- 13 Photos
- (Photo: John Hendel/TBD | Date: Mar. 13, 2012)
Early this morning, D.C. commuters walking by Farragut Square encountered the sound of shouting, chanting, and the sight of dozens of gray-shirted Amalgamated Local transit union workers from all over the country, train operators, bus drivers, technicians, and all sorts of others unified by one broad demand for more transit funding. Today the Occupy Metro movement was born.
"We are here for a righteous cause — it's for public transportation!" declared Jackie Jeter, the sharp, white-haired leader of Amalgamated Local 689 since 2007. ATU 689 is the largest union of WMATA employees, with more than 7,000 represented. "You can't keep funding transit off the backs of the passengers or those riding paratransit ... I guess now we're going to have an Occupy Transit movement!"
Jeter began a chant of "Occupy Transit!" that continued for a few moments among the 50 or 60 workers and representatives gathered, ready to raise their signs in solidarity.
The union president's message to the faithful took place on the wet, grassy field of Farragut Square, halfway between the Farragut North and Farragut West Metro stations (see photos of the rally here). Nearby was a stagecoach, a large horse pulling a wagon full of people with pro-transit signs. At every corner was a group of transit workers ready to pass out leaflets asking "Are you tired of Metro delays, overcrowded trains, and increasing fares?" The sheet refers Metro's fare increases, a lack of funds, and the privatization of services like the D.C. Circulator, and says this is a national problem, especially as the House of Representatives is working on a transportation bill that, the unions allege, "would send us backwards to the days of the stagecoach."
D.C. most certainly understands some of the transit frustration, based off of the last two weeks' WMATA hearings about potential fare hikes.
- (Photo: John Hendel)
The transit unions consciously allied themselves with the Occupy movement, with two speakers from Occupy Wall Street present among the speakers. Some ATU representatives wore shirts proclaiming their identity among the 99% and one sign read, "Public Transit: We Move the 99%." ATU officials announced official support for the Occupy movement, and Occupy movements around the country plan to declare April 4 a National Day of Action for Public Transportation.
Jeter and other union leaders gathered to hold their informal press conference around 8:30 a.m. after spending the previous half hour reaching out to the many morning commute passersby along the downtown sidewalks. Besides the leaflets and chanting ("No funding, no train! No funding, no bus!"), the unions' stagecoach continued circling the square. "If we don't fund transit," Jeter said, "we're going to go back to the horse-and-buggy days." Many D.C. residents turned in amazement and confusion at what was happening. The transit workers, who came from places as far as California, Salt Lake City, New York, Detroit, and Florida, maintained a friendly air as they attempted to talk with pedestrians, a few of whom stopped to chat. One retired WMATA worker who now lives in Frederick, Maryland, said that few people in downtown D.C. smiled back when she wished them good morning. The rally's organization appeared relatively smooth overall. Jeter told me she had helped plan the event for the past two weeks and explained that ATU was able to assemble so many union leaders because they're in town for a national legislative conference.
When Jeter rose to address the crowd, she introduced several others who echoed the need for greater funding of public transportation.
Larry Hanley, ATU International president, called underfunding transit a "crime" and announced they were "here to tell Congress it's time to flip the script." Jos Williams, president of the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, talked about his Orange Line commute and walk this morning and emphasized how public transportation is "good for your health." "We are not using gas to poison the environment," Williams remarked to cheers. He said he didn't understand or support all the talk to "drill, drill, drill." Frank Stella, president of MD/DC Alliance for Retired Americans, advocated for older Americans who will increasingly rely on transit as the Baby Boom generation reaches retirement. Tina Slater, president of Montgomery County's Action Committee for Transit, emphasized carbon footprints and D.C.'s status as worst in the nation in traffic congestion.
After the speakers concluded at 9:15 a.m., I asked Jeter about WMATA's role amid as the various local jurisdictions determine funding — which comes to $1.6 billion in operating expenses and another billion in the capital budget. "We're luckier than some," Jeter reflected, and referred to the layoffs, service cuts, and plight of other American cities like Detroit. She told me she attended multiple of WMATA's hearings on its fare hikes from the last two weeks. "What I saw more than anything else is the frustration of the passengers," Jeter said. With rebuilding efforts expected to continue for the next several years, Washington, D.C. transit riders will continue to see delays and weekend closures. Jeter sympathized and acknowledged the difficulties, the need for repairs, safety, and also the need for funding. WMATA has attributed its budget shortfalls to, in part, the rising cost of Metro union pensions, which Councilmember Mary Cheh also criticized at one of last week's hearings. Jeter referred to Metro's failure to contribute to pensions for years as it played the stock market, as her predecessor Michael Golash also recently brought up, and dismissed the idea of the pension costs. Its workers deserved decent jobs with decent pensions, Jeter observed.
"This is a middle-class job for middle-class America," Jeter told me. "It's part of the cost of doing business here."
What do you say, D.C. Metro riders? Occupy Transit is here, according to our Metro unions, and we may see more such vocal gatherings in the days to come. The clarion call singled out our U.S. governments, federal and local, with one unflinching demand — don't ignore our buses and trains.