Memphis Riders and Drivers Team Up to Win Back Historic Bus Route

Members of the Memphis Bus Riders Union and ATU Local 713 pose at a block party in North Memphis to celebrate the new 31 route. Photo: Andrea Morales

When the Memphis Bus Riders Union (MBRU) was just a year old and growing, the transit authority announced the biggest service cut since the 1980s.

On the chopping block was a 40-year-old residential route, the 31 Crosstown, that connected two historically Black and impoverished areas known as North and South Memphis.

Through canvassing on buses and at bus stops, MBRU mobilized hundreds of riders who packed public hearings in hopes of saving their only mode of transportation. Bus operators who'd received pink slips used their intercoms to urge riders to attend public meetings. Riders lined up in community centers across the city to testify how eliminating the 31 would rob them of access to large employers, schools, grocery stores, and hospitals.

Ultimately, the route was cut—but the community of riders and drivers forged to save it never forgot its importance.

ROUTES AGAINST RACISM

Lori Johnson, now recording secretary of Transit (ATU) Local 713, drove the 31 on its last day of service in 2013. She recalls a sense of desperation among the riders as they boarded her bus for the last time: “When they heard the end of the Crosstown was coming, on that very last day the riders’ response was just like they were losing a family member or close friend, and there was nothing they could do about it.” Local 713 represents bus and trolley operators and mechanics.

The 31 Crosstown was unlike other routes in the transit authority system (MATA). It carried the third highest ridership, an average of 2,500 a day, and ran every 15 minutes. From 5 a.m. to midnight, the 31 connected residential neighborhoods struck by poverty and blight to the major corridors that hold resources.

“There was no reason [to cut it],” said MBRU co-chair Cynthia Bailey. “That 2,500 riders—that goes to show you, it speaks for itself, that that was one of the popular buses, and a lifeline bus.”

Transit officials pointed to years of budget cuts from every level of government and a $4.5 million deficit. They complained that the route appeared too complicated to new riders, that the line was not straight enough, and that driving through residential neighborhoods was inefficient and costly.

Cost and efficiency did not seem to factor in to decisions to service developing areas such as downtown Memphis, however, where millions are spent annually to subsidize trolley service. For majority-black neighborhoods once served by the 31, such as New Chicago, complicated transportation paths are a way of life. With a long industrial history, most streets there are interrupted by train tracks and private industrial parks, highways and polluted creeks. And while isolated, New Chicago still supports restaurants, schools, churches, a senior living facility, and an African American history museum.

DRIVERS, DOORS & DEADLINES

In early 2016, leaders from MBRU and ATU Local 713 met to discuss potential issues we could organize around together. We decided to host a town hall in South Memphis that August, to find out residents' transit priorities. Organizers from ATU International and Local 1235 in Nashville joined us at the event.

The issues attendees raised all centered around the loss of frequent service and the lack of evening and weekend service. When the 31 was brought up by a former bus rider, the audience erupted. We decided on a petition to restore the 31.

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Canvassing with our petition in the fall and spring, we went door to door in North and South Memphis. “We didn’t have to ask anyone to sign our petitions,” recalls MBRU co-chair Sammie Hunter. “People were coming out of apartments and off their porches as we walked down the street. Some even knocked on their neighbors’ door to make sure they signed, too.”

The CEO of MATA, Ron Garrison, wrote two responses to our campaign in local newspapers. The first time, in September 2016, he claimed that the neighborhoods covered by the old 31 were still “well served” and called the issue “resolved.” By December, he was forced to acknowledge that “[MATA’s] alternative solutions may work for some residents, but not for all.”

By December, the 31 campaign had also appeared on the front page of the weekly Memphis Flyer. This was a huge lift for the campaign: the 31 was steadily becoming a larger and larger topic of conversation. The next month, Garrison was arrested in a human trafficking sting and resigned due to “health issues.” The authorities did not announce the sting until the day after his resignation, allowing him to collect a pension and benefits.

A NEW DAY IN NORTH MEMPHIS

Garrison’s departure created a transit system in transition, which helped our momentum continue to grow. By the spring of 2017, our petition had more than 2,100 signatures, close to the number of people who'd ridden the 31 every day before it was killed. We met with politicians, business owners, and MATA planners to garner support. One Tuesday night, we went to a city council meeting to present thick packets of signatures to every council member. Another weekday, we went to a MATA hearing and expressed concerns about retirees and children in New Chicago.

MATA staff worked with us to make a schedule that would accommodate people going to school and work along the old route.

When the MATA Board of Commissioners met this June, the 31 Crosstown officially came back to life as the 31 Firestone. It doesn’t cover South Memphis—which is a big concern for the riders union—but it runs every weekday from midtown to the historically black neighborhoods in North Memphis that our campaign has focused on thus far.

Moving forward, we want to take our fight to South Memphis and regain bus service for key landmarks like our historically black college, LeMoyne-Owen, and the birthplace of Memphis soul, Stax Records. The 31 means a lot to a lot of people.

And we’re happy to see our work in Memphis make an impact elsewhere. After we met with ATU Local 1235 in Nashville, the union there was inspired to partner with the worker center Workers’ Dignity to form Music City Riders United, a new bus riders union with an impressive set of victories already under its belt.

At a block party in New Chicago, the ATU's Johnson offered memories of the old route and welcomed the new route to 100 supporters from all over Memphis. “Today with all of us working together,” she said, “Local 713, Memphis Bus Riders Union, political and community leaders, we can stand here today and say it’s back. Believe me, I’m just as happy as you are, because this signifies an attempt and a success with us working together to get what the community needs.”

Justin Davis works for the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center in Memphis as MBRU’s organizing coordinator. Bennett Foster is the former organizing coordinator and current treasurer.

For more on the work of ATU Local 1235 in Nashville, see “Transit Workers Take the Driver's Seat in 'Right-to-Work' Tennessee,” from the July 2017 issue of Labor Notes.