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In late May, as Minneapolis and St. Paul erupted in protests against the police killing of 46-year-old Black man George Floyd, members of the Twin Cities’ Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1005 publicly refused to transport protesters to jail. “As a transit worker and union member, I refuse to transport my class and radical youth,” Minneapolis bus driver Adam Burch told the labor publication Payday Report, which first reported the refusals on May 28. “An injury to one is an injury to all,” said Burch.
ATU Local 1005 also issued a statement in solidarity with the protests on May 28. “This system has failed all of us in the working class from the Coronavirus to the economic crisis we are facing,” the union declared. “But this system has failed People of Color and Black Americans and black youth more than anyone else.”
The union’s public support for the uprisings, and some members’ public refusal to do work that helps the police, sparked praise and inspiration around the country. As the Black Lives Matter protests spread, so did transit workers’ refusal to assist in police crackdowns. In New York, bus drivers refused to transport people arrested at protests, as crowds cheered them on. “None of our bus ops should be used for that,” J.P. Patafio, vice president of New York’s Transport Workers Union Local 100, told Motherboard on May 29.
The impacts of the uprisings are already being felt, particularly in Minneapolis, where a veto-proof majority of city councilors pledged to disband the police department, under pressure from activists. In These Times spoke with Ryan Timlin, the president of ATU Local 1005, about the impact of the union’s actions on the lives of its members, and on the political climate. “It wasn’t just the bus drivers’ union, it was all the protests,” Timlin said. “Even though the military came in, the protesters kept marching forward.”
Sarah Lazare: Has your union faced retaliation for showing solidarity with the protests?
Ryan Timlin: We are working on a class-action grievance, because they cut the pay for those who refused to transport state troopers. MetroTransit said they’re not going to do mass-arrest bussing because of the petition we did, but they did do some transporting of state troopers. A lot of our low-seniority members got stuck doing that, and we reached out to them to make sure they understood the right to refuse. I don’t know an overall number, but some of them refused, mostly over the issue of safety. I’d put it at around a dozen who refused.
As a result of our petition, they stopped having bus drivers transport protesters. They went and got decommissioned metro and mobility buses, and some police ended up driving them.
Sarah: So the grievance was about being docked pay?
Ryan: Anybody who refused to do the work, they did not pay them. They paid them if they showed up and were there for three or four hours at the garage, they paid them for that work. But if they got called to do a run and they refused, their pay got cut: They used vacation time or sick time. The company said they weren’t going to pay people for not doing anything. Well they had sent 90% home and paid them to stay home. They forced the lower seniority transport state troopers. We filed the grievance and are going to collect the data about who is impacted. As soon as I got a phone call that someone got their pay cut, we got paperwork ready.
Sarah: Do you think your union’s actions had an impact?
Ryan: I hope it helped protesters. To be honest, I don’t know if it did. It clearly excited people, especially the letter of solidarity we wrote. We got so many phone calls, and we got a lot of thank yous. It was overwhelmingly supportive, just a few people called pissed off. We got lots of thank yous coming in — I wish we had kept a better list. I remember I saw an email from the RMT, the union of British railway workers, and a lot of other random people. There were a lot of individual letters.
It wasn’t just the bus drivers’ union, it was all the protests. Even though the military came in, the protesters kept marching forward. More and more unions came in and started to speak out, that movement led to the change of charges for the murder of George Floyd. It’s the movement that’s been keeping all these politicians accountable.
Sarah: How do your members feel about the Minneapolis City Council’s pledge to disband the police?
Ryan: I can’t say our union has spoken specifically on disbanding, but I think there’s a strong feeling inside the union that too much money has gone into the police and more money needs to go to public services like education, transit itself, and even the postal service.
Sarah: Do you think having a union made you feel secure enough to take this action?
Ryan: They knew that they had some form of protection. If you don’t have a union, and you’re a workplace that is not organized in any way — no workers’ center or anything — the more you stick together, the more protection you have, the less isolated you are. the union is a legal body that gives you protection to exert your rights.
Sarah: Did you have discussions within your union about racism?
Ryan: Even before this, racism has been a discussion in the union anyway. I can’t really give details, because it hasn’t gone through arbirtration, but we have a case dealing with discrimination, where there was discrimination in the workplace. We recently had a meeting about discrimination, and there were people who didn’t support us, people who did. It became clear to them why the union had to take it forward and couldn’t walk away from it. This was going on against the backdrop of what’s happening in Minneapolis.
A lot of our members face racism on a daily basis. The workforce is diverse,especially if you get to operations, not just maintenance. We have Somali and Hmong, a lot of black drivers. Those members face racism on the bus, but also they come from the third precinct and have to deal with how police treat them. One coworker told me a story of how he had to have his paycheck in his glove box to be able to prove to police he could afford the car he was driving. i have heard so many stories over the years, that one’s the one that stuck out the most.
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Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.