Top Union Leader U-Turns Against Fare-Free Buses and Trains


The President of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), John Costa, has decided to overturn the union’s support for fare-free mass transit. This U-turn from the previous policy of the union places ATU International in the same camp as the employers and in conflict with all those forces who want an expansion of mass transportation. The previous President of ATU, Larry Hanley, supported reducing fares and building coalitions with riders and environmentalists. Hanley must be spinning in his grave now that his successor is advocating increasing fares. Unfortunately, this is only the latest indication that Costa is betraying the legacy of Larry Hanley who united ATU around a progressive agenda.  

Public transit is in crisis across the country. During the pandemic, people were encouraged to stay home as much as they could to limit their potential exposure to the virus. Ridership on public transit plummeted as people were understandably afraid of the inadequate response to the crisis and the lack of adequate testing and PPE. In response to this, transit agencies restricted how many passengers could be on buses, subways, and rail cars. 

As the worst phases of the COVID pandemic seem to be behind us in the United States, low ridership combined with a growing issue of homelessness, lack of access to affordable mental healthcare, and spiraling addiction crisis has led to more violent, inappropriate, and antisocial behavior on buses, rail cars, and in stations. Until people feel confident that they won’t contract a virus or be victims of harassment or assault, people will keep avoiding public transit.

Workers will also keep avoiding employment at transit agencies. In Minnesota, where I work, Metro Transit is down some 300 drivers from 2019. Chronic underfunding of public transit from governments at all levels has contributed to this crisis. Transit workers’ wage increases have not kept up with inflation, which is our local, ATU 1005, is demanding a cost of living adjustment back in our contract, along with a series of proposals to expand transit, make it safe, and bring back ridership. Unfortunately, ATU International President John Costa is pointing in the opposite direction, doubling down on a failed strategy scapegoating homeless people, and cheerleading the same politicians who created this mess. 

The Political Establishment Has No Answers

The public transit crisis, which is a reflection of the crisis in society broadly, is a crisis of capitalism. The super-rich keep getting richer, rent is rising, healthcare is unaffordable, and wages don’t keep up with inflation. The political establishment who paved the road for the explosion of billionaire wealth and big business profits are responsible. We can’t expect them to have any solutions to the problems that working people face when they have been in charge as the worst of the crisis has been unfolding. As long as politicians prioritize corporate profits before anything else, working people will continue to suffer. 

For example, many transit workers and passengers are concerned with the use of fentanyl on public transit. The dangers of fentanyl are very real, but the people suffering from the proliferation of fentanyl are the people that have become addicted to opioids as part of a nationwide opioid epidemic that has overwhelmingly victimized working class people. Opioids and fentanyl are manufactured by giant pharmaceutical companies that lied to and deceived the public in the name of expanding their own profits. Can we really expect the same political establishment and corporate class that started this crisis to provide a solution?   

Costa’s Comments Are Out Of Touch, Will Prolong The Crisis

However, the very leadership that working people are supposed to look up to for direction sides with the political establishment and corporate class all too often. Unfortunately, this is true in the case of ATU President Costa. In a recent email to ATU members in the February Amalgamated Transit Union Dispatch, he responded to Connecticut’s decision to resume fares, ending the fare-free program that they started during the pandemic, as “welcome news for our members across Connecticut.” 

He goes on to blame assaults on drivers and passengers on the homeless who are using public transit for shelter. Not only do these comments put him in opposition with the late ATU President Hanley, but he even puts himself in opposition to our own ATU locals currently. ATU Canada makes a strong case for fare-free systems. Is Costa mounting a campaign to reverse ATU’s position on fare-free systems?

This is outrageous from a union leader. Instead of blaming the crisis on those responsible for providing housing for people, he blames homeless people for using the only option that they have left for shelter. It is true that public transit is not a suitable, or humane replacement for housing. However, when housing becomes unaffordable, and when there is no public housing available, homelessness is inevitable. It is the big housing developers, corporate landlords, and a political establishment that guarantees their profits that are to blame for forcing homeless people to use public transit for shelter.     

If Raising Fares Made Transit Safe, We Should Have The Safest Transit In The World

If President Costa thinks that there is such a strong correlation between fares and safety then wouldn’t a ranking of the cost of fares also be a ranking for how safe the public transit is? Is the public transit in New York City really safer than the public transit in Taipei, Taiwan because the fares in New York City are five times more expensive? No!

Reducing fares and going to fare-free transit increases ridership. Increasing public transit ridership is of critical importance for fighting climate change. Transportation is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. Getting more people riding public transit instead of driving cars will reduce carbon pollution. 

The most common cause of conflicts on buses between the drivers and passengers is around fare collection. Fare-free would immediately reduce these cases. According to ATU Canada, “Fare-free transit may support a safer workplace. Because most assaults on operators arise because of fare disputes, eliminating fares may make the job safer for transit operators. ATU members who do work in fare collection and revenue work will require reassignment to other transit duties. ATU advocates for the importance of retraining members facing job redundancies.”

Near-empty buses and trains have added to a general perception of disregard and dilapidation. Getting more people on transit will reduce antisocial behavior on transit. If more people are riding the bus then that’s more people creating social pressure that will make anyone behave more appropriately than if they were more alone with less people watching. 

There’s also other common-sense solutions. Skilled social worker teams should be employed to rapidly respond to potentially dangerous situations, empowered to de-escalate conflict, and offer state resources to those that need them. Transit workers who are ATU members should work alongside such teams. Those routes and those times where most conflicts occur should be given priority, with Intervention Teams proliferating them.

We Need Real Answers

Blaming the homeless for increased assaults and harassment on public transit is cowardly from a union leader of the biggest transit worker union in North America. President Costa is trying to show that he is “fighting for the safety of his members,” but really he is just opportunistically blaming the most marginalized people who are not responsible for the conditions that forced them to use public transit as shelter. His answers only sweep the problem under the rug, so it won’t really keep transit workers and ATU members safe. Those that are responsible are the private developers and landlords that would rather profit from housing than to actually guarantee housing for everyone as a basic human right. 

Instead of blaming the homeless for the conditions that are out of their control, the labor movement should be attacking the root cause. We don’t need more band-aid solutions. Better labor leaders should be demanding more public housing and rent control. These are better alternatives, because better sustainable housing will mean better sustainable public transit. President Costa should be demanding that we tax the rich to make housing more affordable for the homeless, and make all public transit fare-free, instead of scoring cheap political points.   

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