With BART employees likely to go on strike Monday, it’s worth a look back at some of the most memorable strikes in public transportation over the years.
On Monday, the employees of the Bay Area’s BART rapid transit system are likely to go on strike after management imposed a 7% pay cut as a result of the agency’s budget problems. This week, employees rejected a proposal that would have capped salaries at today’s levels, and they’re hoping for a better deal as a result of what will likely be a paralyzing few days for the hundreds of thousands of people who rely on BART for their daily commutes.
The action by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 is but the most recent of a long run of transit strikes, usually by motormen hoping to find better wages. In this post, I’ve documented ten of the most memorable American transit strikes since World War II.
|1944 Philadelphia Transit Strike|
|President Franklin Roosevelt established the Fair Employment Practices Commission during World War II, forcing employers to treat their black workers equally. The Philadelphia transit authority responding by upgrading several black employees to motormen, and demanded that their white peers train them. White workers responded by getting “sick” and shutting down the system for five days. Soon after, soldiers under U.S. command forced the system to re-open, with black motormen. A victory for racial integration. Photo source.|
|1950 Atlanta Transit Strike|
|After important southern author Margaret Mitchell was run down by a cab, Atlanta officials decided they’d had enough with under-trained drivers. Trolley drivers had killed five people in 1949 alone. As a result, they required workers to apply for a permit that included a fingerprint. Jesse Walton, head of the Amalgamated Street Car Local 732, fought the proposal with all his might, arguing that the registration would impinge on the rights of drivers. A strike followed — and it lasted a full six months. The union’s workers, however, eventually relented and found themselves working for a new organization, the Atlanta Transit Company; former boss Georgia Power had taken the opportunity to get out of the public transportation business.|
|1966 New York Transit Strike|
|Reform mayor John Lindsay came to office on New Year’s in 1966 hoping to reign what he saw as the abuses of big labor. His efforts, though, were rewarded with scorn by the transit union, which had been closely aligned with former mayor Robert Wagner. As soon as Lindsay was sworn into office, the transit system shut down to a paralyzing 12-day strike. Lindsay’s hope to shut down the power of organized labor failed miserably: the union won huge concessions that dramatically improved pay after the mayor’s negotiation techniques simply failed. Photo source.|
|1968 Chicago Transit Strike|
|In a year of dramatic American social uprising, a group of renegade Chicago transit workers went on strike on behalf of equal rights. Just a month before the 1968 Democratic Convention, during which Mayor Richard Daley had police officers violently accost nonviolent anti-war/hippie/yippie protesters in the streets, 1,000 motormen staged a surprise walkout lasting three days — in a fight against their own union. Black bus drivers, who represented more than half of the workforce, weren’t allowed to join the officer corps of the union organization. As a result, members of the white-run Local 308 struck in support of the black members of Local 241, eventually giving black drivers the right to represent themselves.|
|1980 New York Transit Strike|
|As a reaction to the 1966 transit strike, New York State Assembly members instituted the Taylor Law in 1967 which imposed large fines on certain striking public sector employees, including transit workers. In 1980, hoping to fight against the fiscal austerity that had prevented wage increases in New York City since the mid-1970s fiscal crisis, the Transit Workers’ Union welcomed new mayor Ed Koch with an 11-day strike demanding higher wages. Workers won major wage increases as a result of their protests, and the transit authority was forced to raise subway fares after the strike to compensate for higher operating costs. Nevertheless, workers were subjected to major fines as a result of their violation of state law. Photo source.|
|1997 San Francisco BART Strike|
|In a precursor to the strike likely to face the Bay Area next week, in 1997 2,600 BART workers went on a surprise strike to demand better wages. Their week-long efforts were rewarded with a major pay increase. The government simply couldn’t let the strike go on any longer, since the strike had made commuting between San Francisco and the East Bay a complete mess. Will the result this year be the same?|
|1998 Philadelphia Strike|
|SEPTA workers strike more than perhaps those of any other transit organization — the 1998 demonstration, which lasted 40 days, was the 7th since 1975! Run by the Transit Workers Union, workers didn’t gain much from the process and did a lot more to aggravate commuters than much else. That wouldn’t stop them from striking again in 2005, though…|
|2000 Los Angeles Transit Strike|
|Los Angeles has become one of America’s most union-friendly cities in recent years, and the month-long strike by the United Transportation Union in 2000 confirmed that fact. The MTA was trying to introduce more low-paid workers into the transit system’s workforce and subcontract a number of formerly public services to private operators, and employees balked. Jesse Jackson, Jr. came into town to negotiate a settlement, which was two-sided, allowing more low-paid drivers for the MTA but increasing wages for union employees. To compensate for their lost time, the transit agency gave commuters five days of free rides following the strike’s conclusion. Photo source.|
|2005 Philadelphia Transit Strike|
|Hoping to equalize wages between drivers on SEPTA’s regional rail system and those on the city’s subways, buses, and trolleys, 5,000 workers went on strike to improve conditions. In addition, SEPTA workers were angry about having to contribute to their health care costs. The process completely overloaded the city’s regional rail network and made commuting around the inner city quite difficult. But union officials sensed that a more union-friendly time was coming, so they felt that the pain suffered by the city’s commuters was worth the potential long-term gains. Photo source.|
|2005 New York Transit Strike|
|Again violating the state’s Taylor Law, New York’s MTA transit unions went on strike for two days in 2005, destroying the mobility of the nation’s most transit-reliant population. Local 100 president Roger Toussaint, who gained little from the strike — the MTA was likely to approve wage increases anyway — was put in jail for 10 days and the union was fined $2.5 million. Will transit workers ever attempt a strike again in New York? Photo source.|