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Campaign Q&A: Louisville DSA’s Foundation of Solidarity with ATU

Louisville DSA is Building for Power through its public transit campaign, Get On The Bus. Campaign leaders Michael B. and Allison L. share how the push to fund TARC buses started on a strong relationship with the local Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU).

Why did you decide to work on public transit?

Allison L: Louisville’s public transit system, Transit Authority of River City (TARC), is chronically underfunded. Its funding model is archaic and hasn’t kept up with several factors that have increased the want and need for public transit. Public transit advocacy fits well into the broader DSA agenda of supporting working people and addressing climate change. Personally, I lived without a car in Chicago for 15 years, taking mostly public transit, and I’ve always found it odd and disappointing how difficult it is to use TARC.

Michael B: Our campaign is working to address the funding structure of TARC, specifically around two issues. One, most funding sources are marked for capital expenses, not the expense dollars needed to pay drivers overtime, keep buses on the road, etc. And two, Louisville Metro government doesn’t contribute directly to TARC’s funding. 

Tell us about your relationship with the ATU local.

MB: We were actually in a unique position where our local ATU reached out to LDSA wanting to work together on a campaign to address TARC’s funding. LDSA came out in support during ATU’s last contract fight. ATU is in this position where rider’s want buses to run, driver’s show up wanting to drive, and TARC turns then away because TARC can’t or won’t provide overtime. The timing of Louisville’s budget process leads directly into ATU’s next contract negotiation, and increasing public perception and involvement around TARC and ATU should give them additional leverage. 

We have a real partnership with ATU on this effort, which I think separates us from other organizations. As an example, I want to touch specifically on the letters being signed by ATU members. We worked with ATU leadership to build short quick-hit letters to tell the TARC Board to demand Mayor Greenberg add TARC as a line item to his budget proposal. We identified 4 key issues ATU workers wanted new funding to support: Pay & Benefits, Safety, Accessibility, and the Mechanic Apprenticeship Program. The first three issues are fairly typical, but the Apprenticeship Program is something unique to TARC that most of the public wouldn’t otherwise be aware of, and only a subset of ATU members would be directly involved with. It’s by working directly with ATU that we not only hear about these specific issues and needs, but that we can work with them to help raise their own voices on the issue. 

What steps are you taking to build solidarity between operators, riders, and other groups?

AL: We have developed a letter writing campaign for ATU members to express why increased funding matters to them. We are sending these letters to the TARC board in hopes it will encourage them to advocate more for ATU members. We’ve also developed a rider survey and “tired of being ghosted by the bus?” sticker campaign to build rider solidarity through a heightened awareness of TARC’s citywide issues, and to gather data of rider experience to use later. We’ve written a longer demand letter for other groups (unions, environmental groups, public transit groups, etc.) to send to the mayor. And for the general public, we have a petition to the mayor and are hoping to implement a postcard campaign to send to metro council members.

What local political conditions are you having to overcome?

AL: The funding model for TARC currently does not guarantee that it is included in the city budget every year, which is the only way to ensure consistent funding. Also, though the Mayor has promised to make Louisville green, it doesn’t seem to extend to TARC. 

MB: TARC is funded through a trust fund system established in the 70s, which simply hasn’t kept pace with the needs of the city. Not only did the Mayor campaign on green issues, including TARC, but Metro Council has voted on long-term plans that stress the importance of a frequent, reliable, expanded public transit system. Neither Mayor Greenberg or Metro Council have actually acted on either of their plans. 

What challenges and opportunities does organizing in the south bring?

AL: The challenge of organizing for public transit in the south is that there is not a deeply embedded tradition and public understanding and respect for public transit, unlike northern cities like New York City. We are largely an unwalkable, car-based society, with ample parking lots and ever-widening highways, and when public transit is unreliable or difficult to use, our natural reaction is to disregard it until it disappears, instead of recognizing the amount of funding it will require. There is no vision for a future that includes public transit as a primary mode of transportation.

MB: Louisville, like many southern cities, continues to suburbanize. Only a select few areas are walkable. Our homes, jobs, grocery stores, and third places grow further and further apart, and we are doing literally nothing to address the issue.

How can people in Louisville get involved?

Sign our petition and tell Mayor Greenberg and Louisville Metro Council to Get on the Bus and Fund TARC!