Texas Union Activists Fight ‘Microtransit’ Privatization


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Source: Labor Notes

When “microtransit,” the new rage in transit privatization, showed up in Denton, Texas, union activists decided to fight back.

Microtransit is a loosely defined term that combines on-demand service with flexible scheduling and routes—imagine replacing a bus system with shared Ubers. It is presented as a high-tech alternative to public transit, but in reality it’s an extension of the drive to privatize.

Some local governments around the country have already handed off operations of their public transit systems to large private operators like Keolis and MV Transportation. This move takes it one step further: dumping the buses and bus drivers altogether.

MICRO-PRIVATIZATION

Denton is a small city in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, home to two universities. The Denton County Transportation Authority operates buses and a light rail line in Denton and two neighboring cities.

The mayor and the transit agency began exploring alternatives to the existing transit system several years ago, nominally to save money. In 2020, Dallas’s transit system adopted a microtransit pilot, contracting with Uber to provide the service. Following their lead, Denton sought out microtransit and decided to go with a company called Via, a former competitor to Uber and Lyft that got iced out of the rideshare market and rebranded itself as a microtransit company. It has since chased after cities and counties, offering to supplant their public transit systems.

And that’s exactly what Via set out to do in Denton: replace all fixed-route bus service with on-demand vehicles driven by independent contractors who are hailed by an app. Drivers operate rented vehicles that they’re responsible for. For the DCTA, this comes with the benefit of getting rid of the existing unionized workforce and the capital investment that comes with maintaining and operating a bus system.

UNDERFUNDED ON PURPOSE

When officials began discussing the microtransit idea four years ago, Denton bus operator Jim Owen sounded the alarm with his co-workers.

Owen, a Transit (ATU) Local 1338 member, had been attending DCTA board meetings for the past eight years. He had long been frustrated with the lack of investment in the existing service, which he said was part of a plan: “They haven’t thrown any money to the bus service because they want to get rid of the bus service.”

Bus operator Paula Jean Richardson recognized the theme; before coming to Denton she had worked for a public transit agency in Los Angeles. “Way back in the early ’90s they tried to privatize part of our company,” she said. “I saw it for what it was. Public money should go to public transportation, period.”

Owen’s co-workers brought the issue to a cross-union group called Denton Worker, formed in 2019 to connect local unionists so they could assist each other in their fights.

“Our goal was to find workers who needed to be organized, find issues around unfair labor practices and wage theft, and try to be a touchstone for workers in Denton,” said UPS part-timer Will Hale, a steward with Teamsters Local 767.

Denton Worker had begun by holding forums about organizing rights and tabling at the local Martin Luther King Day parade, but its efforts were soon sidelined by the pandemic.

The threat to the bus routes—and the bus operators’ jobs—revived the group. It started holding meetings via Zoom to figure out what could be done.

“I don’t want to see any of my fellow workers without a job,” said bus operator and Local 1338 member Victoria Allen. “And for the community: the people here need it. It’s a big deal to be able to get on the bus and be able to go somewhere.”

Unionists also balked at taking operations out of local hands to enrich a tech company based in New York City. “You’re purloining the public purse,” said Owen.

NO BUS CUTS DENTON

Denton Worker renamed itself No Bus Cuts Denton and decided to bring the fight to the public. Organizers identified the DCTA Board and the city council as targets.

They started handing out flyers that explained what was happening and asked members of the public to bring their concerns to the city council. They also collected petition signatures.

To connect with riders, No Bus Cuts Denton organizers sought them out on buses. “Riding the buses and talking to people gave us an even better sense of what the effects of the cuts would be,” said Joshua Hatton, a member of the Texas State Employees Union, affiliated with the Communications Workers. He realized the cuts were going to affect “people who are really fighting for the basics of life, who don’t have access to smartphones or banking services.

“For those of us who aren’t drivers, it really gave us [a] sense of urgency. It became more than a solidarity action with drivers.”

Many riders didn’t know that service cuts were coming; Hatton estimated that only 1 in 10 had heard. The group also flyered DCTA operators at their workplaces.

The response was strong, among drivers and riders alike. “I didn’t meet one person who thought that it was good to cut the buses,” said James Baker, a No Bus Cuts Denton member who organizes with the Industrial Workers of the World.

The group was able to generate 20 calls and 40 emails a day through its canvassing—something the city council wasn’t used to. “These people signed up for an easy job,” said Hale. “We provided [the public] with the opportunity to do something about it together, collectively.”

No Bus Cuts Denton also organized people to attend DCTA board meetings, held virtually, to fight the cuts. “We had a sort of call-in filibuster at a board meeting one time—we had so many people call in and voice their opposition that they changed the board rules,” said Richardson.

Organizers were able to find allies on the city council: newly elected progressives who had not been part of the Via deal. They were able to play the council against the DCTA board, chaired by former mayor Chris Watts, the driving force behind the privatization effort.

The council passed a resolution to extend the existing bus service by six months while the Via pilot took place; Watts bucked the council and pushed to reduce that to just three months. He got his way on that—but under pressure from organizers, the council removed Watts from the board and replaced him with a more pro-transit member.

PARTIAL VICTORY

At the end of the three-month extension, organizers secured a partial victory. The board preserved five of the eight existing fixed-route bus lines while continuing the Via project. Funding for the remaining routes is preserved through September, when it is potentially on the chopping block once again.

“Overall, we won back some of the territory that was lost, but we have to defend what we’ve taken back and try to take back more,” said Hatton. “We want to build public transportation, not gut it.”

So what’s “microtransit” like so far? Users have been reporting unreliable service with Via, whose drivers sometimes don’t show up or don’t have wheelchair-accessible vehicles for those who need them. Via is charging an introductory rate to entice users, lower than what they’ll ultimately be charging: “What’s going on now is that it’s basically a taxi cab service for 75 cents,” says Owen. “If it’s $2 or 3, Via [usage] is going to drop like a rock.”

Activists also highlight that there’s nothing about flexible transit that requires it to be operated by independent contractors rather than unionized employees. For example, Via’s operations in Columbus, Ohio, are run by TWU members, who already represent the area’s public transit workers.

Meanwhile, Watts, the former DCTA board chair, has announced that he’s running for city council; if elected, he is expected to continue the privatization fight. Supporters of the privatization effort even tried to put Watts on the DCTA board after his removal. “We won a battle, but we still have a war going on,” Richardson said. “We have to keep fighting.”

Campaign organizers are pivoting back to building Denton Worker, though they plan to maintain No Bus Cuts Denton as the group’s transit committee. “We want to organize more folks into the fold,” says Richardson. “Not only to benefit us, but eventually—like I saw with us—to benefit them.”

The fight against transit privatization has given the group of labor activists a sense of their power. “Now we have a coalition of people who realize that they can do things,” said Baker.

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