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Takin’ it to the Streets: Transit Justice is a Civil Rights Issue

Before I ever met Transport Workers Union organizer Cheska Tolentino, I knew I was going to like her. Over lunch one day our mutual friend (and my Hey, Shorty! co-author), Meghan Huppuch, said to me with a grin, "You haven't met Cheska yet? Oh, you're gonna like her... a lot." Meghan and Cheska had been working together for a year in a coalition effort to increase subway safety called New Yorkers for Safe Transit. I was a new member of that coalition and was still in the process of meeting all the others. Any rave review from Meghan is good enough for me, and sure enough, when Cheska and I met, wouldn't you know I liked her? A lot.

When it comes to public transportation and street harassment, Cheska knows her stuff. She was kind enough to bless me with an education about how mass transit employees are effected by street harassment on the job and how their employer's policies can actual prevent them from taking action when they see a rider who needs assistance. (In this economy, the choice between keeping one's job and stopping street harassment is no choice at all.) Too many times mass transit employees are called out for their apathy or lack of action, and while this is certainly an issue to look into, the framework of blaming transit workers dismisses the systemic pressures they must negotiate at work, not to mention their own personal feelings of disempowerment when it comes to intervening. Cheska sees transit justice as a civil rights issue and the focus of her work is to ensure that "everyone has the right to safe, reliable, accessible, and affordable public transportation"—workers and riders alike.

How is street harassment a transportation issue?

The mass transit system is treated as an extension of the streets: people spit on the platforms, throw litter on the tracks, and generally show little respect for the facilities. In view of this observation, it seems that whatever happens above ground, happens below ground and on the buses. So, street harassment follows pedestrians who become riders by virtue of entering the transit system. Transit justice means that everyone is safe and secure while getting to and from his/her/zir destination. It also means ensuring you're protected when you go above ground and walk to where you need to go.

In what ways do transit workers face street harassment on the job?

Generally, I hear stories that transit workers experience the same kind of inappropriate behaviors as riders do, like flashing and groping. Since I'm not a transit worker, I can't really speak for the those who experience sexual harassment on the job. I can, however, say that while there are procedures for transit workers to report misconduct by a fellow employee, those same protections don't exist to report harassment commited by riders. In the latter case, we currently have no reliable way of assessing how often and what kinds of sexual harassment transit workers face while working.

What is Transport Workers Union Local 100 doing to address this issue?

For its own members, Local 100 has a Women's Committee, which is available if a worker ever experiences sexual harassment. Union officers and staff will gladly assist and keep all information confidential. Outside of the membership, Local 100 is an active member of New Yorkers for Safe Transit (NYFST). One of NYFST's projects is advocating for legislation that would require the New York Police Department and Metropolitan Transit Authority to report gender-based violence by subway line and bus route.

What solutions can individual transit workers and mass transit systems implement to make public transportation safer for all workers and riders?

As individuals, I think transit workers could try getting trained in how to identify and appropriately respond to sexual harassment. Resources are out there, but as a group, we need to open dialogue and acknowledge that this a problem that must be addressed. Individuals won't reach out for training if they don't understand something is happening, and that they can and should do something about it.

In that vein, transit systems could require their employees to get trained on this issue, just as they would be trained to respond to security and other emergency situations. Importantly, we could really use a more robust way of reporting incidents and accessing these records so that we can pinpoint exactly how we can make public transportation safer.

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