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)
– 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
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.
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?