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Trouble in Music City: Good transit vs. more transit in Nashville

A new plan to expand transit in underserved Nashville, TN, has been music to a lot of ears. Unfortunately, the mayor isn’t dancing to the same tune as local transit workers. How the city moves forward will have significant ramifications for the way transit workers approach transit expansion everywhere.

To understand what’s happening in Nashville, you have to understand the difference between those demanding more transit, and those demanding more good transit. It’s similar to the debate in Labor the past 50 years: more jobs, or more good jobs? 

Workers now earn less and work more than ever. Should unions celebrate falling unemployment rates when these new jobs are mostly low-wage, no-benefit, and in industries doing harm to wider society? What’s a job if it doesn’t pay the bills or make our communities better?

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., went to nearby Memphis, TN, 50 years ago to speak to striking sanitation workers, he saw parallels in the fights for civil rights and economic justice. In a March 18, 1968, speech to them, he said, “For we know, that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”

Likewise, it isn’t enough to create a job if it isn’t a good job. It isn’t enough to build a new rail line if it isn’t a good rail line. So, who decides what is a good job and good transit? 

The answer for Local 1235-Nashville, TN, and its allies in the People’s Alliance for Transit, Housing, and Employment (PATHE) is clear: the people decide. And the only way the people are heard is if they organize together.

‘Let’s Move Nashville’

Their focus is Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, a Democrat who has proposed the transit plan, “Let’s Move Nashville,” calling for new transit centers, several rail lines, and new taxes to support the work.

Nashville desperately needs more transit service. But as we’ve seen in many cities, new transit service done wrong can be harmful. If the new system re-introduces transit privatization, relies on more taxes on poor people rather than the wealthy, sparks luxury development displacing low-income families, or is focused on serving only choice riders rather than people who depend on transit, who is it really helping?

Local 1235 members, along with their PATHE partners have a simple message for Mayor Barry: we need transit, and we need it done right.

Good paying, ATU-represented jobs

PATHE has laid out their demands in black and white, which include:

  • a guarantee that new transit jobs are public sector, good-paying, ATU-represented jobs
  • 10-minute headways on the 14 busiest bus routes, and expanded hours of service 
  • specifics on how the mayor plans to deliver 31,000 units of truly affordable housing by 2025

The concern driving PATHE is that without these commitments, “Let’s Move Nashville” will become a “gentrification train,” benefitting wealthy, white, or choice transit riders while displacing and further impoverishing poor, African American, or transit-reliant residents.

“Let’s Move Nashville” will move to a referendum later this year before heading into a lengthy process of decision-making.

Right wing Koch brothers oppose transit referendum 

It faces total opposition from rich right-wingers who would rather transit didn’t exist. At center stage in the Nashville fight is the Koch brother funded, Libertarian Cato Institute, which has a knack for opposing nearly every local debate over transit expansion, arguing against investments in rail and bus service.

Local 1235 has no intention of helping anti-transit billionaires kill the plan. Instead, they and PATHE are laser focused on ensuring that the mayor’s plan leads to good transit, good housing, and good jobs.