CHICAGO - They appear everywhere in uniform. They are a constant reminder of the high cost of the state budget crisis.
They are the 1,200 Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) workers laid off in February. The cuts eliminated 18% of bus service, and resulted in dirtier buses and trains, less maintenance and packed trains.
"The candidates all come to church to seek support. But we never get a chance to speak. So we wear our uniforms on Sunday and sit up front as a reminder," said Leroy Smith, a laid off bus operator and member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241.
Transit workers heard President Obama was visiting Quincy, Illinois last month so they donned their uniforms and piled in a couple of cars for the 4 hour trek. They arrived early and after getting cleared by the Secret Service, were ushered on stage to appear behind the president during a rally.
"President Obama came up to us and said, ‘CTA? I know why you're here,'" said Smith.
At a CTA board meeting on May 14, trustees heard reports of dismal revenue projections. Accountants were peppered with questions about the revenue stream but trustees zeroed in on free rides to seniors, military personnel and "circuit breakers" or low-income riders.
"What's the status of legislation to repeal it?" one coldly asked.
Meanwhile, out front Smith was leading a picket of laid off transit workers. They were joined by Jobs with Justice and community activists and SOAR members. They chanted, "fund transit, not bank bailouts!"
"We have got to come together," said Ron Harty, a bus operator. "We can fund wars but not education and transit. Or we bail out banks and then they tell you to go screw yourself."
Harty had been a construction worker on Chicago's deep tunnel project and a proud member of the Sewer and Tunnel Miners Union. At age 55 he was one of the last new CTA hires and received training to become a bus operator. Two months later he was laid off.
"Unbelievable. Why did they waste my time?" he asked.
The layoffs are disrupting families and lives, say transit workers. Many are now threatened with loss of their homes and cars.
Lillian Jones was only on the job seven months before being laid off. She was a bus operator out of the 103rd St and Stony Island Garage. She was picketing to get her job back, she said.
In addition to the layoff, those still working are putting in shifts of up to 70 hours. The "workers are driving quickly on the street. We need to put the drivers back to work to end the stress and so people don't have to wait so long for a bus," said Jones.
The transit workers are part of the newly formed Unemployed Council initiated by Chicago Jobs with Justice and are fighting for passage of the Miller Bill HR 4812. If passed, part of the funding could be allocated to local governments to retain public workers laid off because of the cuts.
Nationally, the ATU has joined with other transit unions, churches and community groups to demand federal funding for transit. Meanwhile, Chicago transit workers will continue to go everywhere to tell their story and get the trains and buses running again.
Photo: Scott Marshall