Larry Hanley was elected president today of the 190,000-member Amalgamated Transit Union, which organizes bus drivers in cities across the U.S. and Canada, by delegates to the ATU Convention.
Hanley helped found the Keep America Moving coalition to build support for mass transit. Read his bio here. Labor Notes' Mark Brenner interviewed Hanley this month about how he would run the ATU differently and organize transit workers together with community members.
Why is your slate mounting a challenge to the incumbent administration?
ATU members have been suffering under unprecedented attacks, both lack of funding that resulted in layoffs and a concerted effort by transit management to use the current economic climate as an excuse to roll back our contracts, to eliminate our pensions, to cut our wages.
Our locals have been fighting in isolation.
Back in the fall, some of the VPs tried to push the former president into action, and we just couldn’t. He either simply didn’t get it or didn’t have enough concern to do anything about it.
Every attempt to try and get our resources in DC put into the field was failing. There was a growing sense that something had to change.
In 2008 gas prices went through the roof to $4 a gallon, and transit went through a boom in ridership. People were flocking to buses and trains. Transit agencies were caught between the surging ridership and surging costs. Health care costs and huge fuel costs were breaking budgets. At the same time demand was going through the roof, fare structures were such that they couldn’t support the added cost.
In Chicago, the CTA decided the way to deal with surging ridership was not to add service but simply to rip the seats out of subway cars. And the same kind of thinking was playing itself out around the country. There were actually places that were cutting service at the time that ridership was at its highest level since World War II.
Observing that, a group of us decided to get federal action to help transit agencies. It just made sense. Who has a better story at a time like this than transit? We have the impact of global warming, the fact that we’re fighting wars all over the world to try and secure oil, we have an economy that’s stalled. People were suddenly coming back to transit.
So we said, “We need some instant and immediate federal aid to help transit systems expand.” The impacts of that would reverberate throughout the economy and the environment.
We got a bill through the House, but we were unable to get any real action from our president to stimulate work in the field. The bill died in the Senate.
Move ahead to September of 2008: the economy flattens. Suddenly it’s not just that the ridership is surging but the tax base fell out from under mass transit all around the country. It was no longer a matter of harnessing growth and improving the services, it was a matter of maintaining systems as they existed.
The internal struggle in the ATU is to get our office to act.
Last fall we had a board meeting, and it was crystal clear that nothing was going to happen.
Twenty-five percent of members were laid off in Detroit last October. By November we knew that Chicago was facing 2,000 projected layoffs. One after another--Sacramento was facing layoffs, Cleveland, Cincinnati, ultimately my own local in New York. Layoffs were everywhere.
At the time, our leadership, and this includes our retired president Warren George and our current president Ron Heintzman, decided to go on trips all over the world. They never went to Detroit, they never went to Chicago. There was no sense that this was a crisis.
Essentially the message to our locals was, you’re on your own. Good luck. Bad things happen, what are you going to do?
So in February I worked with various transit locals in the ATU and in the New York area and we called together as many transportation unions as we could on very short notice. We called a meeting in New York in February, in the middle of a blizzard, and 60 different locals show up from around the country, including as far away as Oakland, California.
Although we might not have woken anybody up in Washington that day, our local leaders were clear that something had to happen—and that became the Coalition to Keep America Moving. We built it in the hope that our president would say yeah, that’s a good idea. We couldn’t talk him into it so we did it on our own.
Unfortunately, he had an extremely negative reaction. He built a weak, competing organization called “Save ourRide.” It kept the resources of the union away from a grassroots program that was organizing all around the country and instead opted to do essentially a media campaign that got no attention.
The consequences are that we are now suffering with the highest level of layoffs in the ATU at least since World War II.
There has been no federal funding, we have not been able to get Congress to act, primarily because we have not energized our locals to do real activity in the field where Congress will feel the heat.
In the course of this a debate raged inside the ATU about how we can best deal with changing our leadership, and through that debate we developed a coalition to make that happen. That is what this candidacy is all about.
What does the campaign look like?
The first thing we had to do was go to court because our international president started sending our emails beating us up. But when we requested the email addresses from the international union, he refused to give them to us. We went to court and reached a settlement. He had to turn over the emails.
We have the support of a lot of local unions throughout the U.S. and Canada. Bob Baker [who’s running for secretary-treasurer] and I have been working phones and traveling as much as we can. I just came back from a few days in the Midwest. I drove 1,400 miles around Indiana and Illinois meeting with local officers. I’ve been to Canada several times meeting with delegates.
As vice president I’ve worked in about 80 of 270 local unions in the course of the last eight years, so I have had broad exposure to the locals, particularly from Virginia up to Maine and out to Pittsburgh.
We started the campaign in May. I assembled a bunch of newspaper clips about the work our local union did when I was local president and sent out a mailing to introduce myself.
In June, on 48 hours notice, we were notified to come down to Washington to an emergency general executive board meeting because the Teamsters were raiding our locals. When the meeting opened up, Warren George said he got a call just last night from the Teamsters and everything is OK. Bear in mind he had assembled 20 people from all over Canada and the United States for this message. Then he said, “But while you’re here, I’m going to resign.”
However, at 11 a.m. that morning he had taken 10 of our vice-presidents to lunch. It was an exact majority. At 1 p.m. he opened the meeting and the votes were already lined up. Heintzman had the votes.
Warren was leaving so that Heintzman could use union resources for the campaign. The current edition of our union magazine is a 28-page outrage, a pure Heintzman campaign piece mailed to 190,000 ATU members at union expense.
And there was a golden handshake where Heintzman got a motion passed to make Warren George president emeritus. The board voted to give him a blank check to work out any pay arrangement he wants with Warren.
I sent him an email, as a board member, asking him to disclose what the arrangements were, and he refused to tell me. It’s my understanding that Warren is still on the payroll as president emeritus. That’s a ruse to allow them to dip into the union treasury for the Heintzman campaign.
What are you raising as key issues?
In the large urban centers that have been devastated by layoffs, they are concerned about getting their members back to work. They are worried about the fact that it’s the beginning of dismantling the mass transit system in the urban centers. For example, here in New York Mayor Bloomberg is attempting to replace the bus service with commuter vans. They want the International to step up and do something about it.
If you go to places that have not been hit by the layoffs, the discussion goes to lack of support they get from the international union. For years there has been a disconnect between our office in Washington and getting real support out in the field.
What is your vision if you get to take the reins?
It’s not just a matter of rebuilding the ATU, although that is the job I’m running for.
We cannot survive as the ATU if the labor movement doesn’t survive. The labor movement has been—throughout my working life—on a downward trajectory. We have to find a way, not only in the ATU but in the broader labor movement, to better communicate with the public. To build a sense of community again in the U.S. that’s been stripped away over the last 30 years of politics.
We’ve been outgunned by Corporate America in terms of establishing a national discussion. Witness Fox News, which is just an arm of the Republican Party. I think the labor movement has to have a discussion about having our own cable network, our own communication system to get our word out.
In the 1930s when unions were organizing, people like Woody Guthrie did concerts and cultural events to organize workers. This is a very different world. We have to figure out a way to reach our members and people who could be our members through their TV sets and on their computers.
So does this have to be broader than unions?
My experience absolutely tells me that it has to be unions and community hand in hand. I was a local president for 16 years. Staten Island is, strangely, a union stronghold and a Republican stronghold all at the same time. What we were successful at doing in Staten Island, with a Republican Governor Pataki and a Republican Mayor Guiliani, was to get them to massively add bus service—the biggest bus service increases in history—and lower express bus fares and build bus lanes into Manhattan.
We didn’t do that because we just organized our members and shook our fists. We organized the community by building coalitions with very unlikely groups. We organized with the Chamber of Commerce and with the Board of Realtors—because transit is a real estate issue—we organized with church groups, we organized with other unions. We organized primarily with the riders.
Back in 1996 we had a very serious and hard internal discussion which taught me a lot of things about organizing union members and organizing the public.
First we went to members and said, “We’re at a very critical point and we need to raise money to have a public campaign to promote transit.” Our goal was to lower the bus fare.
People thought we were out of our minds. The fare had never been lowered, it had only gone up.
The background is that at the time the MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] was cutting the fare in half for some areas. But Staten Island, where people primarily rely on express buses, would get no break. So we used that as organizing issue. It would have meant going from $4 to a $2 fare.
We took a vote to assess the membership $5 a week for 20 weeks for the campaign. In two votes over a two-week period the membership voted it down by a very narrow margin. But the core of the people who understood what we were doing really wanted it to happen.
So we created a voluntary contribution system through our COPE program. We met with groups of members 10 to15 at a time over two months, to sit and explain why we were doing it. By the end of it we had about 75 percent of our members signed up for a minimum of $5 a week.
We hired students, bought them Metrocards, and every morning got them to board the express buses with clipboards and postcards to send to the mayor, the governor, and city council president.
It was simply a postcard from the passengers saying, “We support lowering the fare by buying bigger buses.”
The buses we had only had 43 seats. We advocated buying these 57-passenger coaches and putting in bus lanes. By carrying a third more people you increase productivity and make it more feasible to lower the fare. And the express lanes make it faster, so it’s cheaper to move the buses.
We got 10,000 people who rode our buses to sign postcards. We photocopied and mailed them. We then had a database of 10,000 passengers who we started organizing. We had people out there almost every morning for a year. We did all kinds of goofy and good things.
We did a fax to the governor’s office. They said we burnt out two ribbons in one day from our passengers faxing.
We brought passengers to city hall, where 100 passengers would show up at noon. We brought a busload of passengers to Albany to meet with the governor’s office. We had a cable TV show documenting this.
The upshot was we got a call from the governor’s office telling us he had decided to lower the fare from $4 to $3, and our ridership exploded. We went up 125 percent in about a year. I think over 500 jobs were added. [Editor’s note: This story is told in Labor Notes’ A Troublemaker’s Handbook 2.]
It wasn’t the stock and trade of the ATU to do community organizing. How did you do it?
In New York we had an infrastructure that was supportive, we had the Straphangers Campaign, we had the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. We had other unions that are bigger and stronger in New York City than elsewhere.
But the model works. There are two groups with primary interest in mass transit: the workers and the riders. There are a lot more riders than workers.
If you can organize your workers, congratulations, not a lot people can do that. But if you can organize your riders with your workers, and convince the two groups that they have an identical interest in having good service, then you’re hitting a home run.
That is what we need to do across the U.S. and Canada. We have to get our people focused on that, trained in how to do it, and provide them the resources. If we can do that we can have a big impact on our times and turn around this attack on mass transit.
In the course of it you can turn around this attack on working people.
Our riders were very protective of the bus drivers. There was a real relationship that grew, because express bus drivers see the same people all the time. But it grew deeper, stronger. It really pushed management back, and it pushed two bad-ass politicians back--Giuliani and Pataki.
We have to get out there and build coalitions for mass transit around the country. We’ve been handcuffed because we don’t control the resources of the union. We have internal structural problems too. We have a legislative department that works completely in isolation from the organizing department, which works completely in isolation from the vice presidents.
I want to create a Department of Action. So when we get a call from Jackson, Mississippi, and an employer is giving them a hard time, I want to have staff that knows what to do, how to talk to the press, how to formulate a campaign. We don’t have that now.
Your vision stretches far beyond best practices of building labor-community coalitions. You’re talking about things that have the potential to change a lot more than mass transit.
If you look at what Obama did in the campaign--he found a way to inspire people. He applied basic community organizing techniques along with some broader vision of hope.
The ATU can’t do this alone, but the movement has to do that, and it has to be around issues people can connect to. We have the best story in town, but we have to figure out a way to tell our story.
There are, all around the country, groups of environmentalists who have formed these sustainable community projects. But we’re not working with them. The real battles in coming years are going to won by organizing the public, not by litigating before a judge, not by begging Congress.
We have to convince people that green jobs matter, and that transit is the greenest job you’re going to find.
There is a group called T4America. It is the most muscular lobbying group for transit that I have seen in my life. They have funding from major foundations, a huge D.C. presence and effective lobby, but the one missing link in T4—despite the fact that they are a broad coalition of faith groups, environmental groups, unions in name, not so much in action--is they don’t have people in the field. They have some field coordinators but they don’t have troops.
Labor has troops but we’re not engaging our troops. We need to connect our local in Peoria with their group in Peoria. You have to be mindful of the process in Washington but understand that you’re not going to overcome the massive lobbying groups unless you can have grassroots action in the congressman’s district that gets their attention. The model I use is what we did here in Staten Island.
What are the bigger implications for the push to expand mass transit?
It can save the environment. Getting people out of their cars and into buses and trains can contribute heavily to that. A great number of studies say it’s far cheaper to travel by mass transit, and it’s far healthier.
One of the byproducts of car culture is that it takes away people’s sense of community, of common purpose. People become allergic to associating with their neighbors. I think mass transit alters that.
People had a much deeper sense of community when they got on the bus every day and saw people and talked. But you can’t scold people into mass transit. You can’t gripe about how selfish they are by using their car.
This car culture was designed by car companies. In postwar America a group of corporations--led by General Motors--got together and formed a phony bus company, National City Lines. And they went around and bought up all the trolley lines in America and they destroyed them. I know it sounds conspiratorial, but it’s true.
At the same time they were convincing the federal government to spend more money on highways than anything else. And that’s what built the suburbs and ruined the environment and changed America for a very long time.
We have to slowly put together a coalition that can reverse as much of that as possible. You don’t do it by critiquing people’s habits. You have to create a traveling environment where it’s convenient to take a bus or a train, where it’s cheaper.
One thing the MTA has been good at is regulating fares high enough so that cars are competitive, and that is a grave mistake.
In 1996 we didn’t just go out and say we want more buses. We had done that for years and it wasn’t effective. We said the fare should be less, and we advertised that as a $1,000 tax cut. By lowering the fare people saved $2 every day they commuted.
If you look at the board of the MTA or the New Jersey transit board, you’ll find that the people on these boards are from trucking companies. Paul McCartney’s girlfriend, who’s on the MTA board, is one of the owners of New England Motor Freight. People who never ride a bus or a train are the people who decide fares and service levels.
If we can organize and convince the users of mass transit and the workers of mass transit that they have a common interest, and if you carry that forward into different areas in the labor movement, that is a long, hard battle but it’s in reach. It’s also an imperative. If we don’t do it we’ll cease to exist.
Right now we’re seeing a feeding frenzy around public sector workers and their pensions.
If we don’t deal with the public perception of those benefits and of those workers, if we don’t effectively convince the public that being able to eat more than cat food in your retirement is a good thing, then we’re in trouble.
It should be a fairly easy message to communicate. But the problem is the other side owns the radio and TV stations. If you watch the morning show on MSNBC, they tend to have some fairly progressive viewpoints, but when they talk about unions, it’s unanimous: they all suck. Unions are no good, unions are killing the country.
My experience is that lots of public sector union leaders are scared to talk to the public. As public sector workers we’ve stood by—mostly because the leadership has not had the vision—and watched the private sector be dismantled before our very eyes. We have not engaged in the debate. We shied away from NAFTA debate. For the first time this year there are fewer private sector union members than there are public.
For the last 30 years folks have been content to allow bad news all around them so long as it didn’t hit them too hard. That has to change. We have to have people at the top who are willing to go out and tell our story, who are not afraid of the sunlight. Who are willing to say, “I am a union president, and I’m proud of it, and here’s what we stand for.”
Until there was a labor movement, there were no child labor laws, no mine safety laws, no Social Security, no unemployment insurance--until working peopled figured out a way to organize and tell their story, and organize everybody else. And even if you couldn’t organize them into your union, if you could organize them to see the world in the frame of the 95 percent of the people who have to go to work every day and act in their own interest.
I read occasionally old magazines from my union. From the early days, from the 1902 period, 1920. The people who founded my union were bright, sophisticated, they had a world view. They understood that you had to organize to make things happen.
What I get in the mail now from the union in Washington is like People magazine, who retired in Peoria, there’s no message, there’s no view, there’s no vision.
I was in Indiana sitting with two guys who are president and treasurer of a local union, and we agree on everything: the structure of the union, organizing passengers, and on everything we’re right there. And then one guy turns to me and says, “We’re conservative Republicans.” If we agree on everything, why are we succumbing to these labels?
That’s the part we have to get around, because somebody pulls out the Second Amendment and we’re off to the races and to hell with the union. We have to make the union primary in their lives. They have to understand the connection between the union and everything else.