03/20/2012 07:05 pm ET

Transit Workers Union Targets Riders In New Campaign

This election cycle, the unionized workers that run your public transportation system are doing something a little different. They're not only turning out the votes of their own membership, they're pushing for the riders to vote as well.

The Amalgamated Transit Union -- the largest labor union representing transit and allied workers in the U.S. and Canada -- has at least two trends working in its favor: With gas prices rising and the economy still weak, public transit use is near its highest point in decades. Last year, Americans took 10.4 billion trips on mass transit -- including buses, trains, street cars and ferries -- a 2.3 percent increase from the previous year, according to the American Public Transportation Association, a nonprofit advocacy organization. And the people who ride buses and trains -- mostly urban, poor, or environmentally conscious -- are more likely to share the unions' preference for Democratic candidates, say advocates on both sides of the issue.

In an age of unlimited spending by super PACs -- where Republican groups have outspent their Democratic counterparts -- the Amalgamated Transit Union's strategy is part of a critical role that labor advocates plan to play between now and November. The unions say they cannot compete with Republican donors' money, but that they do have an ample supply of bodies and plan to deploy them in broader and more creative ways than they did in 2008.

The ATU, like other unions, also says that it plans to use this election as an opportunity to build public support for big labor after several years of crushing blows: attacks from conservative politicians across the Midwest, budget cuts that further diminished public sector union membership, and declining public support.

"We understand that we have a knife to our throat," said Larry Hanley, who was elected president of the ATU in 2010. "We're even thinking about selling the office furniture," he joked, and then quickly grew serious. "In past elections, on our best day, we never went beyond organizing our own members, but that's not enough now."

"What we understand completely is that the people who ride the bus have the same interests as the people who drive them," Hanley continued. "America has lost its mobility."

As gas prices rise, public transit systems across the nation have faced dwindling budgets and fewer routes. In 2010, nearly 80 percent of public transit systems were forced to raise fares or cut service due to flat or decreased funding from state and local governments, according to the American Public Transportation Association. And while the majority of bus riders may not be seen as swing voters, they are more likely to be citizens without driver's licenses, and thus more vulnerable to voter suppression in states like Florida that require a government-approved photo ID, said Hanley, adding that the ATU will focus on that issue as well. They may also be in need of a ride to the polls on voting day.

Exact funding or staffing has not yet been determined, but the ATU says it is hoping to mobilize bus riders and sympathetic progressive groups to provide additional bodies to work the bus stops and buses. These groups have already begun to form in some key states, like Florida, and have engaged in heated debates over public transit issues since early 2010.

Ellison Bennett, a long time civil-rights activist based in Pensacola, Fla., and an avid bus rider -- roughly 120 miles, back and forth to work per week, he estimated -- said he plans to join the ATU in its mission in the coming months. Bennett has long viewed public transit as fertile ground for registering voters and distributing information.

"On the bus, you're getting a segment of voters who have not been reached out to," Bennet said. "So that is my mission this election year."

Bennett recalls a conversation he had on a bus ride on a Saturday morning in 2004, when he was going to visit his sister. He struck up a conversation with an 82-year-old woman sitting next to him, and, before long, asked her whether she was a registered voter. She said she used to be, but hadn't been for a long time, and besides, she had no car and the bus didn't go to her precinct's voting location.

"I have never had anyone tell me, 'I don't want to talk to you right now.'" But sometimes, if people are hesitant about registering, Bennett turns to his civil rights history. "I say, 'Picture South Africa when Nelson Mandela ran for president. People walked for miles, for days, to exercise their right to vote. We should never take that right for granted."

Conservative operatives, meanwhile, seem resigned to the loss of the transit riders' vote.

"If you’re taking the bus to work, you likely live in an urban environment, are on the lower half of the socioeconomic scale or you have an ideological aversion to cars -– all demographics that are far more kind to Democrats," said Jonathan Collegio, the director of communications for American Crossroads, one of the leading Republican super PACs. "In the end, these are voters who are unlikely to jump from the Democratic ship."