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31st Street Transit Co-operative

Originally posted here.

Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood has been without accessible bus service for over a decade. The CTA’s 31st st. bus route was eliminated as a ‘cost-cutting measure’ in 1998, leaving schools, businesses, and residents isolated from the city’s expansive transit network. The Little Village community, LVLHS, and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization spent years mounting an unsuccessful campaign to reopen/expand the CTA’s 31st St. route; as of the recent cuts in bus service throughout Chicago, which have resulted in the loss of nine express routes and over 1,000 transit jobs, it has become clear that progress is impossible unless members of the community take control of their transit options.

But How?

The Chicago IWW and LVEJO have been looking into what it would take to form a worker self-managed, community-controlled transit cooperative to run bus service along the 31st St. corridor. We are exploring the possibility of a better service, owned by those who operate it, with union-scale wages and benefits, for less cost. The self-managed system will set an example of workplace democracy and community accountability, both of which are clearly absent from the Daley-controlled CTA.

Our proposed route, shown below, would provide regular service for Little Village Lawndale High School (LVLHS) and Gary Elementary students, connect to the El at the 35th st. Orange line station, provide traffic for local businesses along the route, and drastically reduce transit times for Little Village residents.

31st St. Bus Route (Proposed)

The most encouraging aspects of our proposed bus service are found in the financial projections of the potential service.

We calculated ridership estimates for the 31st St. route based upon the CTA’s 35th route, which had an average ridership around 31,000/week in April of 2010.

We expect to provide workers with benefits (~$10/hour worked) and union-scale wages ($20/hour). Given estimates for insurance, financing, maintenance and fuel, we estimate that the 31st St. bus would need less than half the ridership achieved by the CTA at 35th to be financially viable. Additionally, these cost estimates above are based off of a $1.50 a ride fare, as opposed to the $2.00/2.25 fare of the CTA. The 31st St. bus can be run far cheaper by a cooperative than by the CTA. With increased ridership, pay rates for operators and mechanics could be much higher than those listed above.

Why Worker- Owned and Operated?

One of the main problems with operating public transit through traditional business models or government agencies is “overhead.” Our transit cooperative would operate each bus at ~75% of the CTA’s hourly costs. Additional costs cited by the CTA result from unnecessary administrative expenses. In order to avoid this waste, we propose that the operators and mechanics in the transit cooperative elect from among themselves the individuals that will handle administration. This/these workers can handle accounting for revenues and costs, communicating with the public, updating route information as necessary, and scheduling operators/mechanics. Even if we suggest that these administrative positions (for instance a communications officer and a secretary/treasurer) become paid positions on top of general duties, the cost for operating the system only increases by $1.50/bus/hour.

Currently CTA employees work a standard 40 hour shift and make a base rate of $16/hour. Given the recent cuts to the transit system, CTA workers pull longer hours, giving them less time for their families and more stress on the job. By decreasing the work week and increasing the pay rate we allow drivers more time to be well-rested and attentive to personal concerns. The more workers that are able to put time into their personal lives, the healthier our communities will be. Imagine getting on a public transit bus and being welcomed with a smile every time!

How Do We Get There?

At this point we hope that you see the 31st St. bus as a viable option. Now we need your help turning it into reality. Means by which we can start moving forward are:

  • community investment
  • donations
  • school partnerships
  • business partnerships
  • operator/mechanic lottery volunteers

Transit and school bus models are widely available for between $10,000 and $20,000 dollars. If we raise from $40-60,000 dollars, the buses will be paid for and the initial costs will lie solely with labor.

An additional source of funding would be selling advertising space on the buses. Unlike advertising on the CTA, emphasis could be placed upon local businesses and social service agencies, improving communities and giving small businesses the exposure they need to thrive. Organizations supporting the drive for a 31st St. bus could gain access to this advertising space through agreements with the cooperative.

Area schools will greatly benefit from having a bus route to service the student population. Arrangements could be made with the local school district to provide transportation along the 31st St. line, increasing the safety of students who might otherwise walk and decreasing the need for parents to organize their work schedules around the school day. Arrangements with schools do not necessarily need to be monetary– during the initial stages buses could be stored on school property, routes could be adjusted to serve the school population, and students could be given reduced fares.

Finally, the operator/mechanic lottery is an essential step to getting this project up and running. Many former employees of the CTA are relying on getting their jobs back through the Amalgamated Transit Union. Unfortunately, the CTA has the ATU cornered and the ATU leadership are very unwilling to fight for the operators/mechanics that were laid-off. At this point, it is more advantageous for this employee pool to look at alternatives, become self-organized, and not rely on the CTA/ATU to solve their employment problems. We propose the lottery system both to find interested employees as well as to ensure fairness in deciding who might take part. Until the system is up and running, there are limited spaces for operators/mechanics and we have to make do with what we can. As the system improves, more operators/mechanics can be brought into the fold and hopefully one day this system will put a serious dent in the unemployed CTA pool.

Union Membership

The proponents of this route are firmly pro-union and will request that the operators/mechanics of the 31st St. bus be a part of a union. As this project is supported by the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), we would request that the workers join the I.W.W. Membership in the I.W.W. requires knowledge of the mission of the organization and paying dues. The dues rate depends upon income and is the most progressive amongst labor organizations. For employees making $0 – $2,000 per year, dues are $9 per month; $2,000 – 3,000, $18; and greater than $3,000, $27. The maximum dues rate is $27 per month, thus any worker making significantly over $3,000 will always pay $27. The I.W.W. is a worker-run organization, thus membership is only allowed to individuals without exclusive hiring or firing power.