Bus Riders Union Facts
4/23/13 (BRU membership numbers reported in Atlantic Cities article, 2011 IRS return link added)
The Bus Riders Union is part of the Labor/Community Strategy Center and is a far cry from the "grassroots" organization they have created the image of for the media.
In fact, they receive a tremendous amount of funding from grants and charitable contributions ($2,560,010 in 2011). Their executive director, Eric Mann, has been well paid for being their "fearless leader"; in 2000, for example, his compensation was listed as $95,000 plus $113,640 deferred income and $10,000 in benefits, although in more recent years there has been no deferred compensation even as his salary has increased (hitting a peak at $135,000 in 2008 and having declined slightly in subsequent years). His wife, Lian Hurst Mann, received compensation of $54,000 in 2000 but has not appeared on the list of "compensated key employees" in more recent years (although this is likely more due to the IRS no longer requiring the reporting of salaries if they are under $100,000).
Philanthropic Research's GuideStar has copies of their 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 IRS Form 990 filings. (Guidestar documents require free registration, and files are only available there for the three most recent tax years; we have stored earlier years' returns on Scribd.)
On June 7, 1999 Eddie Rivera of the Los Angeles Downtown News wrote a profile of the organization ("What Does The Bus Riders Union Have Against Light Rail?") which described how the BRU stonewalls when asked for information on their funding. Rivera did a follow-up article on June 21, 1999 ("Making Way For The Blue Line") with details the BRU wouldn't give him. (Sadly, the Downtown News no longer archives its pre-2000 articles on their website; the articles are referenced in the July, 1999 issue of the Southern California Transit Advocates newsletter. A partial copy of the June 7 article was scanned from archives at the Metro library and uploaded here.) We would appreciate hearing from anyone who has a complete copy of either or both articles that they would be willing to lend us for scanning.
Some other media outlets have been critical of the BRU; Metro Investment Report published "A Pasadena Blue Line Roundtable" in their November 1998 issue in which L.A. County Supervisor Michael Antonovich blasts the BRU. Marc Haefele's "City Limits" column in the February 11, 1999 edition of the LA Weekly questioned the BRU's claim that the Pasadena Blue Line project is racist. That same newspaper published an in-depth profile of the BRU in the article "Hell on Wheels" by Erin Aubrey on July 18, 1997 (we also unearthed a letter to the editor by a former BRU member rebutting parts of that article) which included negative comments from past allies and some anonymous criticisms. Charles Rappleye's April 4, 2002 column in the Weekly was extremely critical of the BRU (the letters to the editor on the article were overwhelmingly anti-BRU as well). Richard Stanger, transit consultant and former executive director of Metrolink, debunked five contentions of the Bus Riders Union in disparaging rail in a Los Angeles Times op-ed article published June 11, 1999. A profile of the BRU which ran in the Times on November 5, 2000 is notable for Eric Mann saying "I hate liberals!" And Richard Risemberg criticized the BRU's "shortsighted anti-rail rantings" in his March, 2001 column from the New Colonist.
They have made it clear that their goals are more political than transit-focused. A flyer they distributed (and e-mailed) said their goals are to "stop the right-wing Supreme Court from overturning more federal civil rights laws" and "ensure that our movement is strong enough to win no matter how it goes in court".
An insight into the Labor/Community Strategy Center's philosophies can be seen in Eric Mann's resumé, which is posted on the Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement's website. A 2009 Internet posting by Mann includes some hard numbers about attendance at BRU meetings, how many new dues paying members per year they need to recruit to stay afloat and other hitherto elusive details on their inner workings.
Do they act as advocates for the passengers? In 2000, they publicly supported the MTA drivers' union, not the inconvenienced transit-dependent, during the strike that disrupted service, by focusing on the "absolutely egregious assault" on the eight-hour workday by MTA and saying the drivers "don't have any choice but to strike." Eric Mann reiterated that position when he authored an op-ed article in the Los Angeles Times on the strike in which he was more interested in the consent decree than about restoration of bus service. (Less than a month after the strike ended, Mann spouted more such rhetoric in a Times article on the BRU.) In 2003, they supported the mechanics' union when they caused a MTA strike, which the Daily News pointed out in an editorial during the strike. And BRU "organizer" Manuel Criollo showed a lack of genuine concern for passengers when he was quoted in a L.A. Weekly article during the strike, on November 6, 2003.
In fact, Eric Mann, in a posting on the Los Angeles Independent Media Center website after the 2005 death of L.A. County Labor Federation head Miguel Contreras, included details about the evolution of the relationship between the Bus Riders Union and organized labor.
The LCSC has made available both the text of the consent decree and other court documents at the BRU website, although they have omitted all of the documentation of the last year of the decree, when they were losing their battles in court. (They also, during a website redesign in 2006, managed to "lose" the previously-posted copies of their documents related to the 2000 and 2003 MTA strikes.) An article published by the Daily News in 2005, archived on the City Project Blog website, outlined the more than $11 million dollars in legal costs to the MTA, as well as quoting former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan as saying that "entering into the consent decree was a mistake."
When they tried to challenge the 2007 MTA fare increase as a violation of CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act), they lost both in the original court decision and on appeal; the appelate court decision essentially rejected their "but MTA will try to spend the money on something other than bus service" rhetoric, reaffirmed what MTA had said all along about fare revenue covering only a small part of operating costs, and even said that the BRU "apparently misreads some of the financial records" in making their claim. Apparently their lawyers are none too bright either. (At left: "Super Pasajera", the BRU's comic book character mascot, as shown on their Facebook page.)
BRU "organizer" Rita Burgos got nowhere spouting their rhetoric in a roundtable discussion published by the L.A. Weekly March 18, 1998. Three years later, an article in the Weekly on the BRU's claims of racism when the MTA Board was voting to proceed on the final environmental impact report for what is now in operation as the Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension (June 20, 2001) drew at least one letter to the editor the following week which started with the writer's statement of being "sick and tired of hearing the Bus Riders Union call the MTA racist" and then went on to point out how many non-Anglos ride Metro Rail.
In 2000, documentary filmmaker Haskell Wexler produced and directed a 90-minute film on the BRU. When Variety magazine reviewed it, they asked an interesting rhetorical question, based on the film's acceptance of the BRU core belief that racism is the motivating factor behind inadequate public transportation: "Are cities with excellent service somehow not racist by this theory?"
The BRU continually used the consent decree as a weapon against any proposed MTA service changes (scroll down to "Appendix 5" at page 9). They have consistently done this even when MTA is operating within its parameters. (My Los Angeles Times op-ed article on the BRU outlines this.) Their response to a So.CA.TA member's e-mail shows a willingness to leave passengers stranded. And, as proven by this 2001 discussion in the Usenet newsgroup la.transportation, they also steadfastly refuse to acknowledge any facts that undermine their position, even when they were involved in the fact.
Eric Mann contradicted himself to defend that position when he rebutted his own statements 24 hours after he made them in November of 2001.
The BRU also attacked Metro Rapid in an August 25, 2000 reply to an editorial on KNX, claiming Metro Rapid was an excuse to funnel money to rail projects (they made similar allegations of racism in an October 28, 2000 reply to a KNX editorial on the MTA strike). This is typical; they will claim racism whenever they can get away with it (for that matter, they are so focused on racism, they show paranoia about it being within their own organization, as this letter to their members proves), they frequently show their lack of knowledge of transit planning and they openly show contempt for MTA's planning and scheduling staff. Nevertheless, when Metro was updating its definitions of disparate impacts and disproportation burdens for purposes of complying with federal Title VI civil rights law, the BRU was extended an invitation for a presentation, but declined. One has to ask in light of that decision: Do they care more about the civil rights issues or about opportunities to protest, even if they have declined to participate in the process?
Their last appearance on KNX, a May 20, 2003 reply to an editorial on the 2003 fare increase, resulted in their -- as usual -- muddying the waters about some funds being designated for capital projects, and therefore not eligible for operations, by simply referring to it all as "local tax money".
Their ability to ignore facts that cannot be made to fit their position is impressive. An unpublished op-ed article by this site's administrator debunked their arguments against the MTA fare restructuring scheduled to take effect in January of 2004. Their flyers said that fares would go up (the cash fares went down, actually; only non-discounted pass categories went up) and that the full cash fare would have to be paid at every boarding because transfers would be eliminated (no mention whatsoever of the then-new daypass allowing unlimited all-day ridership for a single payment). They also claimed that the new pass prices were outrageously high (they actually increased by a lower percentage than inflation since the last increase).
They also rejected the membership application of transit advocate Dana Gabbard, saying that they would not accept any member who disagrees with them. Yet they have steadfastly refused to release specific membership numbers, although a 2012 article in The Atlantic Cities reported an unverified 3,000 "dues-paying members chipping in $10 to $50 a year".
The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles reports that -- oddly enough -- in 2002 the BRU handed out flyers denouncing the state of Israel's position against Palestinians. (What this has to do with Los Angeles transit is beyond me, and apparently beyond those who wrote letters to the Journal, published on August 23 and September 27 of that year.)
Meanwhile, their position on bus-based transit is losing ground, as Special Master Donald Bliss admitted in a Metro.net report on consent decree compliance that adding more buses to overcrowded routes is not the entire answer.
However, in a letter to the editor in the September 2, 2005 issue of the L.A. Weekly by long-time transportation insider Francine Oschin, it was revealed that Bliss was being paid $450 an hour by the MTA to monitor the decree’s compliance; Oschin pointed out that "if he rules MTA has satisfied the consent degree, his income is gone." (The same issue included letters from transit advocates Dan Wentzel and Dana Gabbard, among others, some containing remarks critical of Eric Mann and the BRU.) Oschin's remarks were in response to an article in the Weekly that included a brutally honest description of the Bus Riders Union which, among other things, called Eric Mann "an activist who knew a lot more about Maoist theory than traffic patterns."
Tom Wetzel, a member of the Workers Solidarity Alliance, wrote a history of the BRU entitled "Organizing Around Transit: At the Intersection of Environmental Justice and Class Struggle". While Wetzel does include the small victories the BRU has achieved (even if some of them may have been things Metro had planned to do all along and the BRU simply took the credit), he also critiques their tactics and calls the Strategy Center "a Leninist party organized as a non-profit."
Ultimately, we can't tell if they are truly representing transit patrons or simply interested in their own self-preservation; our readers may judge for themselves.
The Form 990s, the MTA 2001 service change staff report, and some other linked documents are in PDF format.
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