Some of L.A.'s most powerful politicians, led by Mayor Riordan, must have figured that L.A.'s 500,000 low income bus riders are so desperate for buses that they would accept diesel buses without a fight. They figured wrong.
The Bus Riders Union (BRU) has just won a major victory for 370 clean-fuel buses against the seemingly unstoppable push by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to buy diesel buses. This is a win for environmental justice, civil rights, and for our on-going efforts to build a high-visibility organizing model showing how multiracial working class communities in other major U.S. cities can build similar movements to win control of powerful public agencies like L.A.'s Metropolitan Transit Authority.
We need your financial support to keep these rare victories coming. We've included two short written pieces below 1) a Los Angeles Times excerpt on the victory and 2) our analysis of the larger political context in which we place the win.
Please read them and consider making as generous a donation as you can to the Bus Riders Union and its growing national influence as a model for fighting corporate-dominated state agencies and winning. (We've attached a printable tax-deductible donation card at the end.)
The full text of both documents, a donation form, and related campaign materials, as well as information on the broader work of the Bus Riders Union and Strategy Center can be found at www.busridersunion.org.
Maria Aguirre, Alex Caputo-Pearl, Rita Burgos, Manuel Criollo, Martín Hernández, Cirilo Juarez, Barbara Lott-Holland, Eric Mann, Shawn McDougal, Kikanza Ramsey, Guadalupe Rivera, Ted Robertson
Bus Riders Union Planning Committee
In Reversal, MTA Votes to Buy Clean Fuel Buses
Los Angeles Times
FRIDAY, MAY 26, 2000
By: JEFFREY L. RABIN
TIMES STAFF WRITER
Confronted with an unyielding wall of public and official disapproval, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's directors executed an abrupt U-turn on Thursday and voted unanimously to purchase 370 new natural gas-powered buses rather than diesel vehicles.
After hearing impassioned pleas from bus riders and environmentalists, school teachers and students, air quality officials and Los Angeles residents suffering from asthma and bronchitis, the MTA board rejected the recommendation of the agency's staff and voted to remain the nation's leader in the operation of clean-fuel transit buses.
The board's 10-0 vote to buy more natural gas-powered buses was greeted by loud applause from members of the Bus Riders Union unaccustomed to winning fights before the transit board...
...Outside the MTA's headquarters, Eric Mann, leader of the bus riders group, publicly thanked Burke and Riordan and expressed relief that the agency had made what he felt was the right decision without being ordered to do so by a court.
Mann called the vote to buy more natural gas buses "the great reversal." But he said it also represented a major breakthrough. "We convinced the public this was a life and death issue." He said his group assembled a coalition "where civil rights meets the environment and meets mass transit."
The speakers-many of whom said they ride the bus regularly-expressed concern that they would be most at risk from diesel soot, which the state has determined can cause cancer...
...Laura Pulido, an associate professor of geography at USC, told the directors she would be shocked if they voted to buy diesel buses. She said such a move, which would intensify pollution in central Los Angeles, would be a "classic case of how racism works."
From Bus Riders Union members wearing their trademark yellow T-shirts and new masks adorned with a skull and crossbones to representatives of the AQMD and environmental groups in business suits, the speakers against diesel kept coming to the podium...
Strategy Center News Analysis
Bus Riders Union Coalition Pressures MTA
to Reverse Diesel Policy and Buy 370 Clean Fuel Buses
June 4, 2000
On May 26, 2000, the Strategy Center and the Bus Riders Union won an amazing victory, one of truly significant proportions and impact-forcing the Los Angeles MTA to purchase 370 clean fuel Compressed Natural Gas buses, at a cost of $118 million. Right up to the eleventh hour the MTA board had been poised to purchase 370 DIESEL buses that would have been a public health disaster for the city and a significant setback for our movement. The complete analysis of how we won the victory will take longer to write up, but a few major components of the story will serve as a good beginning.
The scope of the victory
Through our work, the MTA has begun to replace 2,000 diesel buses, and replace them with 2,000 new CNG buses. The 370 bus order is part of a larger 1070 bus order to meet the 2,000 replacements, and the MTA could still vote to make these 700 additional buses diesel. To put this victory in a national context, 370 buses is almost half of the entire bus fleet of Atlanta. And it is another major step towards one of our key policy objectives-retiring all diesel buses and replacing them with clean fuel CNG, and later hydrogen fuel cell, electric, and other clean fuel technologies.
The Strategy Center continues to win victories in the tens and hundreds of millions each year-in this case moving $118 million in public funds from diesel to clean fuel, from the wealthy suburbs to the urban working class that is significantly female and people of color. Robin Hood would be proud of us.
Forcing changes in public policy
As late as the day of the vote, we assumed the MTA board would vote for diesel buses. The day before the vote a representative of Mayor Richard Riordan, the most powerful individual MTA board member, told, if not threatened, the NRDC that they had four votes for diesel. We and NRDC counted heads and we both agreed that we had no more than 3 votes for CNG going into the board meeting, and we counted as many as 8 votes for diesel-with only 7 being needed for the diesel purchase. The final vote was 10 to 0 for Compressed Natural Gas-we literally turned the MTA board on its head. The Los Angeles Times captured the about face in their headline the next day: "In Reversal, MTA Board Votes to Buy Clean Fuel Buses."
Winning the Battle of Ideas
The Strategy Center and Bus Riders Union went into the battle with three main ideas. First, this was a life and death battle. Diesel is a known carcinogen and a virulent one, it also causes asthma and other respiratory diseases. We convinced public school teachers, high school kids, and community groups that the MTA board was threatening to kill them. The press agreed with us. We broke through the too-often sterile discourse of mainstream environmentalism-this was environmentalism as if your life was on the line.
Second, the BRU, the acknowledged leader of the transit dependent in the region, refused to accept any diesel buses. We did not appreciate Sophie's choices. We did not want to choose between mobility and public health. "Diesel is death on wheels." "No killer buses." "Zero tolerance for carcinogens." We wore face masks, gas masks, we shocked the MTA with the vociferousness of our membership on this issue.
Third, the battle was put in the context of "stop environmental racism." Professor Laura Pulido of the USC Department of Geography, and a longtime member of the Strategy Center, chastised the board for exposing the most vulnerable communities, the most vulnerable children, to spatially concentrated toxins from mobile and stationary sources-the toxic interplay of emissions from factories, freeways, and diesel buses. The Strategy Center does not throw terms like environmental racism around lightly. We document its causes, its motivations, and its impacts. The National Centers for Disease Control have long warned that asthma deaths among children are significantly on the rise, and figures indicate that black and Latino children are 300% or more likely than white children to die of asthma.
Frank Roberts, a new MTA board member, said that while he thought "clean diesel" was safe, "there is the perception that diesel is very dangerous, and in politics, perception is reality." He changed his vote accordingly. Our objective was to raise the political stakes of voting for diesel buses to an unacceptable level. We succeeded.
Leading the Environmental Coalition
* Expanding the Representation of Our Own Base.
The Strategy Center's diverse membership is broader than many coalitions. In the past, we have had all of our members identify themselves as either Strategy Center or Bus Riders Union, but we have seen how the MTA then "counts" them, no matter how many people we bring out, as one group.
This time we had our members focus on their other organizational and institutional affiliations-legitimate roots and connections that can have a greater impact on the MTA board. Kate Kinkade testified as the head of her insurance firm in the San Fernando Valley. Dr. Laura Pulido represented USC. Simone Shah, a recent graduate of our National School for Organizers, and presently a high school teacher, came with eight students from Locke High.
BRU Planning Committee member Manuel Criollo represented Clinica Para Las Americas, while Shawn McDougal, gas mask and all, represented the American Friends Service Committee.
* Working Effectively With Other Environmental Groups.
The Strategy Center and Bus Riders Union reached out to Natural Resources Defense Council and Coalition for Clean Air. We held a very successful press conference the day before the MTA board meeting, that led to the Los Angeles Times article the day of the vote, "Activists Threaten to Sue MTA Over Diesel Bus Plan."
Eric Mann of the Strategy Center had drafted a memo to NRDC the week before, proposing that the Strategy Center and BRU sue the MTA over violations of the civil rights Consent Decree, the 14th amendment and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Clean Air Act, and the California Environmental Quality Act. Both Joel Reynolds and Gail Ruderman Feuer of NRDC were very interested in representing the LCSC and BRU, and attorneys for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund also were very interested in pursuing such a case if the MTA board voted to buy diesel buses. At the press conference the BRU and NRDC made it clear to the press that such a lawsuit was very probable, and we meant it. We feel that also played a role in the MTA board vote the following day. As Don Knabe, a conservative MTA board member observed, referring to the many legal victories the BRU has already won, "Let's be honest. Our track record in the courts isn't very good."
We were very gratified that City Councilman Mike Feuer testified that the L.A. City Council had passed a (non-binding) resolution in favor of CNG buses. He told the board, "When the Bus Riders Union, the group with the most to gain from the purchase of new buses, is adamantly opposed to any diesel bus purchases, you have to listen to them, they represent your riders."
Building on Our Air Toxics Work-Moving On to the AQMD and Other Clean Air Issues
Since 1989 the Strategy Center has focused all of its work at the intersection of civil rights and the environment. From 1989 to 1993 the primary focus of our work was industrial toxins, with a particular emphasis on the deadly emissions from the oil refining industry. We published L.A.'s Lethal Air, initiated a major campaign to clean up the oil refineries, built an impressive and high-visibility social movement, led by our Watchdog project, and became the leading environmental force at the South Coast Air Quality Management District. By 1993, however, we placed the major focus of our work on mass transportation and began building the Bus Riders Union, because of the enormous opportunities we saw in a mass transportation campaign for civil rights and the environment. But that did not explain why we moved virtually all of our resources, at least temporarily, into the mass transit campaign and away from the industrial toxins work. In reality:
1) The powerful Western States Petroleum Association and the Democratic and Republican Parties weakened the power and authority of the AQMD. Given the weak resistance of many of the mainstream environmental organizations at the time, this left the Watchdog often alone in taking on big oil, big business, and the two big political parties.
2) The AQMD board was stacked with pro-business and pro-"jobs" board members who voted higher and higher levels of acceptable toxins and carcinogens. Our own members questioned the value of week after week, month after month, year after year of trying to reform a reactionary agency. When the AQMD passed the RECLAIM plan for the buying and selling of air pollution credits, again with the tacit support of many mainstream environmental groups, the Watchdog led a very militant campaign to "Shut Down the AQMD" arguing that a pro-business regulatory agency was worse than no agency at all. Our criticism proved prescient, as years later the fraud of "pollution trading" became clear to everyone. But we are not social critics. We are organizers of mass movements, and we were validated in temporarily moving our resources into the bus work.
But history moves in unpredictable cycles. Now there is a backlash against the most craven environmental capitulation at the AQMD and the agency is trying to pass a series of important rules to finally ban the use of diesel fuel in public transportation agencies, such as the MTA, garbage trucks run by municipalities, and school buses.
The AQMD staff that testified at the MTA meeting were, as usual, unconvincingly deferential, telling the board they wished they would not move to diesel fuel, but offering no sanctions, and not even the most aggressive moral or scientific challenge. That was left to the BRU. Still, AQMD staff and some board members have made overtures to us, as well as some MTA board members(!), that they need our help to pass strong anti-diesel rules at the June, July, and August AQMD meetings.
The Strategy Center has assigned Cynthia Rojas, a new and energetic organizer, to work on the air toxins work, and many leaders of the BRU are participating in the campaign. Also, many of our members who cut their teeth on the air toxins work and who are veterans of many AQMD battles are coming back into active duty, as this important opening exists. We learned a lesson from our friends in Ecuador, at Acción Ecológica-you never end a campaign, you simply change the emphasis of your resources depending on the opportunities. Now there is a new opening to challenge the oil companies, and our public health expertise and our ability to merge hard science with creative multiracial organizing is just what the doctor ordered. We are now in the very exciting position of expanding the scope of the environmental and civil rights battle.
Please make checks payable to Bus Riders Union and mail to the address below, or call us to make a credit card donation at (213) 387-2800)
Bus Riders Union*3780 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1200*Los Angeles, CA 90010
213-387-2800*fax: 213-387-3500 email@example.com*www.busridersunion.org*www.thestrategycenter.org