News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

October 29, 2020

AC Transit workers and riders won free PPE for every rider. But bigger fights are on the way.

By Jess Banks

On Sept. 9, members of the public flooded a meeting of the AC Transit Board of Directors to demand free masks and sanitizer for every rider. Five days later, the Board agreed. This is a victory for bus operators and the frontline workers that depend on mass transit — and we owe it to months of pressure and organizing by transit workers and riders.

Public transit has been hit hard by the coronavirus. Transit operators have been infected by the thousands, and riders have mostly balked at traveling in close quarters. In the East Bay, ridership is slowly climbing after an initial and staggering drop of nearly 90%, and federal stopgap funding is running out. With budget shortfalls looming, agencies like AC Transit are considering devastating service cuts that would return our public bus system to the previous century.

For months, transit workers and advocates with the Voices for Public Transportation Coalition have argued that the best way to keep passengers and operators safe — and get the public back on public transportation — is to set regional safety standards and provide free PPE to every rider. Their campaign began at an April meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which coordinates and funds the Bay Area region’s 26 transit agencies. Members of the Voices Coalition (including the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America, Sunrise Bay Area, and many other groups) urged the MTC to allocate just 5% of the 1.3 billion dollars in federal CARES Act funding at its disposal for rider and driver PPE. The MTC refused, and formed a Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force instead.

As the first and second coronavirus waves swept the Bay Area, the MTC and regional transit companies continued to drag their feet on unified safety standards and freely-available protective equipment — but transit workers got organized. On weekly calls, a “Blue Collar Task Force” of members and leaders from Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Locals 192, 265, and 1575, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 250A, and the Teamsters discussed workplace conditions and safety concerns. Worker leaders also began to play an active role in the Voices coalition, and together they marshalled public support for safety standards and PPE.

In August, the MTC began to promote a regional transit plan drafted by its Blue Ribbon Task Force. But riders and drivers were stunned to find that it was no more than a set of non-binding guidelines, drafted largely by the transit agencies themselves without meaningful input from organized labor or transit users — with no mention of rider PPE, and an unheard of three-foot social distancing requirement. The response was loud, and angry. 

Jovanka Beckles, AC Transit Board candidate and member of the Voices Coalition, has made protective equipment for riders and drivers a central plank of her platform. She expressed her outrage at an August MTC meeting: “This plan is a huge insult to transit workers and the working-class riders who rely on public transit… The general managers of the transit agencies may think they have a deal, but there’s no deal until our frontline transit workers and riders have their concerns addressed.”

Jim Lindsay of the ATU International Executive Board echoed Beckles’ sentiment: “…we will fight every transit agency that decides to implement this plan. We will fight you. And under our contracts, we have the right to shut the service down because of safety. Guaranteed that will happen.”

Despite the outcry, the MTC has yet to set regional standards or allocate funding for rider protective equipment. But the organizing of the Voices Coalition and regional transit worker unions has paid off nonetheless. The Valley Transportation Authority in Santa Clara County began offering free masks and sanitizer on every transit vehicle in August, and the AC Transit Board — after an outpouring of public comment at its September meeting coordinated by ATU 192 and Voices — announced that it would do the same. AC Transit has suggested that it always intended to offer free PPE to riders, but its staff report from a week prior makes no mention of this.

These regional victories show the power of public transit workers and riders to work together for the public good — but there are bigger fights on the horizon. AC Transit, which had been running fare-free with rear door boarding to keep passengers and operators at a safe distance, began charging fares again in mid-October. And MUNI and VTA are threatening to implement the three-foot social distancing policy suggested by the MTC, which every transit worker union views as a dangerous precedent. 

Most of all, with federal stimulus action stalled out in Congress, Uber and Lyft moving aggressively to legalize egregious worker exploitation with Proposition 22, and transit ridership still at historic lows, public transportation itself faces an existential threat. For a just recovery from the current economic crisis — not to mention the future of our planet — we’ll need a massive investment in green, fare-free public transit. Luckily, ATU, Voices, and candidates like Jovanka are giving us a roadmap for how to win it.