Jackson Joins Transit Unions to Rally for More Federal Operating Aid

_1.jpgThe scene at today's transit workers' rally on Capitol Hill. (Photo: Steve Davis)
"CONGRE$$ PLEASE HELP." 

"THINK BEFORE YOU CUT."

"HANDS OFF OUR BUS OPERATORS."

The messages were stark on Capitol Hill today as hundreds of transit workers gathered to protest the wave of local budget shortfalls that are threatening many of their jobs and called on Congress to approve an increase in federal operating aid.

The rail and bus workers came from New York, Boston, and Atlanta, toting signs to the doorstep of the Senate for a rally sponsored by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union, an arm of the AFL-CIO. Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has put urban transit cuts near the top of his personal agenda in recent months, also addressed the workers.

One after another, the presidents of local union chapters took to the microphones with the same warning to Democrats in Congress: Transit workers are not inclined to help save the jobs of lawmakers who do not try to return the favor.

"It's amazing how the people that built the systems are the first ones who want to cut the systems," said Robert Kelly, chief of Chicago's ATU Local 308 chapter. "If Washington doesn't hear us, let's get rid of 'em."

Other union leaders sounded similar notes, vowing to limit their campaign contributions unless urban areas are permitted to spend more federal money on transit operating. Current law allows major cities to use 10 percent of their federal transit stimulus grants to keep buses and trains running, but that provision will have a limited effect as the next fiscal year approaches and recovery aid from Washington dwindles.

"We won't win this fight in the cities, we won't win it in the states," said Angelo Tanzi, president of Staten Island's local ATU chapter, finishing with a cry for permanent, "dedicated" federal transit operating funds.

The unions' efforts have the support of House transport committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) as well as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, but their chances of success this summer remain slim.

That's because the most likely vehicle for a permanent change in the transit operating rules is the next six-year federal transportation legislation, which remains stalled amid an ongoing dispute over how to finance it in the absence of a gas tax increase.

Despite their potentially long odds, the transit workers remained focused on projecting a unified front. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), cosponsor of a House jobs bill that would route economic recovery aid directly to urban governments, was met with cheers after he promised to let fellow lawmakers know "transportation jobs are where it's at."

By boosting transit operating aid to stave off local layoffs, Ellison told the union members, "we not only save your jobs, we help you get other people to their jobs."