Transit Union Takes Education On the Road

The Amalgamated Transit Union is educating local leaders around the country about what’s wrong with the economy, helping bus drivers and mechanics who’ve seen transit funding slashed to understand some ugly truths.

Local leaders learn, for example, that over the last 30 years the poorest Americans saw their annual incomes rise 3 percent, while the richest harvested nearly 500 percent.

Squarely in the center of the education is the impact of military spending on public budgets. Says ATU President Larry Hanley, “We explore the twin evils of war and tax policy.”

ATU staffers use a tool from the National Priorities Project, which allows anyone to plug in their city, state, or congressional district and find out how much taxpayers there are shelling out for the Defense Department each year. They can then see what else that amount of money could buy.

Residents of Phoenix, Arizona, for example, can discover that the $2 billion they pay the Pentagon could fund 39,000 grade school teachers, 40,000 firefighters, or 241,000 Head Start slots.

Hanley says the training, including the anti-war message, has been received far better than he’d predicted. “I had the basic assumption folks were going to recoil,” he said.

His union—and plenty more—have too often shied away from talking about the big issues, including questions of war and peace.

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“We have taught ourselves for 50 years to file a grievance, file a lawsuit, write a check, go to a chicken dinner, that’ll take care of it,” Hanley said. “All the rules are changed. We’re urging our folks to think out of the box.”

HONESTY

Hanley says leaders have been receptive. He argues that “if George Bush had been honest with the people about the cost of war, the longest war in American history, and told them that to wage this war you’re going to have to give up your wages and pension and health care and right to have a union, odds are 95 percent of the American people would have been against it.”

At the first training, the president of a transit local in Oakland, California, said her son was “over there.”

“Not only despite the fact my son is there but because my son is there, I agree with you,” she said. And that has been local leaders’ reaction ever since, Hanley added.

UNSUSTAINABLE

Democratic politicians seem to be “married to this ridiculous war” in Afghanistan, Hanley said, and need to be challenged.

“You say our pensions are unsustainable, our wages are unsustainable—when are you gong to say this war is morally and financially unsustainable?” he asks. “If we had a politician in this country with a spine, people would follow him.”


The ATU’s PowerPoint presentation is suitable for any group of workers.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #390, September 2011. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.