Transit, Labor, and the Transition to Public Ownership in Atlanta and Oakland

Jordan Patty

Major Professor: Zachary Schrag, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Yevette Jordan. Jennifer Ritterhouse, Joseph McCartin

Online Location,
July 01, 2021, 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM

Abstract:

This dissertation explores the transition of mass transit systems from private to public ownership that cities began exploring with more frequency in the 1950s, and then accelerated rapidly in the 1960s following the passage of the Urban Mass Transportation Act in 1964 (1964 UMTA).  As the largest American transit union, The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) played an important role in that transition by securing collective bargaining rights in the 1964 UMTA as they looked to ensure that all of their members could transition to the public employment sector with job security. 

Though the ATU discouraged strikes and sought solutions at the bargaining table, the local unions had not always followed that policy, particularly during the World War I era.  During World War II, many ATU members, including some women, enjoyed better contracts as the federal war effort pumped money into the local economies of cities like Oakland and Atlanta.  This structure of private transit companies, with stockholders receiving dividends, fell apart quickly in the 1950s for a number of reasons, one of which was the demands of organized labor for higher wages to match the rapid rise in inflation, something cash-strapped transit systems like the Key System in Oakland could not afford.  A transit district created under California state law, Alameda-Contra Costa Transit (ACT) purchased the Key System.  Due to the involvement of the ATU local division, Local 192, the state law included provisions for the Key System union members to become public employees with their collective bargaining rights intact when ACT took over operations in 1960. 

ATU viewed this transition to public ownership with collective bargaining rights as a critical element in state legislation.  By this time, though, some states, such as Georgia, had implemented “right-to-work” and other anti-labor laws that complicated this strategy.  As the legislation that would become the 1964 UMTA wound through Congress, ATU successfully included the preservation of nationwide collective bargaining rights under what would be called Section 13(c).  When the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) sought the support of ATU Local 732 for the 1968 funding referendum to purchase the private Atlanta Transit System, Local 732 refused to support it because MARTA had offered mixed signals that they would be honoring Section 13(c).  After changes to the state transit legislation that explicitly stated the continuation of collective bargaining rights, Local 732 supported the passage of the funding referendum in 1971.    
The collective bargaining protections that Local 192 and Local 732 enjoyed differentiated them from other public sector unions, but they shared a similarity in regards to both interunion and intraunion fights typical of the 1960s and 1970s.  A younger and more diverse workforce joined both Local 192 and Local 732.  These new workers pushed both the transit management and their local officers to improve contracts, working conditions, and other matters that they believed the public transit systems could afford unlike the old private transit systems.  In addition to managing these expectations in their own local divisions, the officers of Local 192 and Local 732 watched out for non-transit unions encroaching onto their turf, and Local 192 utilized Section 13(c) to fend off encroachment in order to secure priority employment at the new Bay Area Rapid Transit for ACT workers who might be displaced as a result of the competing rapid transit system. 

By the 1970s, the majority of urban mass transit systems in the United States operated under public ownership, supported by a mixture of federal and state funds as well as passenger fare revenue.  As the experience of Atlanta and Oakland will show, the transition from private to public initially delivered on promises made by transit supporters in both cities to turn around financially strapped private systems, but contracts between labor and management became difficult for transit management to justify as the economy soured in the 1970s.  In an era of backlash against public employees, various groups believed that ATU local divisions benefited at the public expense, and this opposition would endanger ATU collective bargaining rights at both the state and federal levels.