Bring Back the Buses

For Chrissakes... Milwaukee's got public transit. (Omaha, too.)

She moved in March, and already is negotiating with her landlord on a rent extension. "Your bills don't stop because you're out on strike. Your creditors don't stop calling, and your kids don't stop being hungry."

On strike-check Wednesday, I talked to Jeff and Margaret, a husband and wife team who drive out of the Ruter Garage in Brooklyn Center. Typically, Jeff is infectiously cheerful, while Margaret has a drier sense of humor. But striking makes them both serious.

Jeff remembers when talks stalled: "When I first turned on the news I felt depressed and angry. I had to picket that night. Everyone on the picket line that night was real quiet. No one said nothing. Which I can understand."

Lael and Fred Beamish, another driving couple picking up checks at the Labor Center, sigh in unison when I ask how the strike is going. It's funny. What's less amusing is how they spend their free time. They have plenty of time now to unpack boxes in the house they bought a few months back--and all kinds of time to wonder where the next mortgage payment will come from.

"One car complicates matters," Fred says. "You can't have two temp jobs out of walking distance."

"Which they all are", adds Lael.

Being out on strike is strange enough by itself. My husband says that it's like laying yourself off. You expose yourself to financial and emotional hardship and the taunts of disappointed customers: "Go back to work!" "Stay off the streets, we don't miss you!"

Strikers I talk to feel genuinely lousy about stranding riders--after all, they had no say in this.

"I'm more concerned about the customers than I am myself right now," Lael says.

Fred adds, "We have our regulars, we know their needs. It bugs me that I don't know how they're doing right now."

Jeff sees people on routes he once drove waiting in bus shelters for rides. "It's such a weird feeling. I really miss 'em," he says. Jeff recalls going into a north side Burger King with his granddaughter and telling a tableful of riders, "I apologize for any inconvenience I have caused. We had to make a stand in order to save you and your families." He adds, "I left on a good note with them."

 

Solidarity can sound like a cliché when you're talking about a strike. But it feels like a lot more than a mere buzzword when you're out of work. I've witnessed other unions stepping in to provide support. A member of the U of M's AFSCME local drops off a bag of treats every day at the corner of Seventh and Olson Memorial Highway. Go to a fundraiser at Stardust Lanes, pick up a check for several grand. Attend a lecture on transit strikes, and watch your fellow attendees fill a hat to overflowing with dollar bills and checks. As I've heard over and over again, "They're coming for us next."

Most remarkable is the relative lack of bitterness from the ridership.

They write to newspapers, contact the Council, and tell us: Do what you've gotta do. One rainy afternoon a few weeks back, a smiling, middle-aged woman U-turned her SUV in front of our picket site. She and her teenaged daughter climbed out of the car and handed out bagels and coffee.

A young man came by Heywood last Wednesday night to talk to the crew. He was shivering in his shorts: He was on his way to catch a ride with a friend because of car trouble. Yet he was the one who promised to help us by e-mailing the governor.

Jeff feels that in the wake of this, "going back is going to change everyone's attitude about life and service."

And there have been other positive changes, too. Many people have commented that the strike has broken down barriers between workers. Like any other workplace, we tend to segregate ourselves by job description and work location. But now, drivers rub elbows with Transit Information Center representatives who mingle with Skilled Helpers who converse with Money Counters. Everyone bonds over long, cold hours pacing the sidewalk.

Margaret has used this time for reflection. "I get up, read my Bible and spend time with God," she says. "We're still blessed either way we go."

But what will pull us through is something less noble--sheer orneriness. Jeff, Margaret's husband, says, "I'm a fighter, not a quitter. I want to prove them wrong."

Fred's light, wry tone becomes feisty when he talks about the future of the strike: "I'm fed up with opponents of Transit being bad losers. They tried to kill us with the budget. They need to just give up."


On a Leg and a Prayer
Paul Rasmusen's bus strike fitness program

by Mike Mosedale

Note: on a summer evening in 1988, Paul Rasmusen crashed his motorcycle on a country road near Hackensack, Minnesota. He languished in the ditch for 12 hours before being discovered. According to his rescuers, says Rasmusen, his face was so covered with woodticks, "it looked like I had a beard." Worse--much worse--his left leg was almost completely torn off. Three weeks after the accident, gangrene set in and doctors amputated the leg just above the knee.

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