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Bus Riders' Union Story

by Tom Sandborn

It might be the most important question of the century.

"If you wanted to change everything on the planet, where would you start?"

In a dark season scarred by the collapse of the Antarctic ice shelf (yet one more indicator of the damage fossil fuels, internal combustion engines and global warming are doing to the world climate system), a season haunted by the imminent bloody expansion of America's new Hundred Year War into Iraq, Columbia, Yemen and the Philippines (and by Canada's shameful collusion in these new imperial adventures), and further soiled by the boardroom brutality of the province's Liberal regime with its savage attacks on BC's most vulnerable and powerless residents, this question, posed on March 7 in a modest union hall just off Main Street, is definitely a thought to conjure with. For once, a question of such daunting scope and ambition wasn't simply rhetorical; it was posed that night by a woman who has spent a lifetime of hard work and disciplined thought coming up with real answers. The speaker and the groups she works with have found a way to organize with phenomenal success for political fights that speak directly to vital issues of social justice, poverty and environmental crisis. Even more impressive, they have found ways to win some of those fights. The question was posed by Lianne Hurst-Mann, one of the founding members of the Los Angeles Labor Community Strategy Center. Together with her that night in the union hall was her partner Eric Mann. This remarkable couple has been part of winning some of the most significant and most under-reported working class victories in North America in the last two decades. They have helped build a militant, trilingual (English/Spanish/Korean) organization for transit-dependant poor people in Los Angeles, a group marked by impressive levels of internal democracy and significant leadership from women and men of colour, and then forced the courts and the Metro Transit Authority to recognize their organization as the legitimate voice of transit users in planning and developing new services in the LA basin.

Both Lianne and Eric have spent their entire adult lives organizing for radical social transformation in the United States, first in the civil rights movement, socialist-feminist and anti-Vietnam War mobilizations, and then in alliance with revolutionary socialist formations within the black and Chicano communities. They remain, four decades into the arc of their political lives, still frankly and without apology devoted to what Eric calls "the communist project." As a rank and file member of the United Auto Workers, Eric helped organize a community fight-back in Van Nuys California that held off a threatened General Motors plant shut down there for more than a decade, thus protecting the only source of well paid union jobs for Van Nuys workers, many black and Chicano. Lianne came to her work with the Strategy Centre from earlier experience in shipyards and auto plants, as well as from time spent as part of the Berkeley Radical Therapy Collective.

The Los Angeles Bus Riders' Union (a group organized by the Labor Community Strategy Center) has conducted nearly a decade of street action, courtroom appeals and wide ranging public education. The campaigns have already forced LA authorities to replace 1200 diesel buses with low- pollution, compressed natural gas models and to shift funding that had been earmarked for subways serving middle class suburbs to improve bus service for the region's poorest neighborhoods. The BRU has kept transit fares low in Los Angeles, and forced the Metro Transit Authority to create a new, more affordable weekly pass. One of the results of LA's BRU activity has been a 10% increase in transit ridership since their campaign's began, in contrast with a 20% drop in the decade before the BRU was founded. The environmental impact of this success is obvious- reduced private car use and reduced pollution from the improved bus fleet. Even more importantly, BRU victories in Los Angeles have protected affordable service for a ridership that is predominantly non-white, female and poor, with an average family income of only $15,000.00 a year.

The Manns were in Vancouver at the invitation of the Vancouver Bus Riders' Union, an organization that draws its inspiration from the work done in Los Angeles. The local BRU has already made a name for itself in its first period of activism as a strong and effective voice for the rights of poor people in BC. If you ride the buses in Vancouver, you may already have met the BRU. Their orange-shirted activists ride the buses once a week, leafleting other riders and engaging both them and bus drivers in lively dialogue about how to fight back against the upcoming April 1 fare increases and other attacks on the poor. (On March 31 the BRU is sponsoring a rally against the fare increases at 1:00 PM, meeting at the Main St. Skytrain station. More information is available a 604 215-2775 or on the web at www.bru.ca

So, what's the answer to the challenging question posed by the Manns? Just how do you work for political change in a world hedged about with social justice and environmental disasters, a world more firmly in the hands of ruling class revanchism than it has been since the counter-revolutionary days of 1848? Their answer recalls the old show business maxim- "You can have an over-night success story if you're willing to work for decades to prepare for it." The lessons of the Los Angeles Bus Riders' Union and other Labor Community Strategy Center success stories are simple enough to name, if difficult to emulate. Organizers need to be willing to commit for years and decades, not days and weeks. We must listen respectfully to voices from the bottom of the social ladder, and let the survival needs, concerns and dreams of oppressed communities set the agenda for change. Tactics can, and should, be flexible and varied- from street theatre to litigation, civil disobedience to lobbying, teasing satire to full tilt resistance. Our goals must be at once long-term utopian and mid-range pragmatic, with an overarching commitment to full social transformation and a realistic willingness to employ short range tactics that fall far short of our radiant dreams, as long as these tactical decisions don't box us into long term co-optation.

Lianne and Eric Mann speak for a movement that has demonstrated that these tough lessons can be enacted successfully, even in times of right wing triumph. Since we currently have a full adult dose of that here in BC, the example and the encouragement of their success stories was welcome on March 7, and will undoubtedly remain a useful and encouraging memory for all of us privileged to hear them that night.

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