Not Only the Front or Back, But the Whole Bus Will Be Ours: Reflections on Organizing Around Atlanta Public Transit
A blinking sign at the train station reads, “Next Southbound Train to Airport in 23 minutes.” An advertisement inside a bus displays a photo of a smiling white family headed to a Braves game, announcing “We’re Building a Better Way” over the heads of the majority-black patrons riding to work, school, or home. Meanwhile, just months after a new contract was enforced, a driver speeds down a busy thoroughfare, trying to complete her 22-minute route in the 16 minutes mandated by the union and management.
Welcome to MARTA (the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority). Though this could be any contemporary urban setting in America, in this case it is Atlanta, a city known for its “progressive” social character. A legacy of the New South, Atlanta is home to an ongoing struggle over public transit between its largely working class black population and a multiracial transit board of directors which includes old guard Civil Rights elders, black church leaders, and wealthy businessmen and women, black, brown, and white alike. Atlanta Unity & Struggle (U&S) is one organization involved in this struggle, articulating and organizing around a vision of public transit that is based on anti-racist and directly democratic principles of workplace and community control from below.
This is a reflection on the year-long effort U&S has thus far waged around MARTA. To fully digest the experiences we’ve had, some context needs to be provided. What is the history of public transit in Atlanta? What does MARTA tell us about the race and class dynamics in this New South city? What labor and union struggles has MARTA witnessed since its inception? And what do these dynamics tell us about national politics right now?
If any concise lessons can be gleaned from our organizing experiences, there are three. First, working class folks in Atlanta need to recognize the limits of the racial identity politics that MARTA’s management represents. Greater democratic control over our city’s public transit will not be handed to us by our benevolent black brothers and sisters on the board of directors, but will only be won by our own self-organization and action. Second, community self-management of MARTA can only begin with a strong sense of solidarity and collaboration between transit riders and transit employees. There is a class struggle going on over transit, so our attempts to clarify an “us” vs. “them” must recognize the distinction between working folks (riders & transit employees) and management (both of MARTA and the city itself). Finally, this distinction must extend into the transit workers’ union, Amalgamated Transit Workers Union (ATU) Local 732, as the conception of patronage politics and welfare state diplomacy that currently dominates the union leadership will only lead to further defeats.
Atlanta, “A City Too Busy to Hate”
Mass transit in Atlanta has been a site of community struggle for much of the city’s history. Jim Crow segregation was challenged by black riders on Atlanta streetcars in the late 1890s and early 1900s. This struggle against the “social graces” of white supremacy, which saw black men and white women sitting in close proximity on city streetcars, was one factor that led to the conditions of violence against the black community by largely working class whites, encouraged by white elites in local government and the public press, in the Atlanta race riot in 1906. It is no coincidence that the first blacks attacked and killed during this riot were those riding city streetcars. Transit and race relations in Atlanta have been inseparable from the start.
MARTA has been around over 30 years, with bus and rail lines covering the city of Atlanta and much of Fulton and Dekalb counties. When the system was first proposed in the early 1970s, it was envisioned to cover more than just two counties, and would have reached Cobb County and others. However officials and communities there, overwhelmingly white, rejected paying taxes to support the system. This rejection had racist overtones, as some felt that MARTA would make it possible for black folks from the city to take trains up to these areas to work and live. Amazingly, Clayton and Gwinnett counties both have representatives on the MARTA board even though the bus lines don’t enter their counties; and the state of Georgia holds seats on the board, even though officially it offers no funding to the system.
Underlying this is a logic of straight-up white supremacy and paternalism that says black folks aren’t able to build and manage their own transportation so they can move freely wherever they want to go. This same logic has affected where the trains and buses go, making it difficult for working folks of all backgrounds to reach wealthy, overwhelmingly white areas of metro Atlanta. Yet these same areas are now home to the majority of jobs where working folks labor in the transportation, retail, and other service industries. This has created conditions where 1 ½ to 2-hour commutes one-way to work on MARTA, with connections to suburban bus lines, are common for workers dependent on transit.
For years the blatant inequality in public transit has ignited commentary and even protest against the city’s administration. People asked, how could working folks be represented by a board of directors that includes political figures from counties and state government that aren’t even served by MARTA and who have specifically chosen to prohibit MARTA from serving their communities? To mitigate these complaints the MARTA board hired Nathaniel Ford, a black CEO, to head the transit agency in 2000. It seemed that local politicians thought Ford would be “the People’s CEO” or that he would “feel our pain.” But few took the bait. In fact, shortly after Ford was hired, local community groups including figures from Clark Atlanta University, filed a lawsuit against MARTA for discrimination and environmental racism.
Ford quickly proved adept at being a CEO rather than feeling anyone’s pain. Reports were released accusing rampant abuse of taxpayers’ dollars by Ford and the MARTA board. Ford, who made $205,000 per year while CEO of MARTA, and his secretaries were shown to have charged over $105,000 to transit credit cards, including $454 at a pro-gulf shop, $335 on clothing at the Men’s Warehouse, and thousands more on management strategy books, personal trainers, and office equipment. At the same time, Ford led a wave of attacks on services, overseeing the termination of bus lines throughout the city (in 2005 alone, bus routes #31, #61, #62, and #80 were eliminated while over 30 others were affected by decreased frequency). Ford also led a fare increase of 25-cents in 2000 and proposed another hike of 25-cents in 2005 that was eventually denied due to protests by local communities.
Even if this blatant corruption were the exception rather than the rule, there is a larger crisis at stake. First, this represents the decades-long trend of the so-called “New Economy”, which enriches the middle class and the rich by impoverishing working people through unbridled accumulation. Working people are literally being robbed at gun point. Second, many who are critical of MARTA insist that the board of directors would better be able to serve the metro Atlanta area if the state of Georgia wasn’t still run by the good ole boy, Southern genteel reign of white supremacy. This persistence of old-school white supremacy is indeed a reality, despite Atlanta’s self-imagination as “a city too busy to hate.” But this reality is simply facilitated, consolidated, and extended by the multiracial regime in Atlanta that is concerned with maintaining its own power and its own piece of the pie and has shown no interest in challenging a long legacy of black subordination. The Atlanta municipal government represents both the gains and the pitfalls of the Civil Rights movement. Some of the gains, including the opening of managerial positions to black folks, are now used as a band-aid to cover up the continued existence of institutional white supremacy in our city. It seems that in Atlanta, Black Power came to fruition as power for black capitalists like Nathaniel Ford, while the rest of the black community was left waiting for a bus that hasn’t come. The black stronghold in Atlanta exists not in opposition to white supremacy, but as its new form of management.
History and contemporary events speak to this dramatic failure. When have we ever seen the city’s officials take a firm stand against white supremacy? Mayor Shirley Franklin has allied herself with the Beltline project, a multi-billion dollar transportation plan which looks good on paper but in actuality will bolster the already affluent (and largely white) Northeast portion of the city. Meanwhile the project advances an increasingly threatening process of gentrification throughout the largely black and working class neighborhoods of south Atlanta. The Beltline is not about getting folks where they need to go, rather it was conceived to line the pockets of developers and inflate the egos of city officials, all the while pricing out working folks and older folks from their own homes. Instead of connecting people and communities of all backgrounds projects like the Beltline are actually fragmenting and destroying existing communities. It is this vision of the function of public transportation today in Atlanta that must be defeated, neighborhood-by-neighborhood.
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