The Vancouver Bus Riders Union

Social Movement Unionism on the Move

By Kirat Kaur

November 2005

Yuli Chan, a member of the OTB crew, organizing on the bus

It’s a typically dreary and rainy fall day in Vancouver. You’ve just shuttled your kids to daycare, made a trip to the grocery store, and are counting your blessings for having found a seat on the bus for the ride back home. As you sit there swaying to the rhythm of the rickety old bus, your mind is racing to think of creative ways to finish all the housework and cook dinner before heading off to work the night shift at the hospital tonight. Suddenly, your thoughts are interrupted by a flurry of activity on the bus. You look, and there are three people in bright orange t-shirts saying “Hello everyone. We’re from the Bus Riders Union and we’re here to talk to you about poor transit and fighting for transit for all.” “Hell yeah,” you think. “Sign me up for that.”

The Vancouver Bus Riders Union is an anti-racist and anti-sexist organization fighting to put the needs of transit-dependent people at the centre of public policy. It was born early in the summer of 2001, just before a transit strike erupted that quickly shifted from a struggle for better wages and working conditions for bus drivers into a lock-out by the newly elected Gordon Campbell government that attacked workers’ right to organize and paralyzed the lives of thousands of transit-dependent people for four months. The BRU has been slowly but steadily gathering force until today we have over 800 members, thousands of supporters, and an On The Bus crew – a core group of committed organizers and leaders of the organization – of twenty. The Vancouver BRU was inspired by, and modelled on, the Bus Riders Union of Los Angeles, which has fought and won many transit struggles and is a strong example of a revolutionary community organization rooted in anti-imperialism and anti-racism.

The Vancouver BRU was formed by Latin American and Philippine solidarity activists, anti-poverty organizers, and anti-imperialist feminists who looked around the Vancouver “activist scene” and saw the necessity of building a revolutionary new project that would prioritize organizing the unorganized and moving more people into class struggle. They chose to focus their education, organization, and mobilization efforts around the issue of public transit.

The Bus Riders Union is an experiment in Left movement building. We see the bus as a site of working class struggle – the majority of those who take the bus are workers on their way to or from a shitty job, women going to pick their kids up from underfunded and poor quality daycare, immigrants and refugees going to job interviews for positions they won’t get because they don’t have enough “Canadian experience,” and others of the marginalized and disenfranchised classes. Every week, we talk to people who struggle in a system that denies them their every human right while taking as much as possible from them to feed the greed of the few who are not, in fact, represented on the bus. We see the bus as a potential site of resistance. We seek to reclaim that public space to open up a dialogue about our exploitation and to mobilize people into action.

The social, political and economic transformation of our society will only happen when people get together and fight for what we need. Based on our praxis – the ongoing work of refining our theory and practice – the organizers in the BRU understand that in order to reach the masses, empty sloganeering, social service provision or academic theorizing is not enough. In order to organize the unorganized, we must start where people are at – using popular education and direct-contact organizing to get people thinking about the root causes of their oppression and exploitation, and to get them to act to resist it. As such, we also use a variety of other tactics that include community workshops, street theatre, group study, public demonstrations, and direct action.

Martha Roberts

Through our direct-contact organizing, we reach out to people on the buses, in the streets, and in their communities. We know that it is women, especially women of colour and Aboriginal women, who are most excluded from political participation. Organizing directly on the bus allows room for transit-dependent women to share their thoughts and ideas for change. Through popular education, we move from experience to analysis to action in order to empower people to shape their own history. BRU organizers use the issue of transit as a starting point to talk to people about the conditions of their lives; to learn from their experiences, needs and visions; and to push their class, race and gender analysis along a trajectory that will lead them into organizing, not just for a better transit system that will improve their lives, but for a better social, political and economic system that will serve the needs of everyone.

Class is lived through race and gender, and we see this every time we go on the bus and look at the faces of the people around us, the majority of whom are women and who are disproportionately people of colour. However, while we understand that we will never be free from class exploitation until we get rid of capitalism, we also realize that the elimination of a class-based society will not automatically bring with it the liberation of women and people of colour. Therefore, we seek to integrate a strong feminist and anti-racist analysis into our organizing. We believe that the leadership of the movement must come from women and people of colour, and must integrate a feminist and anti-racist agenda into the fight for economic justice. We need to move beyond mere tokenism, towards a praxis that prioritizes and is driven by the most marginalized – those who have the most to gain from winning the fight for a just system.

We base our campaigns on the needs of working class communities of colour so as to politicize our communities, fight to win concrete gains and to propel people to organize. Our successful campaign Night Owl Buses: End the Curfew Now! saw the re-instatement of 16 late-night bus routes that serve restaurant workers, security guards, office cleaners, janitors and other late-night workers, most of whom are people of colour. The victory was cause for celebration, yet it also opened up space for bus riders to envision a transit system that went beyond merely a few late-night bus routes and to demand 24-hour transit service.

BRU organizers Heather, kirat and zailda at an anti-poverty rally (Martha Roberts)

In addition to specific campaign demands, the BRU has developed four overarching transitional demands that expose and challenge the oppression and exploitation of communities and bring the inherent contradictions of capitalism to the forefront. Our demands to End Transit Racism , Defend and Expand Public Services , Put Women at the Centre of Public Transit and for Public Health and Environmental Justice can never be achieved under a systemically racist, sexist and capitalist system; however, they spark the imagination of the working class to envision a socialist alternative based on human need and principles of justice.

Our model of organizing seeks to connect local and international struggles, both within the “Third World” and in imperialist countries. Thus we target our local representatives of the state machinery – TransLink, the Greater Vancouver Regional District’s transportation decision-making body – as well as the capitalist institutions that TransLink serves, including SNC Lavalin, a Montreal-based Canadian multinational corporation that makes the bullets for the US occupation of Iraq and is engaged in privatization schemes all over the world. The company has been awarded the contract to build, run and maintain the Richmond-Airport-Vancouver rapid transit line – the most expensive rail project in Canadian history.

As we continue to build the leadership of militant, multilingual organizers of colour and as we continue to develop a strong base in the community, we seek to also contribute to the building of a culture of organizing that is so sorely lacking in the countries of the global North today. In light of the escalating global attacks on the lives of the oppressed and exploited, and in the words of Dead Prez, we need to “organize, or we won’t survive.” The Vancouver Bus Riders Union is a dynamic example of organizing for social, political and economic justice, and for our freedom, liberation and the survival of our future generations.

Kirat Kaur is an organizer with the Bus Riders Union and a board member of the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy.

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