CTA Bus Tracker Vs. Union Negotiating Power

When CTA “Doomsday” finally arrived on February 7th of this year, eliminating 20% of Chicago bus service and 1,100 union jobs along with, I and many others condemned the union for forcing the service reductions. At the time, bus union leaders predicted an outcry from stranded riders would help their case for a better contract. Not to mention for the rehiring of those 1,100 idled workers.

They must have been very surprised at what happened next. Which was…nothing. Well, not much anyway. Sure, buses became more crowded, and some major thoroughfares lost critical early morning and late-evening hours of service. But that sought-after groundswell of public anger never materialized.

There’s a good reason why. In 2010, thanks to CTA Bus Tracker and the widespread use of smart phones, anyone with a home or mobile Internet connection now has the easy ability to find out when the next bus is getting to the nearest stop. Or, really, to find out when any bus on any route is getting to any stop in Chicago–not to mention where on its route any bus is right now. Cue communal sigh of relief. And exit one of the most important public points of pressure labor unions have been able to count on up to now to force concessions from transit agencies.

Short of bus drivers going out on strike (which would be illegal and, judging by the experience of New York City’s striking transit workers in 2007, would likely break the union financially), short-term service disruptions no longer have the power to take riders by surprise, confuse their journeys, or force them to fear finding alternate routes. Instead, a few seconds of surfing on the CTA website, or clicking on popular transit tracker apps like iPhone’s (phenomenal) Buster or Android’s TreKing, is all it takes for riders to plan their bus trips in real time.

Meaning not only did the CTA’s bus union sorely misjudge the agency’s ability to afford to continue to pay 1,100 now laid-off workers without a giveback from labor, but the labor leaders who led those rank-and-file CTA workers over the bluff and into employment oblivion also weren’t paying attention to the widespread adoption of technology that would make it nearly impossible for the union to use public pressure to get the 1,100 jobs back.

The CTA is currently testing a similar real-time ‘L’ tracking system on the Brown Line. If I were a rapid-transit labor leader, I’d think about that the next time contract season rolls around. After all, transit workers deserve jobs just like anyone else. But they don’t deserve short-sighted labor leaders so out-of-touch with political and technological realities that they can’t tell the light at the end of the tunnel is nothing but an oncoming train. Hopefully, CTA labor leaders are paying attention now.

As a regular CTA rider, I’m annoyed at extra crowding on the 22 bus, and a lack of late-evening options on Division Street. But my outcry–more of a plea, really–is for Electropuf to port Buster to Android, not for the CTA to hire back the bus drivers. Thanks to bus tracker and unfortunately for the union, I just haven’t got time for the pain.

In Chicago, it’s always a shock when the clout runs out.

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