On November 6, 2012, as progressive voters cheered the re-election of Barack Obama, activists in Los Angeles also celebrated a lesser-known victory: the defeat of Measure J, a ballot initiative that would have directed $90 billion in taxpayer funds to local rail and highway projects, and would also have led to crippling fare increases and service cuts for the city’s bus riders. For twenty years, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Bus Riders Union have been locked in a transit war, with the MTA pouring cash into costly rail projects at the same time that it cut bus service and raised fares. But rail not only generated far fewer riders than a first-class bus system would; it also had massive cost overruns that the MTA solved by raiding bus system funds. The BRU called this “transit racism”: some 500,000 passengers—with a median household income of under $14,000 a year—relied on buses as their means of transportation. Ninety percent of these riders were black, Latino or Asian/Pacific Islander.
In 2011, the Federal Transit Administration rejected a civil rights complaint on behalf of the BRU seeking FTA intervention in one of its latest battles with the MTA. The complaint charged the transportation authority with violating Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits agencies receiving federal funds from allocating them in a racially discriminatory manner.
The FTA’s refusal to offer a remedy inspired an ambitious national strategy by organizers in Los Angeles. In the spring of 2012, the Labor/Community Strategy Center, a movement-building “think tank/act tank” that I direct, rolled out the “Fight for the Soul of the Cities” campaign. In twenty years of organizing, we had seen a corporatized urban plan dominate the public discourse. It was time to fight back against its Disneyfied fantasy and Blade Runner reality with an aggressive social- and environmental-justice master narrative for the city. We began by calling on President Obama to use his authority under Title VI to overturn the FTA’s decision and make civil rights enforcement a top priority for his administration. At the same time, we called on Los Angeles County voters to defeat Measure J, arguing that it perpetuated transit racism and environmental destruction.
As the campaign unfolded in the months before the November election, we learned difficult and valuable lessons about achieving regional victories that can shape a national movement. As activists around the country attempt to pressure the president on a range of issues over the next four years, the story of how we organized in Los Angeles can offer an example of a winning strategy for the progressive movement.
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The Los Angeles Bus Riders Union was founded by the Labor/Community Strategy Center in 1992 with the goal of organizing low-income riders to fight against residential segregation and for jobs and environmental justice. In 1994, represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the BRU, along with other community groups, went to federal court to block the MTA’s fare increases and service cuts, charging it with violating Title VI, using funds in a racist manner, and balancing its rail budget on the backs of the black and Latino working class.
The courts sided with the BRU, which in turn led to a negotiated consent decree between the parties. Through ten years of negotiations, mass actions and court orders, the MTA lowered bus fares, replaced dilapidated diesel buses with 2,500 new compressed natural-gas buses, significantly reduced overcrowding, and added 1 million hours of bus service. All told, the BRU’s “Billions for Buses” campaign won $2.7 billion in added service and benefits for bus riders—and, for a moment, changed the face of transportation in a megacity.