Working In These Times
As More Funding Cuts Loom, Transit Union Uses Chicago Election to Leverage Debate
Now the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) that represents transit workers in Chicago and nationwide is calling on candidates in the city's February 22 mayoral election to specify how they will avoid another round of cuts in the coming year, which analysts say are likely unless new government funding is secured.
On January 27, the ATU held a press conference and rally outside The Chicago Tribune's offices, where mayoral candidates were holding a debate. Several candidates have released plans for the city’s public transit system. Frontrunner Rahm Emanuel and Miguel Del Valle, the favorite of many unions and progressive groups, addressed the issue in their answers to a Green Growth Platform survey circulated by a number of planning and environmental groups (more below).
But the union says they want to keep the heat on candidates to make sure the next mayor avoids another round of funding cuts, and to make sure candidates prioritize not only service and greenhouse gas emissions reductions, but also transit workers in their public transit plans.
The union has launched a campaign called Keep Chicago Moving, which aims to facilitate dialogue and public scrutiny on transit issues, leading up to and beyond the election. (If no mayoral candidate gets a majority of the vote, that “election season” could extend until a run-off election in April.)
Especially given Emanuel’s national prominence, the union hopes a focus on public transit issues in Chicago will help leverage changes in federal policy and budgeting for mass transit nationwide. The ATU represents about 190,000 public transit workers nationwide. A union press release says the Keep Chicago Moving campaign:
Will conduct community forums, operate a text-based informational service for the public and undertake other educational initiatives in an effort to compel Mayoral and Aldermanic candidates to state whether they will oppose additional service reductions, fare hikes or layoffs of operating personnel at the CTA.
Mayoral candidate Miguel Del Valle’s response to the Green Growth questionnaire noted that it will be key to seek federal funds for Chicago public transit, that are now often “left on the table.” He noted that government funds also go disproportionately to roads over mass transit; to downstate Illinois rather than Chicago; and to the Chicago suburbs rather than the inner city. Del Valle wrote:
The Chicago area currently gets 45% and downstate gets 55% of state transportation funds even though the Chicago region represents 70% of the state’s population and 78% of the state’s economy. In contradiction to our goals of sustainability, our state allocations of transportation funds focus too much on roads over other more sustainable forms of transportation. In addition, a study on federal stimulus spending by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and others showed that nationwide spending on transit created twice as many jobs as spending on roads.
He also referenced the disparity in suburban and Chicago transit funding, which was the subject of a civil rights lawsuit:
Another area of imbalance is that the CTA does not get a fair share of funding from the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA). 82% of Chicago-area transit riders use the CTA, but it only receives 59% of operating subsidies from the RTA. On the other hand, METRA gets only 12% of the area’s riders, but receives 27% of the funding. My administration will advocate for changes in these allocations.
The union’s poll, carried out by Virginia consultant and surveying 500 likely voters, found that a third of respondents think Chicago bus service has become worse in the past year, and a quarter felt train service (including the city’s elevated line) had become worse. The survey found a quarter of voters rely on mass transit regularly, and about half of households include people who regularly rely on mass transit. Encouragingly for the union members, a majority of people including those who don’t use public transit regularly said the layoffs last year were a bad idea.
The poll also included questions about how federal and city policy relate to transit worker issues. The questions were clearly phrased to elicit a certain response, and had a somewhat patronizing tone. But the results suggest strong support for transit workers and public transit as a whole. For example, 78 percent said they agreed with this statement:
Under present laws, Chicago can get federal support for transit equipment, like new busses or rail construction, but they can’t get federal support to help pay the salaries of the people who operate the transit system – like bus drivers and rail operators – so we have new busses and no one to operate them…while people who need the transit services are left waiting longer times…or just left out. This is just bad and foolish policy.
Sixty-six percent agreed with this statement:
Let’s face it: despite what some of the politicians say, we are in a serious economic and political situation, and our continued dependence on foreign oil weakens us economically and helps support countries that don’t like us…and that often fund anti-American terrorism. And so its not only good for Chicago, but down deep it’s patriotic and good for America to use as much mass transit as is feasible and convenient for any of us.