“Why Free Transit?” (work in progress)


In the past month or so, BOC members have been involved in the organizing around the transit cuts in King County, WA. Some of this includes working with other members of the  Seattle Free Riders Union to distribute flyers on bus routes and in areas where large numbers of working people wait to ride the bus. We have also flyered to and engaged with bus drivers. The challenging, and varied responses we have received in these interactions are pushing us to sharpen our ideas and methods. Our ongoing readings in BOC around Marxist practice and methodology are also pushing us to hone our ideas and practice. We are working on a piece entitled “Why Free Transit is the most practical thing to demand in a crumbling world economy.”  A few weeks ago, we presented the work in progress to our friends and comrades, hoping that their feedback can have impact on our collective organizing practice.

We are making available our presentation outline. We hope to continue this conversation online and solicit thoughts/experiences from others who have been/are involved in transit organizing. Lovers and haters alike, please offer your constructive criticisms!

Why Free Transit is the most practical thing to demand in a crumbling world economy (work in progress) 

Short and long term goals

– Develop a materialist argument for why transit should be free, as opposed to simply a moralistic argument

–  Response to critics who put down our demands simply by saying “It’s not practical.” We want to situate this demand for free transit in the context of the current economy and uprisings taking place in the world where what “practicality” means is also shifting.

– See ourselves as part of the global struggle against austerity: Take lessons from current struggles and apply/innovate for us here

– Theoretically and practically arm ourselves with tools to engage in this organizing

– Continually discuss, debate and familiarize ourselves with the issues at hand so we can be accessible to large numbers of people

– Develop vision and understanding of ecologically sustainable transportation models/ vision for future society

– Develop global perspective to link demands for free transit here, in our local place, to global issues related to transportation and fossil fuel extraction eg: ecological destruction, imperialism

– Try to build an organizing team with common perspective and practice

A) Current situation with Metro and King County Council

1) Impose $ 20 car tabs to plug the budget shortfall

2) Fare increases. Over the past 4 years, adult fares have gone up by 80%. Metro is implementing even more hikes: raising the youth fare from 75 cents to $1.25, possibly cutting the ride free zone, and possibly cutting transfers. [more here]

3) Increased enforcement of fare payment

4) Elimination of Free Ride Zone downtown

We consider all of these to be austerity measures: making the working class pay for the economic crisis  so the rich capitalists can continue to make profits.  To be clear whenever we say working class in this piece we mean not only currently employed workers but also unemployed folks, people in prison, poor folks, people working “under the table”, etc.
King County’s austerity measures may not be as extreme, but they are similar to the austerity measures that the banks, the International Monetary Fund, and other institutions are imposing on Greece, Ireland, Britian, etc. right now.  In those countries, people have gone on strike and rioted against austerity.   King County’s austerity measures are not nearly as intense (yet) but they are also similar also to the austerity measures the IMF and world bank has imposed for decades on Third World countries like Chile, Jamaica, Argentina, etc.  In 1999 working people in Seattle rose up in solidarity with folks in these countries who were fighting against austerity measures.  12 years later we are facing austerity here, and working class people and farmers are continuing to face it even more abroad.  We hope to be part of building a movement here in Seattle against austerity, in solidarity with workers worldwide who are striking and rioting, demanding that we overthrow the dictatorship of “the economy”, that invisible hand that seems to beat us down every chance it gets.

Instead of austerity, we demand that transit should be free and the public transportation system should be expanded, not cut.  This might seem like a strange thing to demand when there isn’t even enough money to keep the transit system running in its current form. Here we will argue why it is not only practical, but necessary from the standpoint of preserving the fabric of society in the face of capitalist crisis.

B) Why transit should be free

1) When we say free, we mean that we, the people who live, work and sleep in King County, should have FREE AND EASY ACCESS to the Metro system.

We are accused of wanting to steal transit, but we are saying we have already paid for it once or twice or three times over and we refuse to pay for it again.

i) Our labor is necessary to create value in this society

Many of us produce, distribute, or sell the goods that are taxed to support the Metro system.Without our labor and the value it generates in the form of goods and services that are solid (commodities), Metro would have no money to operate.  In fact, the whole city couldn’t run because there would be nothing to tax, not to mention the fact that we would have nothing to eat, no electricity, no health care, etc.

ii) Sales Tax and Car tabs: cuts to individual wage and social wage

Our wages are not based on how much we produce. The capitalists and bosses keep the benefits of our work. Our wages are based on one thing: How much it takes to reproduce our labor, meaning how much it takes to put food in our stomachs, clothes on our backs, and the skills/ education in our heads necessary for us to come through the door the next day ready to make more profit for our bosses.

In other words, our wages are not something we “earn” because in fact we earn – we deserve- a lot more since we produce a lot more wealth.  Our wages are in fact our bosses investment in the reproduction of our labor. By paying us, they make it possible for there to be a working class that can be exploited again tomorrow.

Most wages are paid to individual workers because most of how we reproduce our labor is by going out and buying things sold on the market (like clothes that fit our work-place’s dress code or the alarm clock that wakes us up at 5:30 AM).   But public transportation, and other social services like education, are also part of the collective wages paid to the working class as a whole, what could be called a “social wage.”  Our bosses, through the government that share their values and perspectives, have set up a public transportation system to invest in the reproduction of the working class. They make sure we can get to work on time to make more money for them, and to make sure our kids can get to school on time where they learn to follow directions like good workers, where they get the skills necessary to go out take the bus to a workplace where they can make money for bosses in the future.   Just because public transit is run by the state doesn’t make it “socialist” or “communist”; it is simply part of the capitalist class’s investment in our labor power.

However, the capitalist class does not even pay for this investment now!  Instead they make us pay for it, because they can.  They don’t pay taxes on their profits to keep Metro running.   Working class people pay for it, through sales taxes.  Part of the individual wages we receive to reproduce our labor ends up going into the sales tax, the primary source of funding for Metro. As is well known, Washington state has the most regressive tax structure through its reliance on sales tax and absence of income tax. This means that percentage wise, the working class/poor pay more than the wealthy, to keep up the state’s public services. By cutting transit services, the capitalists are also cutting the collective, “social wage” that contributes to the reproduction of the workforce. In addition to sales tax, they are forcing us to pay more through car tabs.  The capitalists are forcing the working class to pay more to reproduce our own labor. In effect,  all these additional costs combined constitutes a wage cut.
iii) Once more, we pay: Fares

On top of that, they ask us to use another portion of our wages to pay fare when we get on the bus, which is essentially paying for Metro again, after we produce the value from our labor, after the sales tax, and now we get on the bus.

iv) Unemployed workers

Unemployed folks are also paying to keep the system running.

First of all, whatever money unemployed people manage to get a hold of,  is spent almost instantly on exactly the kind of consumer goods that are taxed through sales taxes to fund Metro.

Secondly, many unemployed people have family members who are part of the employed working class, and all the unpaid work that is done at home to take care of them helps reproduce their labor.  If unemployed people didn’t bring kids on the bus to their doctors appointments or kindegarten classes then the bosses won’t have future workers they can exploit.  If unemployed people didn’t take care of sick relatives or cook and do laundry for partners who are employed, then how could these relatives or spouses get into work the next day with healthy bodies, food in their stomachs and clean clothes on their backs?

All of this is unpaid labor.  If the bosses had to account for all of this when they calculate how much it takes to reproduce the labor of the working class then the wages of our loved ones who are employed would be MUCH higher. Instead, the system assumes that many unemployed people can and will do this work for free.  Much of it is done by women, whether employed or unemployed.  A lot of it requires the bus – people take the bus to go food shopping, give our kids bus fare so they can go to school.  If the buses are cut or the fare goes up, this just adds to the burden that women have to carry in this patriarchal society.  That’s why we see fighting for free transit also as a key feminist demand.

2) Environmental reasons for Free Transit 

Transportation causes about 30% of CO2 emissions in the US but more than half in WA state.  This is not because we drive more, but rather because CO2 emissions from electricity generation in WA state are relatively small.  Hydroelectric power produces FAR fewer emissions than coal (though some WA households use natural gas), and our climate is mild so we use a lot less energy on heating/AC than people do in, say, Ohio.  So since the electricity component is so much smaller, the transportation component is relatively larger.

In the US average, buses produce about ⅔ the CO2 emissions that a single-occupancy vehicle does.  Light rail produces about ⅓ the emissions that cars do, and heavy rail (like subways) produce about ¼.

Metro focuses their hybrid buses in highly congested areas where gas mileage is worse.  These buses get ~2.5 mpg on average.  Estimating that a single-occupancy vehicle gets ~20 mpg in congested conditions (It’s probably actually less), then a bus with fewer than 8 riders will emit more CO2 than if they’d all driven separate cars.  Most buses have quite a bit more than 8 passengers.  Metro reports an average of 30 passengers per vehicle per hour (this probably includes Vanpool etc), making Metro more than 3x more efficient in gas consumption (and hence CO2 emissions) than single-passenger vehicles.  (This also implies that Metro is better than the national average public transit system, probably due to high ridership.) Information available here

Public transportation indirectly reduces environmental impact and greenhouse gas emissions by allowing people to live in higher density, making it easier to get by without a car or to drive less if you do have one.  NYC’s MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) estimates that, in their case, this “land use” effect has even more benefit for preventing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than the direct reduction.

Without MTA, GHG emissions could be more than 18 million tons per year – equivalent to removing more than 3 million cars per year – or more than 25 percent greater than current GHG emissions. This is a conservative estimate that assumes that, without MTA, the region could have sprawled to look like the average U.S. land use. If the MTA Region became even more like low public transport, car-based cities, savings could be as high as 44 million tons per year2.

But no one has done a study on Metro’s effect (or potential effect) in this regard.

3)  The car tabs and rise in bus fares will not solve the Metro budget crisis.

The more we pretend it will, the more we delude ourselves.

i) Federal funding cuts

We are told that all this, is a stop gap measure, that we will buy time for our continued bus services. The reality is that it will not.

Here is some number crunching.

First, is the Federal budget. King County metro gets $70 million a year from the federal transportation budget to WA state. Under the austerity debates going on in DC, the Republicans are putting forth a plan to cut federal spending on transportation by 20%. These cuts are estimated to cost half a million jobs as well. This will affect King County metro by causing it to likely lose $20 million in funding for the 2011 budget, which would effectively cut 6% of Metro services and also likely cause the layoffs of many drivers. Where would this money come from?

We are told consistently that the car tab fees will plug the financial hole, but it will not. They are lying to us. Why else would Seattle city council push for car tabs to go up to $60/year? We can guarantee that the $60 car tab proposal will only increase in quantity over the next few years. We need only to look at the way tuition for education has hiked up over the past year to get a sense of what is going to happen in transportation costs.

Furthermore, Gregoire recently announced that state budget is getting cut by the a further 10%, or $1.7 billion, in addition to the recent $4 billion cuts. We can be sure funding to Metro will be affected.

If we don’t begin to think of an alternative for how to run Metro, then the de facto plan is that people like us, working/poor, will be expected to pay for the deficits through increased fare hikes and car tabs. Having to choose between what is realistically a wage cut, or cuts to essential transportation service, is not much of a choice. We need a shift in our paradigm.

ii) From stimulus to austerity: Impact on King County

The transit problem we face here is a microcosm of what else is going on in the country and the world economy. We cannot shield ourselves from it, nor find easy answers in car tab fees.

This is all part of a larger shift going on in the national and international political and economic situation.  In 2010, the US federal government responded to the economic crisis with the $700 billion stimulus plan.

The stimulus plan plugged state and local governments’ budget cuts. The working class still paid for those cuts but federal funding also contributed. Eg: UW tuition hikes 2 years ago would have been more if there wasn’t stimulus money coming from the Federal Government.

Recent debates in Washington over debt ceiling shows that

a) Stimulus spending era is over, Austerity era is kicking in big time no pretenses and

b) shows how vulnerable the rest of the US is with regard to the credit ratings of the US government

– When credit ratings agencies downgraded US government ratings, King County and UW in particular were impacted because the region relies a lot of federal spending (such as Medicare, Medicaid and other federal funding for renowned hospital systems and research)

– One of the ways that decreased credit ratings of King County and UW would affect local economy is through high interest rates; all this would be further put on working class.

– For now, the scenario has been avoided but it provides a glimpse of how suddenly things can change.

iii) Reduced sales tax, reduced funding to Metro over time that car tabs cannot plug

People will spend even less at the store ,which means less sales tax, which in turn means less revenue for Metro, which means another budget crisis and more cuts.  Where will Metro get the money then?  They won’t be able to get it by increasing the car tab tax even more, because the  same economic pressures leading to lower sales taxes might also create a situation where workers might not be able to afford to drive. In fact, if workers stop driving this could actually mean they end up getting LESS money from the car tab tax than they currently expect, right at a moment when they’d be needing more. This would  especially be true if gas prices rise more, which could be caused by scarcity, revolts in the Middle East, etc.- that would simultaneously increase Metro’s operating  costs and decrease revenue from the car tab tax and more people sell their cars because they can’t afford to drive them.

If people stop driving they’ll need affordable public transit to get around more than ever.  But if they stop driving that also means less revenue from car tab taxes, which means that Metro will be facing another budget crisis and will then force us to choose between service cuts (which will hit harder if we don’t have cars) or more fare increases which we won’t be able to afford (we can’t afford the fare now!).

All of this shows that the car tab tax is not sustainable, and we need to figure out another way to fund transit.

4) By making transit free, Metro can save a lot of money that is currently spent on fare enforcement

Fare enforcement costs a lot. Think about it, the ORCA card technology, the advertisements that educate people about the new ORCA system, the counting of coins, the production of transfer token, the Metro transit police, the overblown bureaucracy that is set up to oversee fare enforcement — all this adds to the expenses of Metro.

In the 2011 budget that King County Metro has produced, the costs of administering fare enforcement involves

– Safety and security: $13 million

– Cost of collecting fare (2007 numbers): $8 million

– Probably a significant chunk of the $14 million that currently goes into administration fees

If we look over the past 3 years since the introduction of the ORCA card, which by the way, can be used by your employer to track down your daily off-duty movement, the amount is exorbitant.

King County Metro’s contract with the ERG Transit, company that runs the ORCA system, costs $43 million dollars in 2003. We dont have statistics for how much the contract has continued to cost over the past 8 years.

This money that is wasted on forcing us to pay, could easily have gone toward maintaining the Metro system. Yet, Metro prefers to spend money on policing us.

Free transit, cuts to management are options that Metro have, to reduce expenditure. But it is something it won’t consider, that seems out of the sky, because they don’t need to. Because we are all too willing to help them pay with fare increases and car tabs.

5) Race and Transit

Demanding free transit is an anti-racist issue. Genntrification is a key component is conversations about transit. In Seattle in particular, the construction of a more environmentally friendly light rail system has been paired with the gentrification of working class neighborhoods. It has been made clear to residents of the South End in Seattle, that the environmentally friendly Light Rail system is not intended to be used by them through its exorbitant prices. Instead, families are being pushed out of the South End as the Light Rail is being constructed, to make way for new condominiums.

Most recently, the way this gentrification project has expressed itself is through the mandatory $65 parking fees that residents in the South End have to pay, to help subsidize the costs of the Light Rail. You can read more here

Gentrification within the city also results in many working/poor people of color moving further South. This also means longer commutes to work, higher percentage of wages on transportation. With pending service cuts, people who live far from the city or their jobs, will be disproportionately affected.

With fare hikes, people of color who cannot afford the fares will have to risk police harassment to use. This goes alongside with the heavier fare enforcement that Metro has promised to conduct, as well as the profiling of people of color that Seattle and King County police officers have been known for.

Those of us in BOC, as well as many of our comrades have been active in struggle against police brutality. This continues that struggle in a new form.  Fare enforcement leads to police terror – Oscar Grant was killed by transit cops, Kenneth Harding was shot for fare dodging. We need to demand transit should be free, cops off the trains

6) The system is crumbling and we need to find solutions for it ourselves, not rely on the state

**This presentation point took more of the form of a discussion. We will post more on this at a later date.

We are trying to think this through by understanding, and questioning the arguments Loren Goldner lays out in  “The Remaking of the American Working Class” as well as a recent presentation in Seattle by the International Perspective (video forthcoming).  

C) Moving away from “Tax the Rich” demand to Seattle Free Riders

Since our overall argument is that transit reproduces labor power to benefit  the rich,  it would seem that the natural conclusion of all of this would be for us to demand “tax the rich to fund public transit.” That would be nice.  We do think the rich should pay for transit, not us.  However there are three reasons why we are not pursuing this as our main focus:

1) it would require building coalitions with liberals to suggest revisions to the the tax code and to try to get new laws passed.  We don’t think this should be a priority because it does not build working class power to fight against the overall range of austerity measures coming down on us.  It takes the power out fo the streets and puts it into lawyers and lobbyist’s offices.  Transit is not the only thing being cut, and if we want to fight austerity measures in general, we should fight the transit austerity measures in a way that builds up working class confidence, unity, and organization.  Sitting down with liberals doing technocratic research or legislative lobbying won’t do this.

2) We think that in the current situation, a demand like “tax the rich” is not realistic.  For reasons we will discuss, with the economy in crisis the rich are highly unwilling to pay taxes (maybe with the exception of wealthy social democrats like Warren Buffet).  The political system is set up to protect them from demands like this.  The defeat of initiative 1098 in WA state last fall shows how difficult it is to get a progressive income tax passed.  Rich Washingtonians had the money to buy a spotlight in the media, and they used it to convince working class Washingtonians that if they tax the rich, they would move their companies elsewhere leaving us with even higher unemployment.

3)  We think the only way that the rich will actually agree to pay taxes is if we force them, through strikes, mass protests, and general social upheaval. Demanding “tax the rich” seems simultaneously too utopian and too boring, whereas collectively refusing to pay fare is a form of direct action, is immediate , achievable, and practical, but also lays the groundwork for much more serious struggles worth devoting our lives to, struggles against capitalism itself.

D) Further areas of research – possible working groups and presentations?

– Learning from the past: Montgomery Bus Boycotts, Chicago Fare Strikes

– Ecological sustainability and transportation and urban planning

– Others? Interest?

This entry was posted in Organizational Practice, Race, Strategy and Tactics, Theory, What's up in Seattle and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Why Free Transit?” (work in progress)

  1. Ben Seattle says:

    This is a good post, covering a lot of related topics.

    I had hoped to post a more substantive comment, but these
    quick notes will have to do.

    — 1 —

    The struggle for free transit has an important ideological
    component not present in many other struggles for partial
    demands: this struggle helps the masses to visualize a world
    where things like transit (and other material goods and
    services necessary for happiness) are free.

    My best guess, however, is that the struggle for free
    transit is unlikely to be completely successful, at least
    in terms of the original goal of free transit for riders.

    The main reason for this is that the local bourgeoisie
    understands, just as we do, that victory for the working
    class and oppressed in a struggle such as this would
    certainly inspire many more kinds of struggles. We are
    fighting a conscious class enemy, which strives, just as
    we do, to maintain a strategic perspective in all its actions.

    My somewhat pessimistic guesswork on this does not, however,
    mean that this struggle is not worthwhile. This struggle is
    worthwhile because:

    (1) my guesswork aside–it can succeed if it has sufficient
    support, and

    (2) the struggle for free transit may assist struggles for
    more modest demands on this front. For example: the local
    bourgeoisie _retreated_ from their original proposal to
    drastically cut existing bus routes. My guess (and, again,
    this is only a guess) is that the local bourgeoisie had
    planned such a retreat all along (since this is typical of
    the kinds of maneuvers that different sections of the
    ruling political ecosystem play against one another).

    But the potential popularity of the campaign for free transit
    may _also_ have been a factor in the retreat. Drastically
    cutting transit routes would have created a lot of anger
    among the lower sections of the working class who rely on
    public transit. This anger would, most likely, have greatly
    strengthened support for the campaign for free transit.

    (3) we can learn a lot from campaigns and struggles such as
    this. We gain experience with the attitudes of all the
    different political trends locally. More than this, we gain
    experience making contact with, and linking up with, sections
    of the working class and oppressed. We gain experience creating
    leaflets and organizing distribution, organizing meetings, and
    analyzing complex political and economic terrain.

    — 2 —

    There is a need for summation of other struggles for similar
    partial demands. Which struggles were successful? What
    material factors helped this success? We may not be able to
    put together a comprehensive and reliable analysis, but we
    can take simple steps to pull together relevant information.

    — 3 —

    Finally: a note on the slogan: “Tax the rich”.

    Today, this slogan is being used by the Democratic Party.

    It was in all the headlines yesterday.

    Many left-liberal political trends will be using this slogan
    to mobilize support for the Democratic Party and, more
    importantly, to promote a political orientation based on
    passivity: based on the idea of _waiting_ for saviors
    “from above” (ie: from the ranks of the class enemy) to make
    things right and avoid the need for us to sort out all the
    difficult contradictions which we must overcome in order to
    develop a politics based on organzing the masses.

    But the main ideological axis of development in the movement
    at this time is recognition that we will not, so to speak,
    find a cure by praying to the gods of plague. The
    Democratic Party will deliver necessary partial demands only
    when we turn our backs on it in a decisive way. The
    Democratic Party will “chase us” only when the masses begin
    to see it for what it is–and reject it in favor of a
    revolutionary alternative.

    It is therefore necessary and correct for us to reject this
    slogan, as you have done.

    — 4 —

    Finally, a brief note concerning the need to deal in a balanced
    and long-term way with the entire spectrum of the demands of
    the masses.

    An important mass action against the Bush-Obama war in Afghanistan
    is being organized for October 7. Mass actions of this kind only
    take place twice a year (in the spring and fall) in the current
    political climate. Activists come together for these actions
    and have opportunities to talk and interact and learn about
    the politics (and the problems) of every political trend on
    the left.

    Mass actions of this kind have, with good reason, traditionally
    played a role in the organization and development of all kinds
    of progressive forces and trends, and every progressive force
    and trend, without exception, should support these actions in
    a way that is in accord with its influence and abilities.

    It is clear to me that it is the responsibility of the Black
    Orchid Collective, as an organization which has organized
    significant political meetings, is organzing a significant
    public campaign and which has attracted the attention and
    respect of activists and activist groupings throughout the
    city, to at least post a notice on its blog of this mass
    action, which is of importance in the development of the
    political life of this city.

    Many of the political trends which are organzing for the
    October 7 action, unfortunately, are deeply infected by
    the reformist or sectarian diseases. But this does not mean
    that it is ok for us to simply ignore them or ignore mass
    actions which require our support. If important organizations
    have big problems, we do not act as if either the organizations
    or the problems do not exist. Rather, we support what they do
    when their actions correspind to the needs of the movement, and
    we publicly criticize the dysfunctions. The demands of
    organzing a conscious class struggle, from this perspective,
    are simple: we support mass actions and we also tell the masses
    the truth concerning every political trend, without exception.

  2. mamos206 says:

    Hi Ben, thanks for your post. I agree with your strategic and tactical assesment and your goals for the transit work. I agree we need to see this as an open-ended, experimental process where we learn how to take on this kind of work by doing it and reflecting on that practice together with rigorous debate and transparency.

    In terms of the Oct 7th anti-war action, most of our collective will be there, and we’re letting our contacts know. One of us is working on a blog post and a statement on the war and the current struggles agianst US imperialism. I agree about the need to work in united fronts even if we disagree with the poiltics of many of the Leftists who lead these sorts of things.

    In terms of articulating our disagreements with the sectarian or reformist Leftists in these coalitions, well I agree with you for sure, we need rigorous and transparent public debate with them, not sectarian polemics or passive agressive silence. I’m not sure that BOC is quite ready to initiate all the debates that have to happen though, we’re still in formation as a group and I’m not sure if we’re in the best position yet to launch the necessary public criticisms. At this point I’d rather focus on debating out the key issues the transit organizing is raising, or perhaps key issues that possible longshore solidarity work is raising in militant labor circles here in the Pacific Northwest. I think we’re well on our way to getting to the point where we can engage wider layers of the Left in healthy debate, we’re just not there yet. Our comrades in Advance the Struggle in Oakland do a lot of that sort of thing, which I think is necessary especially in the context down there, where the activist scene is much more cutthroat and much more infected wtih the twin diseases of sectarian cultism and reformist tailism. At times some of us have jupmed into some of these larger national debates, for example in this article: http://gatheringforces.org/2010/04/26/the-debate-on-strategy-in-the-anti-budget-cuts-movement/..

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