Minneapolis Bus Driver: “It’s Imperative That Unions Fight for All Workers”

Adam Burch

Unions must play a central role in the fight against police brutality. We spoke with a rank-and-file bus driver in Minneapolis who is organizing his coworkers to refuse to assist police in transporting protesters — because, he says, “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

People cheer after a bus driver refuses to help the New York Police Department transfer arrested protesters, in Brooklyn, New York. (Farhang M. Namdar / Twitter)

Interview by
Mindy Isser

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has set off a wave of protests and uprisings across the country. The rash of police violence, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic and the unemployment crisis, has clearly pushed many to the breaking point.

Because the vast majority of people protesting are workers, it makes sense that their organizations would get involved in the fight. Many unions have released statements condemning the killing of Floyd, including the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents bus drivers in Minneapolis. Going even further than other labor organizations, the ATU defended their members’ right to decline to assist police, saying: “Minneapolis bus drivers — our members — have the right to refuse the dangerous duty of transporting police to protests and arrested demonstrators away from these communities where many of these drivers live. This is a misuse of public transit.”

Yesterday, Jacobin contributor Mindy Isser interviewed Adam Burch, a rank-and-file Minneapolis bus driver who has been organizing his coworkers to oppose the use of city transit to aid police. They spoke about the latest developments in Minneapolis, his Facebook post and subsequent petition aimed at fellow union members, and the vital role that organized labor can play in fighting police brutality. 

Mindy Isser

Can you share what the last few days in Minneapolis have been like?

Adam Burch

It’s been a whirlwind. I’ve been around left organizing for a while. I’ve been at many protests, rallies, whatever, and there’s been nothing like this.

Unfortunately, Minneapolis has a lot of past experiences with cops killing black people — the Jamar Clark murder in 2015 in the north side of Minneapolis, then the occupation outside the 4th Precinct there; and then in 2016, the Philando Castile murder, then the occupation of the Governor’s Mansion and the shutdown of I-94. The responses and the movements that developed around those instances pale in comparison to what’s going on here now. I wasn’t in Ferguson or Baltimore, but a lot of people are making those kinds of comparisons, like is this a bigger rebellion beyond police violence?

The murder happened on Monday, and everyone woke to the news of it Tuesday. There was a rally called immediately by a number of left groups locally at 38th and Chicago, the intersection Floyd was murdered at.

That area is a really working-class residential neighborhood on the south side of Minneapolis, and all along that street, people came out to their yards and their porches with handmade signs, saying, “Justice for George Floyd” and “Black Lives Matter.” There was clearly a lot of community support for the protests.

We marched to the 3rd Precinct, where the cops had set up military-style barricades and were quick to use tear gas and proceeded to use marker rounds (essentially a paintball gun). These tactics really contributed to the escalation of the overall mood. It’s escalated since, and it’s very much a revolt.

We’ve all seen the news — during the day, there are peaceful, nonviolent protests, and at night, it escalates. On Wednesday night I think the police had a lot to do with that, based on their tactics. But on Thursday after there was a standoff between protesters and police, it was clear that the police lost control of the situation, and they made the decision to retreat and left the 3rd Precinct wide open. There was no police presence in the area, and that’s when the protesters burned the precinct to the ground.

Mindy Isser

Can you say more about this being a revolt and a bigger rebellion beyond police violence?

Adam Burch

Like I said, there has unfortunately been a long history of police department murders. In none of those cases would anyone agree that justice was served. So there’s this kind of simmering hangover from all of these previous miscarriages of justice.

There is an incredible crisis of poverty and homelessness in Minneapolis. There is a large number of Native Americans here, and in the area of the city where many live, a huge homeless encampment developed along an interstate. It was a huge signifier of how bad the housing situation is here, how unaffordable it is for working-class people, and many have been displaced. The city passed a $15 minimum wage law, but we had to fight tooth and nail for it — the city establishment opposed it, and it was totally on the basis of a movement of working-class people.

The police have had their budget increased year after year, and there are austerity budgets for everything else — same as everywhere. And there’s just very little accountability. All but one city politician in Minneapolis is a Democrat. Our Revolution endorsed candidates and a couple won, and so there was this perception that we would have this very progressive city council. But nothing has really changed.

All this time, there’s this racist police officer who has a long history of being abusive to people he’s arresting or questioning — there’s an instance where he shot someone during an arrest, and he’s had multiple conduct complaints filed against him. And he was never fired until now.

So there’s this systemic failure at every level of the Democratic Party here to address much of anything. And it’s only on the back of movements that things have been won.

There’s this pandemic going on, we’re in the worst recession in anyone’s living memory, and I think there’s just a complete unraveling of the social fabric. It’s a surreal feeling. People that are participating in the protests are like, what’s there to lose? We were dealing with austerity budgets even before the pandemic, now we have the pandemic and a recession, and the promises politicians are making that working-class people will be taken care of aren’t coming to fruition. There are crazy levels of unemployment, people are losing their jobs, and now you have this reminder that your police department will murder you. The whole situation is a tinderbox, and it just needed something to spark it.

Mindy Isser

On Wednesday night, you wrote a widely shared Facebook post where you declared “an injury to one is an injury to all” and stated that you would “encourage and try to convince all [your] coworkers and fellow union members to also refuse to assist MPD [Minneapolis Police Department] sending protesters to jail.” Can you tell me about what prompted that?

Adam Burch

I was involved in the direct action in July 2016 when we took over I-94. They made a bunch of arrests that evening, and I was one of them. The way they took us to jail was on a city bus — the kind of bus I drive now.

So on Wednesday night, I was doing my regular shift. I knew there was this occupation going on at the 3rd Precinct, but other than that it was a normal night. I got a message over our monitor that’s on every bus — which is how transit control communicates with us — and they said, “Hey, we need police buses for 26th and Hiawatha,” which is the intersection of the 3rd Precinct. I remembered my experience of being one of the protesters that was arrested, and so at my next break I wrote that post.

I ignored [transit control’s message] because what they were asking for was if we want to work overtime, essentially. I wasn’t telling my boss no to their face, but thought it might be pretty easy to go back to the garage and talk to my coworkers and fellow union members and see if they didn’t want to drive around a police bus either. And maybe if there were enough of us, and enough of a pushback, then maybe they’d reconsider if this was a proper use of public transit.

Mindy Isser

And were your coworkers and your union with you, or was this just your own thing?

Adam Burch

On Thursday I went back into work, and they announced that they were going to shut down the transit system, and those that wanted to stick around were volunteering. What that entailed was evacuating buses from a garage near the 3rd Precinct, driving around with the police, or driving protesters to jail. Before I even talked to them, a lot of drivers were not comfortable with that. One guy said his wife would kill him if he was near the protests, another driver said, “Well, as soon as you put police in your bus, you’ll be a target for the protesters.” Dispatch asked one of my coworkers if she wanted to drive cops around, and she said no, and to me she said, “I don’t want to support a police department that killed George Floyd.”

I made my post into a petition that basically said, “do you agree, and will you talk to your coworkers about not helping the police department?” I put the petition in a group called Union Members for Justice for George Floyd, and I sent it to my coworkers. It’s been a good organizing tool. We used the Facebook group and the petition to build for a labor contingent at the rally today [Saturday]. Our local president spoke at the rally and so did a shop steward, who is also the president of our local’s black caucus.

Mindy Isser

What do you think is the role of unions when black people are killed by the police or in other instances of racism?

Adam Burch

This is something we’ve been talking about a lot. I think one of the reasons we wanted to create the Facebook group and why we wanted to have local trade union members active is because we want to show that unions are the most progressive force in society. There may be a low union consciousness among people, because density is low and we’ve been on the defensive for decades, but when unions were at their strongest they fought for everyone.

They were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, they took up housing issues, they organized in communities outside the immediate workplace. And of course it’s because they knew that if they were going on strike and they wanted it to be effective, they needed the support of the broader community. You can’t do that if you’re narrowly focused on the workplace.

I think it’s imperative for the broader labor movement to make it clear that unions fight for all workers, the entire working class, whether they are organized or not. I think it’ll show people that unions are the fighting force that they can trust, because they truly represent their interests, and are the best way to protect themselves from the bosses, corporations, and the state and their police forces.

The organized working class getting involved in these fights is what it takes to win and to have a sustained mass movement. There’s a huge amount of desire out here right now to keep fighting, but to do it in a collective, organized way, and unions can provide a lot of that organization that’s needed.

Ultimately, too, workers are in the best position to shut down capitalist profits. And that’s what it’s going to take. Organize workers at the point of production — that’s the best way to strike fear in the bosses and the corporations and the ruling class. That needs to be marshaled into our movements, whether that’s the fight for better hours or whether it’s a complete uprooting of the police system. It’s going to take a real sustained mass movement to do that.

Mindy Isser

What should other workers do, union or not, right now?

Adam Burch

They should go to the protests, they should talk to the people there and get an idea of where people are at, what their level of consciousness is. There needs to be some kind of program put forward and a clear set of demands. There need to be ongoing days of mass action, but there also need to be meetings (which I know people don’t want to do!) to debrief and plan next steps and refine the program.

The movement out there today needs leaders that come out of these occupations. I don’t think people should just go home, but there needs to be a plan, and there needs to be leadership. That’s what’s missing now.