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(en) US, Chicago, FIGHT OR WALK: THE CHICAGO TRANSIT FARE STRIKE by Midwest Unrest

From Midwest Unrest* <midwest_unrest@riseup.net>
Date Sat, 22 Jan 2005 12:18:48 +0100 (CET)


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The purpose of this article is to help us discuss the strengths and
weaknesses of our fare strike campaign in Chicago, as well as to help
groups in other cities who want to organize around transit issues. When
we first decided to do this campaign, there wasn’t much to read on how
other people had organized fare strikes. Hopefully this can be useful to
other groups who want to use similar tactics.
--- The Campaign Begins ---
In July 2004, we heard in the news that the CTA (Chicago Transit
Authority) was going to raise fares $0.25 at the start of the 2005. We
thought that this was a lot to ask of transit riders whose fares had
already gone up from $1.50 to $1.75 at the start of 2004. The CTA claimed
they were facing a budget crisis but we could not see justification for
an agency in a city as stinking rich as Chicago, to pass their crisis
onto the poorest section of the population. We adopted the slogan that a
fare increase would be a wage cut for CTA riders.

We had heard of fare strikes being called in other places, specifically in
Italy in the 1970s and more recently in San Francisco. The idea made
sense. As an anarchist collective we had no illusions about lobbying
politicians. We wanted to win our demands through direct action. If
drivers stopped collecting fares and riders stopped paying them then we
would have the economic power needed to pressure the transit agency
without disrupting the daily commutes of all of us who depend on transit
service. It was also a very easy way to involve all the riders who would
be affected by the fare increase, promoting “working class self-activity”,
as was often quoted.

We started passing out one flyer for riders and one for drivers
suggesting a fare strike as a tactic. This got a decent response. Then in
September the CTA announced that they weren’t going to raise fares but
instead had an entire “Doomsday” budget to be passed unless they received
$87 million from the state legislators. This budget threatened a 20% cut
to service and the loss of over 1000 jobs. Whether or not money was
received, they also had plans to increase Para-transit fares for disabled
riders by a full 100%.

The CTA officials played it up in the media that they really didn’t want
to make any cuts but that their hands were tied. They set up a front
group called “Keep Chicagoland Moving” which claimed the solution was for
people to call their state representatives. Many community groups in town
who had had experience with the CTA though were not fooled. The CTA had
made similar cuts before in 1997 and did not use extra money received
from the state to restore them.

It was assumed by many that the Doomsday budget was in fact a way to get
state money, which has no strings attached, to fund the ridiculous
“legacy projects” so common in Chicago. Just like Mayor Daley had
recently spent $475 million ($350 million over-budget) on the extravagant
Millennium Park, which just happens to be his front yard, his buddy, CTA
President Frank Kreusi, had just spent $119 million on the new CTA
headquarters, often described as a “palace”. Despite the threat to
regular, much-needed service, plans to build a $2 billion “Circle Line”
(dubbed the Silver Line) and to run express trains to the O’Hare Airport
had not been scrapped. The Circle Line has been criticized because it
will contribute to the gentrification of several working class Latino
neighborhoods. While the proposed changes in the CTA would make some
riders’ commutes shorter, they are clearly designed to make the transit
system cater (even more) to businessmen and tourists—at the expense of
the everyday riders who depend on it.

While the obvious connection of not paying fares in resistance to a fare
increase was lost, we decided to use the tactic of a fare strike against
the Doomsday budget anyway. The elimination of several bus routes and a
lot of night and weekend service would be even more devastating and
angering for people. The attack on bus drivers’ jobs also would make the
necessary alliance between riders and drivers a lot easier. We continued
to pass out flyers, this time sure to have “No fare increases, no service
cuts and no labor cuts” as our demands.

Hearings and Lobbying

In October, the CTA held four public hearings throughout the city. They
were a joke. The CTA bureaucrats sat there with bored looks on their
faces, drinking their bottled water and occasionally giggling to each
other, while people talked about how they will lose their jobs without
their bus lines, will starve if they have to spend $150 of their monthly
disability checks on a transit pass or just yelled at the officials for
being idiots and told them to watch their backs (and of course some
leftist wing-nuts lectured on why only a revolutionary party could solve
the problem). They were more like public tribunals against the CTA
officials than public hearings, but definitely all good times. Midwest
Unrest used the opportunity to make speeches to rowdy audiences about a
possible fare strike. We also passed out a bunch of flyers and got pages
of contact numbers from people.

The final hearing was the CTA’s annual budget hearing at the Palmer House
(a fancy-ass hotel). Hundreds of people attended: various transit
groups, community organizations, CTA workers, disabled CTA riders and
other angry transit riders. Many people gave angry speeches about how
the service cuts would affect them and the audience continually heckled
the board members. While one Midwest Unrest member was giving a
crowd-rousing speech, another member got on the stage and ripped up the
poster board with the Doomsday budget on it. Both people were detained
and kicked out of the building while members from the crowd yelled at the
security guards to let them go. A bit of an “activist” action perhaps,
but it had the effect of making a lot of people leave the hearing in
disgust.

The public hearings had no impact on the CTA’s decisions to cut service,
of course. They were used as a way for the CTA to have angry riders vent
off their anger (sometimes against impolite, stressed-out bus drivers)
and to promote the idea that only the state legislature could fix the
problem.

Some groups, as well as the ATU (Amalgamated Transit Union, the union
representing CTA employees), took part in the campaign to lobby the
state. The campaign mostly consisted of a bus trip to Springfield to
protest at the state legislature. The trip happened on November 9. No one
from Midwest Unrest went but reports from other bus riders who did were
not very positive. People felt like they’d wasted their time. The CTA’s
request for funding was not even on the legislators’ agenda and a couple
days later it was announced that no extra money hade been allocated. This
shattered the illusions of those who’d previously been convinced that the
state would supply the money.

Meetings and more Meetings

Around this time, we started to flyer the 8 bus garages in town and talk
to workers more about a fare strike. Often workers were in the middle of
a conversation about the cuts when we approached them so they were
usually happy to talk to other interested people. The drivers were all
pretty pissed and stressed out. They had plenty to tell us about CTA
management, as well as their union reps. We hadn’t been sure if we should
contact the union; all we had heard from them (ATU local 241) was a quote
in the newspaper saying that they did not condemn the CTA for the
proposed job cuts. Many workers were now telling us that we should help
them fight the CTA and the union at the same time because the union was
just a part of the company. Of the hundreds of CTA employees we have
talked to at bus garages in the past 6 months, not one of them ever had
anything but contempt for the union. When we brought up the idea of a
fare strike, the response was usually quite positive. Only a few drivers
ever told us it was a bad idea and most said they would support it.

We had a hard time pushing the campaign to a more coordinated level
however. Originally we had planned to call a meeting with all the
contacts we had collected at the hearings (and with people who had
contacted us through email and our voice box) but we decided to call an
initial meeting solely with drivers before proposing a fare strike to
riders, hoping to have a more solid plan of action.

We returned to the garages with over a thousand flyers inviting CTA
workers to a meeting about a fare strike. We realized it was pretty
sketchy leaving flyers for workers around where management could see them
but we didn’t feel like there were any other options. A lot of drivers
told us they would try to make it but when the evening came, only two
employees actually showed up. The meeting was still useful though. They
were interested in the idea of a fare strike, but worried about
management cracking down on employees who participated—especially if fare
boxes were sabotaged. On the other hand, they said that they doubted that
any drivers would call the cops on people for evading fares. This pointed
in the direction of a rider-lead fare strike.

Also, they told us that workers were already organizing some things
outside of the union. They were talking about following the Standard
Operating Procedures (SOP) as a way to cause a work slowdown. They would
follow all of the rules: such as putting on the parking break at every
stop and waiting until the rider sits down. They thought this would be
harder for management to crack down on. Unfortunately this never ended up
happening.

The next week we had our open meeting. About 35 people showed up, all
riders. They were of all ages and from different groups such as the
Little Village Environmental Organization (a group based in a working
class Latino neighborhood, that has been fighting for restoration of
transit service to their neighborhood cut in 1997), a high school group,
the Campaign for Better Transit and many other folks. We proposed calling
a fare strike starting December 15th, just over two weeks before the
Doomsday budget was to go into effect. We felt it was key to have the
fare strike before the cuts went into effect so that the 1000 drivers
being fired would still be working, be pissed off and not have much to
lose. Also the idea of starting the strike the day the cuts went into
effect would be undermined if the CTA delayed or was unclear about when
this would happen. We wanted it to be more than just a single day strike.
We wanted it to continue until our demands were met (and even then we
wouldn’t issue a call for people to start paying fares). The proposal was
passed.

Getting the Word out

We had then about 3 weeks to promote the strike. Unfortunately, our lack
of resources were a constant problem. We had an entire city to cover with
over a million people riding the CTA everyday. We had English and Spanish
versions of posters and flyers and a flood of people calling us wanting
to pass them out. Very few people had any access to photocopies though.
While there was tons of work to do we probably spent 80% of our time
finding ways to get free copies printed. Due to limited copies and the
fact that we had flyered the bus garages so often already with fare
strike propaganda, we decided to simply poster the December 15th date
around the garages and save our flyers for riders. The most disheartening
thing about not having enough resources was that the response was so good
to the limited flyers that we did have; we knew that having more could
have made a much greater impact.

We sent a press release out the week before the strike but even before
that we started getting a lot of calls from smaller media outlets. On
December 14th, a bogus press release was sent out in the name of Frank
Kreusi, claiming to apologize for the service cuts by declaring a “fare
holiday” on the 15th. Although the CTA publicly blamed Midwest Unrest,
we were not the ones responsible. We did appreciate the autonomous action
though. The fare strike was suddenly getting coverage from almost all the
major media. The CTA denounced us and said that they would have extra
cops on the CTA that day. The ATU encouraged its employees to follow all
CTA rules—that is, not allow people to ride for free. On the down side
though, it was often covered by making it seem that since the press
release was a hoax, the “fare strike” people might have heard about also
was.

December 15th

Then finally on the 15th, the day the strike was to begin, the Chicago
Sun-Times reported that a deal had been struck with state legislators and
that all the cuts and any decision on them would be delayed 6 months. The
CTA refused to comment on the matter. While this announcement was not
official it served to weaken the fare strike as many people thought the
issue had been resolved.

Still, many bus drivers and station booth attendants did let people ride
for free that day. In one instance, a bus driver let a rider sit at the
front of a bus, handing out flyers for the entire route, letting about
200 people on for free. Due to the decentralized nature of the fare
strike, we’ll never know how many people, either workers or riders, took
part. From stories we’ve heard though we would estimate at least a 50%
success rate when riders tried to get on for free. To our surprise,
people had more success on the trains than on busses. We imagine that
this is partly because the bus drivers have more cameras on them. We also
focused on the drivers when promoting the strike, as they were mostly the
ones losing jobs. It’s likely then that they were feeling more pressure
from management to collect fares whereas the station attendants had not
been cracked down on.

The CTA reported 4 arrests for fare evasion that day, which seems about
average for a weekday. None of the arrestees ever got in touch with us.
We had made it very clear whenever talking about the fare strike that it
was not a chain-yourself-to-the-fare-box-and-get-symbolically-arrested
deal. We were not encouraging anyone to get themselves arrested. We were
counting on the groundwork done with bus drivers to make it likely that
people could get on the bus for free, without incident.

There were definitely more cops around the CTA busses and trains on the
15th. Cops were spotted riding busses or closely following behind them in
their cars. It was also obvious that much economic loss to the CTA
avoided by having cops around to intimidate people into paying fares,
would happen anyway in the money spent on additional security.

Cuts Delayed

After months of stalling tactics and leaving the decision on the Doomsday
budget until the last minute, it was finally on the agenda at the
December 16th CTA board meeting. The CTA had this “public” meeting so
filled with their own people that very few of the 200 riders who showed
up, on a weekday afternoon, could even get in. The public comment process
is very strict, allowing 3 minutes each to only 5 speakers, who must book
their space a week in advance. After giving Frank Kruesi a lump of coal
for Christmas, high school students from Students for Transit Justice
walked out and started chanting in the lobby downstairs, loud enough to
disrupt the meeting upstairs. The students led others in chanting that
continued for a good 2 hours.

The meeting eventually restarted however. The decision in the end was in
fact, like the Sun-Times had hinted the previous day, to delay any
service cuts or decisions on them 6 months. This had been at the request
of state legislators who suggested that money would now be made available
during the spring session. Furthermore, the decision to double
Para-transit fares in January, which had already been passed, was
reversed.

We then put out a statement declaring partial victory, and have
stopped organizing fare evasion.

Partial Victory

We estimate the number of people who fare evaded on the 15th and 16th in
the thousands, not the hundreds of thousands needed to put real economic
pressure on the CTA. Nevertheless, it is no coincidence that the cuts
were delayed when the pressure was being put on the CTA itself. In a
context where there is widespread anger against the CTA and the
beginnings of radical direct actions, it could quite easily snowball and
cause a major disruption of management of the transit system. In this
situation, it is not unreasonable to assume that the bureaucrats in the
CTA, the city government and even the state legislature wanted a cooling
off period in order to keep this from happening.
Of course the fight is not over. We are encouraged by our
successes so far and will continue to organize against the CTA.


January 2005

Midwest Unrest
www.midwestunrest.net
www.midwestunrest.net/farestrike
midwest_unrest@riseup.net
773-250-7060
-----------------------------------------------
* Midwest Unrest is a class struggle anarchist group based in Chicago.


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