected.”
At the hearing in January 2005, both transit riders and workers gave testimony to a panel of community leaders. They spoke against MARTA’s proposed job and service cutbacks, which included a 15 percent slash to transit services, fare hikes of at least 25 cents (from $1.75 to $2.00), changes to and elimination of routes, and up to 400 transit worker layoffs.
While the union and its members fought for their jobs, the WRB built a coalition with low-income community organizations, people of color, the elderly, people with disabilities, religious leaders and students dependent on MARTA for their day-to-day transportation. “This didn’t happen overnight,” says Adams. “We did a lot of organizing, held a lot of meetings, passed out leaflets and knocked on doors. I told people we should have the same quality and types of buses that serve the north side.” Atlanta’s south side is predominantly black and working class, while the north side is mostly white and middle class. “The north side has more buses. Their seats have cushions. The stations are well lit. There are more managers. I didn’t want to believe it, but this seemed racist to me.”
As the campaign evolved, WRB members and their coalition partners began to flyer buses and trains, inviting people to join the Transit Riders Union (TRU). Created to build power for riders through organizing, education, leadership and committee development, the TRU ensures that riders will lead the way in improving mass transit.
Members of the ATU were also involved throughout the campaign. “They not only gave testimony at the hearing, but also attended trainings, came to rallies and demonstrations and helped with strategy. It was a very close relationship,” says Courtney.
WRB members, like state Senator Vincent Fort and Ajamu Baraka, executive director of the U.S. Human Rights Network, publicly lent their authority and community status to the campaign by speaking at press conferences and rallies. Baraka called MARTA’s proposals a “human rights crisis.” On May 9, over 100 people attended a press conference and rally at MARTA’s headquarters as its board of directors met inside.
These actions finally paid off when the collective message of community and labor forced MARTA’s board to vote to postpone fare hikes and service cuts. Just a few weeks after the May 9 events, it voted not to increase fares.
“From the beginning we wanted the workers and the riders to be out front,” says Courtney. “We organized hundreds of people to speak at MARTA meetings, [which] would take all day. Each speaker advocated for state funding and community control. We raised hell and forced MARTA to back off.”
The WRB acted as a catalyst in Atlanta to mobilize and educate residents and transit workers. While its members met with politicians and union and community leaders, they also built a bottom-up structure of labor-community solidarity. They bridged the union/community divide, while empowering MARTA riders to act on their own behalf. As community leaders, not union officials, WRB members acted as neutral mediators with the community’s interest at heart. According to Erica Smiley, the national WRB organizer, “WRBs see the community aspect of workers’ struggles and get results.”
The Atlanta WRB successfully stopped the fare hikes and fought against service cutbacks, but it wasn’t a total victory. The WRB is still organizing the TRU and fighting to win state and regional funding for the city’s underfunded transit system. The union recently rejected MARTA’s final contract offer, so now a county judge will decide the terms of the next three-year deal.
Sheila Adams no longer takes Route 61 to work, as it was discontinued. After a series of WRB and JWJ actions, MARTA was forced to restore it in October, but it’s now called Route 153. “When they cut the route, I had to leave home, walk six long blocks, take another bus that didn’t even go to my connecting stop, and then make a big U-turn. It took over an hour. Route 61 took fifteen minutes,” she says. “These types of changes affect the whole community. It’s an injustice. That’s why we fought and got our route back. They can call it what they want. But it’s Route 61 to me.”