Fight or Walk: The Chicago transit fare strike

Submitted by Steven. on November 18, 2006

A very interesting history and analysis of attempts in Chicago to launch a fare strike against increases in fares.

Fight or Walk: The Chicago Transit Fare Strike
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 CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) 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 stinking 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 self-activity", 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 the 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 a full 100%.

The CTA officials played it up in the media that they really didn't want to make any cuts but that their hands were tied. They set up a front group 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 though 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 like Mayor Daley had recently spent $475 million ($350 million over-budget) on the extravagant Millennium Park, which just happens to be his front yard, his buddy, CTA President Frank Kreusi, had just spent $119 million on the new CTA headquarters, often described as a "palace". Despite the threat to regular, much-needed 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, at the expense of the everyday riders who depend on it.

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 and angering for people. 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, but definitely all good times. 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 8 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 and most said they would support it.

We had a hard time pushing the campaign to a more coordinated level however. Originally we had planned to call a meeting with all the contacts we had collected at the hearings (and with people who had contacted us through email and our voice box) but we decided to call an initial meeting solely with drivers before proposing a fare strike to riders, hoping to have a more solid plan of action.

We returned to the garages with over a thousand flyers inviting CTA workers to a meeting about a fare strike. We realized it was pretty sketchy leaving flyers for workers around where management could see them but we didn't feel like there were any other options. A lot of drivers told us they would try to make it but when the evening came, only two employees actually showed up. The meeting was still useful though. They were interested in the idea of a fare strike, but worried about management cracking down on employees who participate, especially if fare boxes were sabotaged. On the other hand, they said that they doubted that any drivers would call the cops on people for evading fares. This pointed in the direction of a rider-lead fare strike.

Also, they told us that workers were already organizing some things outside of the union. They were talking about following the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) as a way to cause a work slowdown. They would follow all of the rules: such as putting on the parking break at every stop and waiting until the rider sits down. They thought this would be harder for management to crack down on. Unfortunately this never ended up happening.

The next week we had our open meeting. About 35 people showed up, all riders. They were of all ages and from different groups such as the Little Village Environmental Organization (a group based in a working class Latino neighborhood, that has been fighting for restoration of transit service to their neighborhood cut in 1997), a high school group, the Campaign for Better Transit and many other folks. We proposed calling a fare strike starting December 15th, just over two weeks before the Doomsday budget was to go into effect. We felt it was key to have the fare strike before the cuts went into effect so that the 1000 drivers being fired would still be working, be pissed off and not have much to lose. Also the idea of starting the strike the day the cuts went into effect would be undermined if the CTA delayed or was unclear about when this would happen. We wanted it to be more than just a single day strike. We wanted it to continue until our demands were met (and even then we wouldn't issue a call for people to start paying fares). The proposal was passed.

Getting the Word Out
We had then about 3 weeks to promote the strike. Unfortunately, our lack of resources were a constant problem. We had an entire city to cover with over a million people riding the CTA everyday. We had English and Spanish versions of posters and flyers and a flood of people calling us wanting to pass them out. Very few people had any access to photocopies though. While there was tons of work to do we probably spent 80% of our time finding ways to get free copies printed. Due to limited copies and the fact that we had flyered the bus garages so often already with fare strike propaganda, we decided to simply poster the December 15th date around the garages and save our flyers for riders. The most disheartening thing about not having enough resources 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 15th
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 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-and-get-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 definitely more cops around the CTA busses and trains on the 15th. Cops were spotted riding busses 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 2 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 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.

January 2005

Midwest Unrest