National Transit Equity Day is an important moment to ask ourselves who we really mean when we say essential workers.
As public transit struggles to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, transit workers who have kept the system moving for their fellow essential workers bear a terrible burden. Since March 2020, over 125 workers from the Amalgamated Transit Union and over 130 workers from the Transport Workers Union have lost their lives to COVID-19 across the country. In the Bay Area, members of ATU-265, who operate and maintain Valley Transit Authority (VTA) bus and light rail, are dealing with an outbreak of new infections.
In response, ATU-265 members are fighting to ensure that VTA delays the resumption of fare collection and front door boarding. Instead, the union is demanding that VTA use the millions of dollars in federal recovery funds they still have available in order to prioritize the safety of drivers, riders, and their families.
In the Bay Area and across the country, transit workers are primarily Black and Brown workers. The leadership of transit operator unions tends to include more people of color and women than in other unions. Critically, transit jobs are a key source of green union jobs in an economy increasingly dominated by the creation of low and high-wage jobs. Meanwhile, ridership on public transit includes more Black, Brown, and low-income people than before the pandemic.
With transit systems nationally facing an estimated $39 billion shortfall over the next two years, riders and workers must unite to ensure a just recovery for public transit. That recovery should fund worker and rider safety measures. It should center community-identified needs and transit service for shorter local trips that make up most of our daily travel.
A just recovery begins by prioritizing public space on our roads and streets for people and transit, not corporations and cars. And ultimately, it should help build a campaign for a Green New Deal for public transportation in the Bay Area.