Make way for Ventra as technology, privatization displace CTA workers

Make way for Ventra as technology, privatization displace CTA workers
Metropolitan Planning Council/flickr

The Chicago Transit Authority came out with a big announcement one year ago: the flimsy, plastic transit cards Chicago had come to know, love, and find between the couch cushions would soon be no more. Instead, the CTA and Pace would be issuing a new fare system using personal bank-issued debit and credit cards. Chicago, meet Ventra.

After months of build-up, the new system premiered last week. Coming a few days after Ventra’s launch was another announcement  – the elimination of 149 positions at CTA. About one-third of the jobs the Chicago Transit Board voted to remove will become redundant because of Ventra. Instead of administrators or managers employed by CTA dealing with the current payment system, the fare collection system has been outsourced to the San Diego-based Cubic Transportation Systems. 

The Chicago Transit Authority employs 11,341 employees. The loss of 149 jobs may not seem like a lot proportionately, especially as the CTA says some of the positions were unfilled. But jobs with the CTA are still living-wage jobs. In fact, a CTA bus driver makes the third-highest wage among transit agency workers in the U.S. The average Chicago transit employee – who could work for either the CTA or the Chicago Department of Transportation – makes more than $74,000 annually, according to a Reporter analysis of city employee salaries.

The shrinking of middle-wage jobs is not a recent development. The Economic Policy Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, estimates that an expansion of high-wage and low-wage occupations at the expense of middle-wage ones has been going on for at least the past six decades.

But who is to blame? Some point the finger at technology. In a study titled “Dancing With Robots: Human Skills for Computerized Work,” two Harvard University economists, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane, write that technology replacing jobs is “the new economic normal.” The only way forward, they argue, is to train students from a young age for the skills that won’t be overtaken by computers.

On the other side of the debate are those like Lawrence Mishel, John Schmitt and Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute. They point to larger political trends that lead to a dip in middle-wage jobs, including a rise in the earnings of the top 1 percent, low unionization rates and privatization.

Which is it in Chicago? According to Tammy Chase, a spokeswoman for the CTA, both the need for new technology and an interest in outsourcing the work were behind the introduction of Ventra.

On the one hand, the CTA has been looking to reduce administrative costs. “The CTA has been looking to streamline its management and reduce administration costs,” Chase said. “This is [an] action to reach that goal.”

Furthermore, the transition to Ventra was a move away from the CTA’s 20-year-old fare collection system. “When things get old and deteriorated enough, the technology is no longer available,” she said. “Some of the jobs that we have had traditionally, where we would send a CTA employee out to fix [an issue,] now we don’t have to do that anymore.”

This is not the first time the CTA has eliminated positions in the name of streamlining.  It removed 200 jobs in 2011.

“We are in the business of running trains and buses,” said Chase, “not fixing fare equipment.”


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  • fb_avatar

    Wow, article author, how long have you been visiting Chicago? Do you know any non-official spokespeople at the CTA? The people who will be laid off permanently, as in the past, will mostly be non-union professionals with no clout. They will probably have nothing to do with the fare collection system. Union lay-offs are usually rehired. Clouted folks stay forever or are given better government/government-related job opportunites. Professionals with degrees and experience (including high-tech) are cut at the whim of their less-skilled politically-connected bosses. This has nothing to do with changes in technology or the shrinking industrial labor middle class. This article perpetuates the lies that cover up ongoing financial mismanagement.

  • fb_avatar

    Great article and good job getting CTA on record with some of this ridiculousness.

    I love their responses. The CTA is not in "the business" of fixing fare equipment? They also apparently aren't in "the business" of providing bus shelters. What's next? Soon they won't be in "the business" of repairing buses and trains. Then I guess they won't be in "the business" of maintaining platforms and tracks.

    When public transportation becomes private transportation, we'll all be in "the business" of paying premiums for public services to fatten profit margins for out-of-state companies.

    Cubic's excuses for Ventra have been laughable and the CTA's reasoning is paper thin. These quotes show the actual intention is to slim down operations and shrink the overall city budget at the expense of citizens and taxpayers, who piece-by-piece will lose their ability to fight for accountability.

    The day will come when everywhere you turn, your elected officials in Chicago will just shrug and say, "Sorry, we're not in the business."

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