Remembering Larry Hanley, a community organizer disguised as a labor leader

by Greg LeRoy


The recent passing of Larry Hanley, International President of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), is far more than a great loss for his union’s 200,000 members.


It’s a setback for transit advocacy, environmentalism, grassroots organizing and progressive politics.


Simply put, Larry was a radical community organizer disguised as a labor leader. He was a throwback to the era when unions were being founded and did not see themselves in any way separate from other working-class institutions.


He came out of the best tradition of social unionism: unions like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the United Auto Workers and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union whose leaders built coalitions for civil rights and workplace justice for all Americans, not just their own members.  In his nine years as ATU’s leader, he turned the union into a social-justice organizing hub.


Hanley, a New Yorker who moved to Staten Island as a young man, wore his politics proudly on his sleeve. He had a small statue of Mike Quill on his desk, the militant New York president of the Transport Workers Union. Behind him was a bookcase lined with dozens of DVDs of At the River I Stand; he would eagerly dispense copies of the documentary about the events leading up to the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated.


I had the privilege of working with Larry starting in the fall of 2010, in his first week in office. The Great Recession had plunged transit service into crisis and he had won the presidency as an insurgent, protesting his predecessor’s passivity in the face of record service cuts, fare hikes, route abandonments and worker layoffs.


We instantly agreed: riders needed to organize to push back against the cuts. Larry was always adamant: it couldn’t be about the members; it had to be about the riders. His mantra: “There’s 200,000 of us and 14 million of them. Who do you think has more power?”


It wasn’t an easy message for some local ATU leaders to hear: bus drivers have tense relations with some passengers, and the fare hikes were causing an increase in attacks on drivers. Larry called them “tax hikes on the working poor” and said ATU members were the unwitting “curbside tax collectors.”


Larry had his own war story to prove his coalitions-are-essential argument. Starting in the late 1980s, as the local ATU president on Staten Island, he had built a broad-based campaign that had won dedicated bus lanes (on the bridge to Manhattan), larger buses and fare cuts that had combined to double ridership. This despite a borough president, mayor and governor who were all Republicans.


So just two months after first meeting, there we were, staging the first labor-community transit-advocacy “boot camp.” Within five months, we’d co-organized two of them: 95 ATU local presidents together with a rainbow of community groups for a three-day crash course on how to organize transit riders.


Just about every tendency was there: Gamaliel Foundation, Industrial Areas Foundation, Transit Riders for Public Transportation, Faith in Action (then PICO), Citizen Action, Direct Action Research and Training (DART) Center, Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), Jobs with Justice, Partnership for Working Families, Sierra Club and all kinds of independent disability rights, environmental justice, affordable housing, and pro-transit or smart growth groups.  We even had a Wobblies chapter.


We published a rider organizing manual, using the best stories that emerged from the boot camps. Larry kept reprinting it and making sure that every new ATU leader who came for training was given a copy. Many more mini-boot camps and workshops were woven into ATU’s leadership development curriculum.


Larry would have me address new ATU local presidents and I’d introduce them to a checklist of “your new best friends” with whom Larry expected them to coalesce: community groups, bike advocates, transit nerds, climate change activists, public health experts and more.


When opportunities arose, Larry was all in to help riders win better service or restore cuts. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, ATU helped a faith-based group win a vote that is doubling bus service. In the small city of Weston, Wisconsin, ATU helped residents win the restoration of bus service with a message that boiled down to: “Transit: Some of Us Ride It; All of Us Need It.”


The ripple effects of Larry’s impact can be seen in countless metro areas, where bigger, more inclusive coalitions are winning ballot initiatives, saving service, defeating privatization schemes, and demanding that fare evasion be decriminalized. Transit service is better today in Pittsburgh and Washington DC and Charleston S.C. and New Jersey than it would have been without an ATU re-activated by Larry Hanley.


Among the lessons of those campaigns: there are many employers who depend on transit: for their workers, students, customers and clients. Unlike the corporations that favor transit because they sell things to transit agencies (and therefore care only about capital budgets), these transit-dependent employers can be organized as a powerful force. They are, as we dubbed them, “Bosses for Buses.”


To Larry’s way of thinking, cheap safe transit is a right, like drinking water. He argued that transit should be free on Election Day and he organized “Rider-Voter” registration drives in swing states. He railed at transit agencies with bloated management and pointed out that the Obama stimulus did nothing for cash-strapped agencies that needed operating subsidies, not new buses they couldn’t afford to operate.


In these trying times, I find great clarity by asking myself: “What would Larry do?”



Greg LeRoy directs Good Jobs First.