When “microtransit,” the new rage in transit privatization, showed up in Denton, Texas, union activists decided to fight back.
Microtransit is a loosely defined term that combines on-demand service with flexible scheduling and routes — imagine replacing a bus system with shared Ubers. It is presented as a high-tech alternative to public transit, but in reality it’s an extension of the drive to privatize.
Several local governments across the country have already transferred operations of their public transit systems over to large private operators such as Keolis or MV Transportation. This move is even more drastic: the complete dumping of bus drivers and buses.
Denton is a small community in the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan region, home to two universities. The Denton County Transportation Authority operates buses as well as a light rail line between Denton, Texas, and two nearby cities.
The mayor and the transit agency started exploring alternatives to the current transit system many years ago, nominally in an effort to save money. In 2020, Dallas’s transit system adopted a microtransit pilot, contracting with Uber to provide the service. Denton decided to follow their lead and hire Via, a former competitor of Lyft and Uber, for microtransit. Via was eventually iced out from the rideshare market and became a microtransit company. It has been pursuing cities and counties to offer to replace their public transit systems.
And that’s exactly what Via set out to do in Denton: replace all fixed-route bus service with on-demand vehicles driven by independent contractors who are hailed by an app. Drivers operate rented vehicles that they’re responsible for. This is a great opportunity for the DCTA to get rid of the unionized workforce and reduce the capital investment required to maintain and operate a bus system.
Underfunded for Purpose
Jim Owen, Denton bus operator, raised alarm four years ago when officials began discussing microtransit.
Owen, a Transit (ATU), Local 1338 member, attended DCTA board meetings over the past eight years. He had long been frustrated with the lack of investment in the existing service, which he said was part of a plan: “They haven’t thrown any money to the bus service because they want to get rid of the bus service.”
Paula Jean Richardson, a bus operator, recognized the theme. She had previously worked in Los Angeles for a public transit agency before moving to Denton. “Way back in the early ’90s they tried to privatize part of our company,” she said. “I saw it for what it was. Public money should go to public transportation, period.”
Owen’s co-workers brought the issue to a cross-union group called Denton Worker, formed in 2019 to connect local unionists so they could assist each other in their fights.
“Our goal was to find workers who needed to be organized, find issues around unfair labor practices and wage theft, and try to be a touchstone for workers in Denton,” said UPS part-timer Will Hale, a steward with Teamsters Local 767.
Denton Worker had started by holding forums about organizing rights, and tabling at the local Martin Luther King Day Parade, but these efforts were quickly abandoned by the pandemic.
The threat to the bus routes — and the bus operators’ jobs — revived the group. It began meeting via Zoom to discuss what could be done.
“I don’t want to see any of my fellow workers without a job,” said bus operator and Local 1338 member Victoria Allen. “And for the community: the people here need it. It’s a big deal to be able to get on the bus and be able to go somewhere.”
Unionists were also opposed to taking operations from local hands in order to enrich a tech company with headquarters in New York City. “You’re purloining the public purse,” said Owen.
Denton is not served by a bus
Denton Worker decided to rename itself No Bus Cuts Denton to appeal to the public. The DCTA Board and the city council were identified as targets by organizers.
They began handing out flyers explaining what was happening and asking members of the public for their concerns to the city council. They also collected signatures for a petition.
No Bus Cuts Denton organizers sought out riders to connect them on buses. “Riding the buses and talking to people gave us an even better sense of what the effects of the cuts would be,” said Joshua Hatton, a member of the Texas State Employees Union, affiliated with the Communications Workers. He realized the cuts were going to affect “people who are really fighting for the basics of life, who don’t have access to smartphones or banking services.
“For those of us who aren’t drivers, it really gave us [a]Sensitivity to urgency. It became more than a solidarity action with drivers.”
Many riders didn’t know that service cuts were coming; Hatton estimated that only 1 in 10 had heard. The group also flew DCTA agents to their workplaces.
Both riders and drivers responded strongly to the offer. “I didn’t meet one person who thought that it was good to cut the buses,” said James Baker, a No Bus Cuts Denton member who organizes with the Industrial Workers of the World.
The group was able to generate 20 calls and 40 emails a day through its canvassing — something the city council wasn’t used to. “These people signed up for an easy job,” said Hale. “We provided [the public] with the opportunity to do something about it together, collectively.”
No Bus Cuts Denton also organised people to attend DCTA board meetings that were held virtually to fight the cuts. “We had a sort of call-in filibuster at a board meeting one time — we had so many people call in and voice their opposition that they changed the board rules,” said Richardson.
Organizers were able find allies on city council: newly elected progressives, who had not been part the Via deal. They were able defeat the DCTA board chaired former mayor Chris Watts who was the driving force behind privatization.
The council passed a resolution extending the bus service by six month while the Via pilot took effect. Watts opposed the council and pushed for a shorter time frame of three months. He got his way on that — but under pressure from organizers, the council removed Watts from the boardHe was replaced by a more pro-transit member.
The organizers won a partial victory after the three-month extension. The board kept five of eight existing fixed-route bus lines, while continuing the Via Project. The remaining routes are funded through September, but it is possible that it will be cut again.
“Overall, we won back some of the territory that was lost, but we have to defend what we’ve taken back and try to take back more,” said Hatton. “We want to build public transportation, not gut it.”
So what’s “microtransit” like so far? Users have been reporting unreliable service with Via, whose drivers sometimes don’t show up or don’t have wheelchair-accessible vehicles for those who need them. Via is charging an introductory rate to entice users, lower than what they’ll ultimately be charging: “What’s going on now is that it’s basically a taxi cab service for 75 cents,” says Owen. “If it’s $2 or 3, Via [usage] is going to drop like a rock.”
Activists also highlight that there’s nothing about flexible transit that requires it to be operated by independent contractors rather than unionized employees. For example, Via’s operations in Columbus, Ohio, are run by TWU members, who already represent the area’s public transit workers.
Meanwhile, Watts, the former DCTA board chair, has announced that he’s running for city council; if elected, he is expected to continue the privatization fight. After Watts’s removal, supporters of privatization tried to get Watts onto the DCTA board. “We won a battle, but we still have a war going on,” Richardson said. “We have to keep fighting.”
Campaign organizers are pivoting back to building Denton Worker, though they plan to maintain No Bus Cuts Denton as the group’s transit committee. “We want to organize more folks into the fold,” says Richardson. “Not only to benefit us, but eventually — like I saw with us — to benefit them.”
The group of labor activists has gained a sense for their power by fighting against transit privatization. “Now we have a coalition of people who realize that they can do things,” said Baker.
Labor Notes sends condolences for Jim Owen’s family. Jim Owen was a member and activist of No Bus Cuts Denton and was a member ATU Local 1338.