Legacy of Rosa Parks celebrated at Transit Equity Day event, riders union launch

Alfred White, a temp worker and volunteer with Warehouse Workers Together, speaks at the event. Behind him attendees hold Rosa Parks cutouts. Photo: Cameron Bolton
Alfred White, a temp worker and volunteer with Warehouse Workers Together, speaks at the event. Behind him attendees hold Rosa Parks cutouts. Photo: Cameron Bolton

Chicago Jobs with Justice, a coalition of labor, faith, and community organizations campaigning for workers’ rights and social and economic equity, hosted a canvassing event and press conference in honor of Transit Equity Day, including the launch of our city’s first transit riders union, this morning at the Western stop on the Forest Park branch of the Blue Line. During the rally, transit advocates and workers called for equitable, safe, reliable, accessible, and affordable public transit for all. The event also included the release of a new transit equity report.

Prior to the event, Active Transportation Alliance spokesperson Kyle Whitehead explained, “The hope is for the riders union to eventually stand on its own. The first goal of the union is to connect with riders around the region to get input on an agenda and start to build power. They’ll be canvassing at bus and train stops and connecting with riders digitally. As they build out an agenda, they’ll organize and lobby decision-makers to make these changes.”

“Today, we’re here to talk about the legacy of Rosa Parks. Today is her birthday, and her life is a testament to the quest for transit equity,” said Susan Hurley, executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice, at the rally, referring to the civil rights activist known for her key role in the Montgomery, Alabama boycott of segregated buses. “And that’s something we still need here in Chicago today. While we honor Rosa Parks today, we come together to say that we can, and we need to do better in Chicago.”

Other speakers included representatives of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Warehouse Workers for Justice, Sierra Club of Illinois, and the Active Transportation Alliance.

“The transit equity report released today by the Labor Network for Sustainability, the Alliance for a Just Society, and TransitCenter highlights that Black people across the country are more likely than white people to count on buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation as their primary transportation option, and are more likely to use public transportation to get to work,” said W. Robert Schultz, III, campaign organizer at ATA and the chair of the advocacy committee of the Transportation Equity Network. “Therefore, investments in public transportation contribute to economic opportunity for Black and Brown working people.”

According to Sam Beard, community organizer at Sierra Club Illinois, climate change disproportionately affects Black and Latino communities. He argued that transit equity is essential for achieving climate justice because prioritizing transit helps us mitigate carbon emissions and climate change impacts. He added that adapting our infrastructure to transition away from carbon-based transportation will both create jobs and ensure access to new and existing jobs.

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Alfred White, a temp worker and volunteer with Warehouse Workers Together, provided more details on why the current transit situation needs to change. According to White, the average work day is 9.5 hours. Workers who commute by public transportation spend an additional 1.5 to 3 hours in transit each day, which means 11 to 12.5 hours away from home, and that’s assuming they don’t experience any major travel delays.

“We must improve and expand our public transportation system in a way that is racially and financially equitable and addresses the needs of low-income neighborhoods, essential workers, and people with disabilities, that’s why we’re launching our effort to organize transit riders across Chicago,” Jobs With Justice’s Susan Hurley said.

“And it’s important to have all the perspectives and interests represented so that we can advocate to the best solutions for both riders and workers,” Hurley added. “It’s sort of like teachers. Teachers say that their working conditions are kids’ learning conditions, and for transit workers, their working conditions are people’s riding conditions, if you will. And so by coming together, we’ll have enough collective strength to have some influence over decision-makers to make improvements to transit.”

At the end of the press conference, Hurley invited Chicagoans to organize with them to improve and expand transit in Chicago and win transit equity for all of Chicago. If you have an idea about how the city of Chicago can improve your transit experience or want to help out, you can text “TRANSIT4ALL” to 773-261-8899 to connect with the campaign. You can also tag #Transit4all  and @transit4all on Twitter.

Following the press conference, organizers canvassed transit riders and invited the to join the transit riders union. The Active Transportation Alliance website states that Chicago has never had such an organization, unlike other peer cities. Julia Gerasimenko, advocacy manager at ATA, said that might due to Chicagoans not always identifying as transit riders and looking to build power in that way. “Chicago is a city made up of really well-organized neighborhoods, and I think due to the segregation partly caused by the structure of our transit system, people haven’t really connected the dots in this way before,” said Gerasimenko.

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