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"Michigan is on Fire": Historic Fare Strike Hits Buses in Grand Rapids, MI

Union calls on Obama, presidential candidates to address state crises

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Bus riders in western Michigan are making history today with the first-ever fare strike in the state, launched to show support for the city's bus drivers as they enter their 13th month of negotiations with the area's transit agency, The Rapid.

Outraged by growing threats against transit worker pensions and violations of the workers' First Amendment rights, a recent 16% fare hike, and a generous raise for the agency's CEO, community activists led by United Students Against Sweatshops are boarding buses en masse and refusing to pay their fares.

ATU International President Larry Hanley, whose union Local 836 represents Grand Rapids' more than 300 bus drivers, called on President Obama and all presidential candidates to come to Michigan to bear witness to a state "on the brink of collapse." "Michigan is on fire," Hanley said. "We've got children poisoned in Flint, teachers on strike in Detroit, and bus riders and drivers rising up in Grand Rapids. They're all connected by one thing: crusading politicians who think that a dignified retirement, quality education, and clean drinking water are luxuries that American citizens do not deserve."

In a leaflet being handed to bus drivers, the community coalition states: "The Rapid’s recent actions toward you and your riders is a form of economic violence that I won’t condone. Because it is illegal for union bus drivers like you to go on strike in Michigan, I am doing the closest thing that I can as a rider by engaging in this one-day fare strike."

Fare strikes in cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and New York have grown in popularity as economic conditions and transit systems deteriorate. In Grand Rapids, it is part of a day of action organized to demand that The Rapid, a public agency that has two federal injunctions against it for its violation of employee free speech rights, settle a fair contract with its workers.

Before the fare strike began, activists unrolled banners from highway overpasses. The day ended with a joint action involving the transit workers union, ATU Local 836, and community groups overwhelming a meeting of The Rapid's Board of Directors.

ATU Local 836 President RiChard Jackson, who last week called for the resignation of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder over his handling of the water crisis in Flint, expressed his members' appreciation for the community's support. "While we didn't organize this fare strike, we are humbled that our community is sticking its neck out to do what's right," he said. "The responsibility here lies at the feet of Rapid CEO Peter Varga and the Board of Directors, including Mayor Bliss and former Mayor Heartwell. Like Snyder, they have adopted a 'cheaper is better' philosophy that will impoverish bus drivers tomorrow just to save a buck today. This could end right now if they would come to the table with a fair proposal."