Fight or Walk

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #1 in August 2005]

by Midwest Unrest

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 Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) 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 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 selfactivity”, 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 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 100%.

The CTA officials played it up in the media that they really did’t want to make any cuts but that their hands were tied. They set up a campaign 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 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 as Mayor Daley had recently spent $475 million ($350 million over budget) on the extravagant Millennium Park, which just happens to be his front yard, cta President Frank Kreusi had just spent $119 million on the new cta headquarters, often described as a palace.’,

Despite the threat to regular, muchneeded 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, changes that come at the expense of the everyday riders.

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. 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. 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 had 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 eight 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 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 fifteenth

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 their 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-andget- 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 certainly more cops around the cta buses and trains on the 15th. Cops were spotted riding buses 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 two 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, for 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.

Fight or walk, summer update

Since January, Midwest Unrest has continued to organize against the threat to public transit. By late March, the cta was announcing their “Doomsday take 2” budgets, proposing even more devastating attacks to basic service as well as increased fares and yet more job terminations. An attempted demonstration at cta President Frank Kruesi\’s house was met with massive police repression and confined to the rally point of a nearby public park in his neighborhood. When two attendees attempted to leave they were arrested and bogusly charged with misdemeanor offenses of attempting to protest “in a residential area”. They have a court date set for early August.

A number of open meetings were held getting more individuals and groups involved (e.g. The Chicago chapter of the IWW, Black Autonomy Network of Community Organizers, 49th St. Underground discussion group, News and Letters, and others) in a broader direct action transit organizing tendency.

The May 26 deal between Governor Blagojevich and the Illinois legislature provides temporary funding to the cta and postpones the massive service cuts, proposed fare increases, and layoffs for now. However, it does nothing to resolve the basic crisis facing public transportation in Chicago. The deal centers on withholding $750 million in payments to state pension systems for retired workers and teachers over the next two years while doing nothing to change the funding formula that drastically under-funds public transportation in this city.

The machinations between the governor, Mayor Daley, and the state legislature only pushes the problem of under-funding public transportation down the road while placing the pension funds of state employees in jeopardy.

The CTA continues to spend our money on making things nice and convenient for tourists and businessmen, while at the same time cutting back and making more expensive the service that residents depend on. Daley prefers to spend City money on cleaning up graffiti, security cameras, and shining expensive sculptures. Nationally, think of what a fraction of the money spent on the Iraq War could do for transit funding. There’s a whole web of agencies, bureaucracies and governments that don’t give a damn about working people. The point is that we have to stand together and fight them, or things will only get worse.


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