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Ellen Churchill Murray ’67

Bus Driver

I started driving with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (Muni) as a midlife career change at age 40. In many ways, it was the intersection of the social, political, and economic forces that shaped my life, and of my own development as a revolutionary communist, a member of the Progressive Labor Party (PLP). Though academic Swarthmore didn’t set me down this path, the presence of activists, friends, classmates, and a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) on campus all played a part.

The fall of 1963 was an eye-opener. As I studied for my freshman exams, fellow students demonstrated in Chester against racism in schools. By June, I’d joined an SDS summer project in Chester, which led to assisting in the national SDS office. Another semester, I traveled to South America and Mexico, where I came face to face with the ravages of U.S. imperialism. I began to see capitalism as a devastating system to people everywhere. This all helped to direct my choice to be an activist and an organizer in the working class.

Political activism is powerful, but it has consequences. For participating in a four-month student strike against institutional racism at San Francisco State, I was denied my teaching credentials. A fight for better staffing at a medical center led to the loss of my job as a dialysis technician. With support from patients and my union, I won it back—but was later blacklisted after a strike that broke the union.

In need of a second income to support our three children, I turned to Muni. This was both political and personal for me—it paid a living wage with a pension. Since my husband, John, had worked there for 10 years, I felt I knew my way around, which gave me the confidence to do the job. PLP had members there because it was a strategic, powerful workforce that could—and did—shut the city down.

Driving a bus is hard and stressful. It led to health consequences—we attended many funerals of co-workers—but having a family to love and laugh with was a powerful antidote, although rotating shifts and long hours interfered.

Driving had a social side: We visited, traveled with, and celebrated with other Muni families. Our daughters attended school and birthday parties with children of our co-workers. Having three girls helped me to relate to my passengers: women negotiating strollers on the bus, young kids going alone to school, and even squabbling teens. I really felt that my passengers and I were more alike than different.

Muni had drivers from more than 40 countries. The workforce was often subject to racist and sexist attacks from the governing board and political forces to divert the anger of the passengers and justify budget cuts. Muni’s chronic budget shortfalls and resulting attacks on working conditions and passenger service were largely due to financial capitalists not paying their “fare” share into the transportation budget.

I and other members of PLP helped develop union caucuses inside the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A; we put out flyers that exposed the divide-and-conquer schemes of Muni’s management, city politicians, and their spokespeople. Solidarity developed among diverse workers as we realized we were all “brown” (the color of the Muni uniform) and all faced the same problems.

After more than a decade of retirement, my husband and I don’t miss the nightmare schedules and arbitrary management discipline, though we do miss the job’s social life and camaraderie. My experiences helped me to realize that working-class people will stand together across all kinds of differences. I learned that people could depend upon one another. And I found that if you are principled and have integrity, co-workers will support you—even if they don’t agree with your goal of communist revolution.


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