At a rally yesterday headlined by Rev. Jesse Jackson, a new coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations stood together to demand more funding for transit agencies across the country. With service cuts afflicting bus and train riders in dozens of major cities, the "Keep America Moving" coalition is focused on securing funds to maintain transit service. Their first goal is passing legislation in Congress that would make federal operating aid for transit permanent.
The star of the rally was Jackson, introduced by Congressman Charlie Rangel as someone who "not only brings a political stimulus, but answers to a higher power." Calling the budgetary woes of the nation’s transit agencies part of "the heart of the urban crisis," Jackson told the crowd that "we must now bail out from the bottom-up," beginning with urban transit.
Jackson added that the coalition’s fight "may end in a massive March on Washington," linking the coalition to the history of the civil rights movement.
Keep America Moving increasing operating funds for the nation’s transit systems. Nationally, the coalition is pushing to pass Missouri Congressman Russ Carnahan’s bill to allow cities with more than 200,000 residents to use federal dollars on transit service, not just capital projects. Transit systems across the nation are facing huge budget deficits as a result of the recession. Multiple speakers at the rally questioned the wisdom of buying new buses if you can’t pay anyone to drive them, a situation that gained widespread attention when the 2009 stimulus bill emphasized funding capital projects instead of maintaining service.
Members of the Keep America Moving coalition are not just looking to the feds. Streetsblog asked John Samuelson, the new head of New York’s Transport Workers Union Local 100, whether the coalition would also target state and local governments. "In a word, yes," Samuelson answered. "We have a full-scale lobbying effort in Albany." Samuelson didn’t specify what the TWU is asking for in Albany, but he did refer to his union’s support for shifting flexible stimulus dollars from the MTA’s capital budget to pay for operations.
The two founding partners of the coalition are the major transit unions, the Amalgamated Transit Union and the TWU. Some of New York’s most powerful labor groups, including the SEIU, DC 37, and RWDSU also came to show their support. The rallying cry of the afternoon was "jobs, jobs, jobs," repeated by the heads of union locals and elected officials, including Rangel and Congressman Greg Meeks.
The coalition also includes environmental organizations: Cecil Corbin-Mark of the West Harlem-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice and Dan Miner of the New York City Sierra Club connected the need for more transit funding with the imperative of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving air quality. Other speakers included Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign and Kate Slevin of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
Yesterday’s event was the second rally by Moving America Forward, following a Chicago event last Saturday.
Russianoff saw the formation of the coalition — and the participation of a public figure with Jackson’s stature — as a major step forward for transportation advocacy. "The momentum has been growing," he said after the rally, adding that the coalition is just getting started.
"You’re going to see a lot more of us," promised Warren George, the president of the ATU.