A Short History of Recent American Transit Strikes

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
1944 Philadelphia Transit Counter-Strike (in favor of black employees)
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
1966 New York Transit Strike - Trains Out of Use
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
1980 New York Transit Strike - Pedestrians Crossing into Brooklyn
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
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
2005 Philadelphia Transit Strike - Woman Waiting to Board Regional Rail
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
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.

22 replies on “A Short History of Recent American Transit Strikes”

BART strikes, or comes to the verge of striking, every time its contract has come up for the past 12 years. This has got to be a sign of some deep dysfunction on both sides, frankly.

In 1982 SEPTA struck for 5 months, dooming any hopes that the new through-routed system would increase regional rail ridership. It took until this decade’s oil price spike for regional rail ridership to go back to its pre-1982 levels.

The greed of BART’s train operators and station agents knows no bounds. They’ve managed to extort 100K/year for a job that requires all the skills of a WalMart greeter. It’s time to fire the lot of them and replace them with reasonably paid substitutes. There would be a long line of people applying for a job that offered $15/hour with benefits, which solve BART’s deficit and free up enough money to hire people to keep the trains and stations clean.

The notion that a transit agency can simply replace well-paid workers with poorly paid ones and produce no societal damage is ludicrous. The reason America is a middle-class society is largely because of its union movement, not because companies have been able to get workers at the lowest possible price. Our country’s rising Gini coefficient (indicating increasing economic inequality) since the late 1970s correlates strongly with a similar drop in union membership. BART would do better with a lower-paid workforce, but society as a whole would not.

Yonah, $15/hour is a VERY good wage for the work involved. WalMart pays their workers $8/hour without benefits for doing an equivalent job.

nevermind that a BART operator merely opens/closes the doors and is there if there is an emergency. they are not operating the trains. why they even need operators in the first place is beyond me. the station agents are of little help to confused customers and usually dont like being interrupted from their magazine article.

First, France has an even lower union membership than the US, but its Gini is 28, compared with the USA’s 47.

Second, the problem with unions in the US (and France) is that precisely because most people are not union members, unions are able to provide their own members with benefits far beyond those available to the average worker. This turns the unionized class into an upper middle class by pay but not by skill, which comes with a lot of privileges that hurt the rest of society, since typically the unionized industries are those serving the poor, such as teachers, social workers, and transit workers, rather than those serving the rich, such as domestic servants and hotel workers. Those unions like their privilege and will fight to preserve it: that’s why they support immigration restrictions and fight productivity increases. The unions in the US that try to organize hotel workers and Wal-Mart associates have nothing to do with the public sector unions running New York and San Francisco.

Thanks for your point Alon. I would like to note that I was talking about U.S. issues, not those in France, and that a correlation, as I put it, does not necessarily imply causation, obviously. That said, as put by Gregory Clark:

“Before the Industrial Revolution, for example, skilled construction workers earned 50 to 100 percent more than unskilled laborers; today, that premium has fallen to 33 percent in the United States. The era of the two world wars, 1914 to 1945, was one of particularly sharp gains for the wages of unskilled workers, relative to the rest.”

This increase in the purchasing power of the less skilled came almost as a direct result of the rise of organized labor.

Now, perhaps you’re right in arguing that I overstated my case and that in fact union organization today may not be providing the same benefits. There is no doubt that union-paid public sector employees make far more than their private-sector non-unionized peers and as a result, the market is a bit skewed.

Even so, the answer to me isn’t less unions or fewer strikes but rather the inverse — an increase in unionization in all fields with the aim of increasing pay for unskilled labor in general. Clearly giving BART employees higher pay alone won’t solve that problem. But from a socio-economic perspective, finding ways to capture a higher percentage of the workforce in unions will increase standard wages for everyone.

The definition of skilled workers changes over time. Today, someone with a high school diploma and no college education is considered unskilled. Sixty years ago, he would have been better educated than a large majority of Americans, and an even larger majority of the residents of any other country. So the issue isn’t just unskilled vs. skilled labor, but also what skills are available to the general population.

As for BART strikes, the people they hurt are the transit-dependent, generally the same population that needs unionization at their low-paying service jobs. Well, maybe not BART, which is commuter rail, but the local bus lines tend to serve a low-income population.

There are probably several reasons that transit workers still are frequently unionized, whereas workers in other industries (with equivalent levels of skill) are not.

* Public vs private sector. Public sector administrators are under far less pressure, in general, to bust unions. (This is, I suspect, one reason many taxpayer-advocates support privatization of transit operations–under the theory that a private-sector operator WILL try and put the screws to transit workers).

* Outsourcing. A bus or train in Brooklyn cannot be operated (currently) by a driver in Bangalore or Beijing. Though I’m sure someone is already working on a remote-control bus in order to allow outsourcing that job too…. McDonalds has been outsourcing drive-throughs in high-wage states to call centers in lower-wage states for years now, and some fast-food places are now reportedly outsourcing their drive throughs to India…

Another reason for high public sector unionization rates is that the public sector doesn’t go bust. A private company can go bankrupt because of excessive labor costs, in which case it’ll be replaced by other companies, which will hire non-union workers. A public company (or GM) will be bailed out by the taxpayers. Private companies that have lasted for decades often are unionized – for example, the legacy airlines and the freight railroads.

Of course, the railroads have reams of labor law which applies only to them…. and the regular travels of the airlines through Chapter 11 doesn’t seem to shed them of their unions.

EngineerScotty wrote:

Outsourcing. A bus or train in Brooklyn cannot be operated (currently) by a driver in Bangalore or Beijing.

In the case of transportation, workers must worry about insourcing. Taxicabs exist because of a deluge of desperate foreign laborers. It can be scaled upwards to buses and trains as well.

EngineerScotty wrote:

the regular travels of the airlines through Chapter 11 doesn’t seem to shed them of their unions.

Chapter 11 generally cannot do that, no.

Under bankruptcy, generally, a collective bargaining agreement can be voided if there is no way the corporation can meet the terms of the contract without liquidating in the process.

However, it does not void recognition of the bargaining unit.

on the issue of strikes at this time for transit workers is it wise?look around at all the people being laid off in other industries.i am a A.T.U. member.but the point is don”t the funds to run the trains and buses come from tax dollars?are”nt taxpayers the ones being laid off.what happened to mediation or arbitration .to strike is always at some point a brother worked at a factory and told me the threat of a strike hurt the company the actual strike did not.

Wad, taxi drivers are hired individually, whereas bus drivers are subject to collective bargaining agreements that exclude immigrants willing to work for minimum wage. The MTA can’t phase in immigrant workers one by one the way taxi companies can.

why i have no sympathy here is that they are asking for an increase in wages. now is not the time to ask for an increase when one is lucky to have a job. bite the bullet like everyone else and make do in these difficult times. bart workers are different than other transit workers in that these are very simple jobs (opening doors as an automated train operator and answering questions as a station agent), a bus driver/streetcar operator at least requires skill and responsibility.

i am all for paying transit operators that require skill and responsibility very well but i also do have a problem with ridiculous work rules and restrictions on firing problematic employees. this is exactly my opinion on teachers too and really all public sector employees.

yeah i agree, theres a reason taxi drivers are the worst group of “professional” drivers on the road

Jon: on the contrary, in a recession wage cuts fuel deflation, making the recession worse. High wages can actually help cure recessions – they made Sweden the first country to recover from the Great Depression – by transferring income from those who’re likelier to save it to those who’re likelier to spend it.

To those ATU brothers & sisters who continue to compare NY & NJ contracts, get the back story & political machine behind the deal that Mayor Bloomberg is kicking himself for now.

As union leaders & members we must attain all the facts before we lead down a path of divide & conquer, know that we are different states, different goverment & mayor who overplayed his hand because of his selfish need to overturn the will of the people.

Its time for us come together, check the egos at the door, give informative facts that strengthens our unions rather than spread doubt & discord amongst our members.

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