Commuters and Bus Drivers Unite: Larry Hanley's Staten Island Campaign

Larry Hanley addressing a crowd of ATU members.

Larry Hanley, president of ATU, passed away this week. He will be missed by the troublemaking wing of the labor movement.

The following excerpt from A Troublemaker's Handbook 2 documents the work of the late Larry Hanley.

The transit deregulation of the 1980s had trickled down from the airline industry to city buses. By 1989, union density among Staten Island-Manhattan express bus drivers was down to 60 percent, from a 1980 high of 90 percent. These figures, plus high bus fares, decreasing ridership, private companies threatening their jobs, and budget cuts, pushed Staten Island bus drivers to take action.

“We started in 1989 by forming a coalition with the riders,” says Larry Hanley, former president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 726 and a current vice-president at the ATU International. [He later became president. -Eds.]

“But back then we didn’t know that paper didn’t organize people,” he laughs, pointing out some of the union’s early mistakes.

“We’d put out leaflets inviting people to meetings and they wouldn’t come. We weren’t doing to the human contact, talking to people about issues, rather than just standing on a corner handing out leaflets. We opened a storefront and invite people to come to talk about transit issues. But people don’t come to your door; you have to go to theirs.”

Faced with budget cuts, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) was cutting services and raising fares. In addition, private and non-union buses began picking up passengers along the city’s routes. “They were just tour buses trying to pick up extra money,” explains Hanley.

“We had bad equipment and high fares, and the people standing on the corner just get on the first bus that comes.”

One idea to fight these trends was to lobby the city and state governments to protect the bus drivers’ jobs through legislation. Hanley did not think that would work. “We faced several budget cuts and decided we couldn’t regulate our way out of this,” he says.

The union had to figure out a way to get the support of bus riders. Hanley knew that frustrated customers often blame drivers, unaware that transit workers have little control over service or fares. “We knew that if our plan didn’t benefit both riders and drivers, it wouldn’t work,” he says.

“So we devised a plan to move buses out of Staten Island faster with express bus lanes. People would zip through Brooklyn in 10 minutes, for example, rather than be stuck in traffic for two hours.”

Hanley also had to get union members on board with this plan. “Bus drivers are paid by the hour, so it was hard to tell them, ‘Here’s a plan where you’ll be paid less,” he says. “So, instead, we said, ‘We’re in a dying industry. If we don’t make it more efficient, people won’t get out of their cars to take the bus.”

Hanley also had to get members to pay for a campaign. “We had meetings with sodas and pizza to explain this to members,” he says. “But people voted against it twice, really close, like 51-49. So we went to the people who did want to contribute, and we got about 75 percent of those members to contribute $5 a week to the campaign. Then others contributed. We were able to get people to voluntarily contribute where we couldn’t get them to vote for it.”

Hanley believes the reasons are mostly psychological. “The members felt like if they voted it in, it would be something they had to do, whereas if they had the option, they could always opt out, so they felt better about contributing.” The local also got funding help from the International’s Committee on Political Education (COPE).

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In 1996, the International commissioned a study of Local 726’s proposal for express lanes. “The study showed the cash savings and the environmental benefits,” says Hanley. “For example, if buses could carry 30 percent more people, you could charge 30 percent less.” The union sent the results of the study to the local media. At the same time, members went on the buses to tell riders about it.

“We hired an organizer to organize the public,” Hanley says. “We learned that you had to have one person dedicated full-time to that one piece of the campaign. We handed people flyers with a letter to the governor’s and mayor’s addresses and fax numbers printed on the back, and asked people to send them, and they did.

“We hired kids from Staten Island Community College, paid their fare, and sent them onto buses with a three-postcard flyer. One postcard was to the mayor, one was to the governor, and one was to the city council. The kids had people fill them out and we mailed them. But before we mailed them, we photocopied them to create a database of who was riding our buses.”

By the end of 1996, the campaign was full-blown. The union was able to enlist riders to organize the buses they rode and hand out leaflets to further pressure the MTA, the mayor, and the governor to support the plan. Local 726 also mailed leaflets to people from the database they had created.

The campaign got another boost in 1997. The union did an analysis of Staten Island housing values. “The value of real estate is related to the efficiency of transit,” says Hanley. “We had a public-access cable TV show where we brought riders on. We got a real estate lobby group on the show and got their endorsement for our proposal.” The union took their new information to the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the parent-teacher organizations in the schools, and professional and business groups.

Local 726 also created a few unusual opportunities to win public support. “We went to the Staten Island Columbus Day Parade and handed kids balloons that supported us, so that when they stood next to the borough president, they would have these balloons,” says Hanley. “And what’s he going to do? Take the balloons away?

“We rented stagecoaches to show the state of transit in Staten Island. We held a series of press conferences and invited the public. We got riders to show up and make the arguments for our plan. We were told that members of the public burned out two ribbons on the governor’s fax machine, faxing him in support of us. And at one point, a bunch of riders went up to the governor’s office to lobby for the proposal.”

The union got media support as well. “The Staten Island Advance newspaper is not very friendly to unions, and I’m being kind,” says Hanley. “In the end, though, they bought the plan and said that it made sense. We were in the paper so much that the MTA called the paper the Staten Island chapter of ATU.”

There were small challenges along the way. “We had bus drivers who work split shifts stuffing envelopes during their breaks between shifts,” says Hanley. “It drove MTA crazy. They said we couldn’t do it. We said that we were communicating with riders, and that if we couldn’t do that, the bosses couldn’t either.”

All the work paid off in 1997, when the mayor came on board and endorsed the plan. “He was up for re-election that year,” says Hanley. “The governor was up for re-election the next year, so he had to come along.” In March 1998, the Brooklyn express bus route to Manhattan was extended three to four miles. The express fare was lowered from $4 to less than $3 (instead of the $2 the union wanted).

Improvements such as larger buses continued after the initial campaign. Ridership on the express buses grew from 16,000 to 40,000 by 2001, which created 500 new jobs for drivers—at around $50,000 a year plus benefits—and $37 million in new revenue for the MTA.

“New demand for the improved, faster, nicer buses led to even more service. Saturday service was increased ten-fold, and for the first time Sunday service was inaugurated. Trips on routes that once ended at 8 pm now run until midnight,” says Hanley. “Today, the express buses in the City of New York are about 98 percent union as a direct result of this campaign. The service is 100 percent better.”

A Troublemaker's Handbook 2 is available at the Labor Notes store.