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Seizing the Wheel

The 1968 Bus driver strike remembered



By Cara Jepsen

Almost 30 years ago, as Richard J. Daley was preparing to host the Democratic National Convention, a large sector of the City That Works stopped working. More than half of the CTA's bus drivers were African-American, and for weeks they had been fighting what they considered unfair union representation. At 12:01 on the night of August 25, 1968, the black drivers turned off the lights on their vehicles and headed back to the CTA bus barns, beginning a two-week strike that shut down 52 of the city's 128 bus routes and effectively paralyzed the south and west sides.

Standish Willis was one of the drivers who operated out of the predominantly black shed at Kedzie and Van Buren. He'd grown up on the west side and served in the air force before hiring on at the CTA; at 27 he was a husband, a father, and a student at Crane College, which he and other members of the black student alliance were urging the city to rename Malcolm X College. The year before the strike, two black drivers had been fired for quarreling with a pair of white CTA police officers; Willis had helped organize a one-day protest at the Kedzie-Van Buren station, and after a critical mass of drivers called in sick on the same day, the fired employees were reinstated. "It gave us a sense of empowerment, that we could force management to do something," remembers Willis. "It had little to do with the union, except we felt we couldn't take it to them to get satisfaction. So we just handled it ourselves."

Drivers from other stations heard about the "sick day" and contacted Willis, who began holding meetings in the kitchen of his west-side apartment. As interest grew, the meetings were moved to churches and schools, representatives were chosen, and the black drivers, organizing under the name Concerned Transit Workers, drew up a list of demands to present to the union and the CTA. "The way we operated was a great model in terms of trade union democracy," says Willis. "Anytime a decision was made, we always had a mass meeting where people could hear and express. Our leaders couldn't move without getting guidance from our guys. Considering that nobody had any prior training, we did pretty well."

But the organization's plans to work from inside the union local were foiled by its president, James J. Hill. The CTA had begun hiring blacks in 1945, and Local 241 of the Amalgamated Transit Union was integrated. But under its bylaws, retired members--nearly all of whom were white--retained their voting privileges, and as a result the white membership controlled the ballot box, even though by 1968 the black drivers outnumbered the white drivers. According to Willis, younger members began pressing the issue of retiree voting during the spring of 1968, but if they pressed too hard, a white member would move to adjourn the meeting, and the motion would be swiftly seconded and carried. The final straw came in early July when the local rejected the CTW's petition to eliminate the retirees' voting privileges and adjourned. Hill walked out, ignoring the verbal ultimatum to come back.

As a result the CTW staged a five-day strike that ended only when Mayor Daley promised to address issues of bus maintenance and cleanliness. But nothing happened. The local offered CTW members some newly created management posts, but these were rejected as tokenism. "Some of the guys were thinking that our guys had been outnegotiated," Willis remembers, "that Daley had outsmarted them in hopes that we wouldn't be able to pull our ranks together again." The CTW spent the following weeks negotiating with Hill and at the same time filing suit with the international union to remove him, but neither tactic worked. The CTW voted to resume the strike on August 25, and its members fanned out to the city's bus barns to spread the news.

Like many other protest movements in the 50s and 60s, the drivers took as their model the Montgomery bus boycott, organizing car pools and CTW "courtesy cars" to meet the transporation shortfall in some neighborhoods. Willis recalls driving his own car up and down Roosevelt looking for passengers. "We couldn't transport 700,000 people," he says, "but we were out in the community making at least some effort." The group enjoyed widespread support from the black community, including civil rights organizations, churches, and high-profile African-Americans like Jesse Jackson, Dick Gregory, and Muhammad Ali, all of whom spoke at CTW meetings.

Rallies were held to bail drivers out of jail and help feed their families. On weekends drivers would speak at churches to keep people up-to-date on CTW activities. "We recognized that people were being inconvenienced," Willis explains, "and we were trying to do everything we could to make sure they would know where we were coming from. The last thing we needed was a backlash in our own community. We made sure that the issues we raised were related to public safety and working conditions--issues that all of the workers and people who rode the buses should have been able to support."

In the wake of the April riots following the King assassination, the city's editorialists had little patience for a labor dispute. "The papers deliberately tried to create this 'black militant disrupting the community' type of dichotomy," Willis says. One issue of the Chicago Tribune, for example, portrayed the strike as "another deliberate 'confrontation' with the aim of producing some martyrs." But on the picket lines the CTW was aided by students, wives, children (including Willis's), members of Jackson's Operation Breadbasket, and activists from Students for a Democratic Society who had come to town to protest the war. "We needed [the white students] to man the picket lines on the north side," Willis recalls. "Black drivers were being arrested while trying to close down the white stations, and we were losing what little money we had bailing them out of jail. [The students] did it for a few days and then refocused their attention to why they came to Chicago in the first place." Willis says that while few white drivers supported the strike, "White drivers at black stations respected the picket lines. The white drivers at the white ones did not."

Early in the walkout the CTW's leaders were charged with violating an August 27 back-to-work order that also prohibited picketing at the bus barns, but their case was suspended while they negotiated with the CTA. On September 8 the strikers voted to reject the city's final offer and called for the CTA "to recognize any labor organization that represented a majority of the bus drivers." The next day police began arresting picketers en masse, including members of Operation Breadbasket. Contempt proceedings against the leaders resumed; eventually the CTA fired 42 drivers and suspended more than 140. As bail money ran out, the CTW's leaders urged the strikers to go back to work. Most of them were back on the job three weeks after the walkout had begun.

Three months after the strike ended, Local 241 approved a new contract that called for moderate pay raises and little else. A year later the CTA adopted a new set of regulations that included as grounds for dismissal "engaging in conversation derogatory to the authority, its officials, or other employees" and "leading fellow employees into a wildcat strike, attempting to create such a strike, or participating in such a strike." But the strike had heightened interest in the union, and eventually the African-American membership took over the local, winning a majority on the executive board.

After the strike CTW leader George Clark told Willis that the organization should have paid more attention to establishing an emergency strike fund, that the drivers had been "too meek" in presenting their demands. But Willis thinks the cards were stacked against the strikers. "The union, the city administration, the courts, the papers, and of course the police--all of those forces pretty much came together to make sure this thing didn't succeed," he says. "With the police arresting our guys, the judges putting guys in jail and holding them for contempt, and the union threatening to kick our leaders out, it was a pretty concerted attack. And we certainly didn't have enough money to get people out of jail at the rate they were putting them in."

Shortly after the strike failed, Willis quit his job with the CTA--"I knew I would have been fired anyway," he says--and later, while a student at the University of Chicago, he wrote a bachelor's thesis about the conflict. Now a civil rights attorney and activist, Willis will speak about the labor and civil rights issues surrounding the strike this Sunday at 2 PM at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library. While he acknowledges that the strike failed to bring immediate results, he considers it an example of what unions can do for their communities as well as their members.

"If we didn't have the kind of moral support that the community gave us, I don't think we could have made it as long as we did," he says. "It's important not to allow trade unionism to become just trade unionism, but to keep the community involved and educated. In the early days the unions--particularly the CIO--were much more community based, and their outlook was much broader. They would speak out on issues that were of social concern--they weren't just coming to the public when they had a problem with wages, which is what trade unions do now." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Standish Willis/ photo by Nathan Mandell; August 25, 1968 photo/ Chicago Sun-Times.

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