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

August 18, 2020

The AC Transit board election is a fight for the future of public transit

By Pat Donnelly

This fall, East Bay residents will vote in a general election unlike any other, with many preparing to submit their ballots by mail due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. With both houses of Congress and the presidency at stake, in addition to many state and local offices, it’s easy to overlook the elections to the AC Transit Board of Directors.

Yet the AC Transit system affects the lives of every East Bay resident: from the thousands of unionized workers who provide its essential services, to the hundreds of thousands of weekly riders who rely on its network of buses, to the millions of others who benefit from less crowded streets and clearer skies. With the Covid-19 pandemic threatening the future of public transit in the Bay Area, we need leadership that understands the importance of free, clean, and accessible transportation — as well as its role in furthering racial, economic, and environmental justice.

The AC Transit Board of Directors includes five members who each represent one geographic ward, plus two at-large members. Each board member is elected for a four-year term. Three of the seven seats are being contested in 2020. As detailed in the Board’s Rules for Procedure, the board is broadly responsible for “all matters of policy” not detailed in the State of California’s Transit District Law. These include “supervising and regulating every transit facility owned and operated by the District.” That means the board has control over fares, schedules, and the number of employees and their wages.

What’s at stake in the November 3 election? Nothing less than the right to free or affordable transportation for millions of East Bay residents. AC Transit passengers are generally low-income, and a majority are people of color. In the 2017 On-Board Transit Survey, over 64 percent of riders reported an annual household income below $50,000, and over 68 percent listed their race or ethnicity as nonwhite. 60 percent of respondents reported riding AC Transit buses at least five days a week. AC Transit is a necessity for those who use its buses to commute to work or school, or to shop for basic necessities.

The coronavirus pandemic has reduced ridership and led to the elimination of fares. Free transit is a welcome development, and a policy AC Transit should retain after the pandemic subsides. Although AC Transit relies only partly on fare collection to fund service (12.6% in the prior fiscal year), the system still faces a budget shortfall. In response, AC Transit has considered cutting service by 30%, eliminating lines such as the 72 bus along San Pablo Ave.

Service cuts and other austerity measures would be a disaster for those whose livelihoods depend on being close to affordable and reliable bus service. Budget cuts would also hurt thousands of drivers, technicians, and other employees, the majority of whom are also people of color. Many of AC Transit’s workers enjoy secure, full-time employment with benefits and collective bargaining representation — a stark contrast to the precarious contract employment of rideshare and delivery service drivers.

Still, transit workers’ wages have failed to match steep increases in living costs. Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 192, which represents many AC Transit workers, has used the threat of a strike to ensure that workers are paid enough to keep living in the East Bay. ATU 192 has demanded reliable service and is fighting to prevent AC Transit from firing sick workers — a necessity during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The fight for public transit is a fight to keep working-class communities together: to prevent the displacement of working families who depend on AC Transit both for service and for union jobs.

For this reason, many unions beyond the ATU have become involved in this year’s AC Transit Board election. In addition to ATU 192, Service Employees 1021, United Teachers of Richmond, Teamsters 856 and 70, and the National Union of Healthcare Workers have all endorsed former Richmond City Councilmember and California State Assembly candidate Jovanka Beckles for Transit Board. Beckles is running for the Ward 1 seat, covering Richmond, Albany, El Cerrito, and part of Berkeley.

Beckles and former Berkeley commissioner Ben Fong will face off against Board Director Joe Wallace, a 20-year incumbent. Fong’s resume includes degrees from Berkeley, Princeton, and Stanford, as well as experience in local politics and the US Foreign Service. His platform alludes to efficiency and the environment, but Fong stops far short of endorsing the elimination of fares and a Green New Deal for public transit.

Wallace’s AC Transit bio notably highlights his role in creating the 376 line: “California’s first specifically-designed ‘welfare-to-work’ bus route.” Wallace is running on his longtime Board experience, his status as Board Director, and his incumbency advantage. 

In sharp contrast to Fong and Wallace, Beckles has launched an energetic campaign centered around her background as a labor organizer, opposition to corporate interests, and a broader vision of public transit as a vehicle for racial, economic, and environmental justice. Beckles’ platform ties ATU 192’s demands for safe working conditions, reliable service, and living wages with broader working-class and progressive goals. These include economic justice for Black drivers and riders through expanding opportunity to employment and transit, free service funded by taxing the ultra-rich, and a Green New Deal to tackle climate change while creating secure, well-paying jobs.

With the pandemic and looming budget and service cuts threatening the future of public transit in the East Bay, we need visionary leadership. Beckles understands that the fight for public transit is part of a broader struggle for working-class power, racial equality, and action against climate change, ideals which have guided her tenure in public service. It is for this reason that Beckles has earned the support of a broad coalition of unions and progressive policymakers and organizations. For those who believe in free, safe, and environmentally sustainable public transit in the East Bay, Jovanka Beckles is the clear choice.