October 6, 2006 Volume 107 Number 19

The Bus

TriMet retiree Ben Fain gets behind the wheel again for the cause

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

In 26 years driving buses at TriMet, Ben Fain was a loyal if not particularly active member of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Division 757.

Since his 2002 retirement, however, he’s become a bus-borne activist — chauffeuring the mostly young progressives of the Bus Project to political happenings and door-to-door canvasses.

The Bus Project is best-known for mobilizing busloads of volunteers to do a day’s work for progressive candidates in close electoral races. Since 2002, the group’s volunteers have knocked on 200,000 doors and contributed to the election of over a dozen state legislators, said Bus Project managing director Garrett Downen. And the group has close ties to several politically-active unions. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Teachers-Oregon, and the Carpenters Union have sponsored bus trips; other unions have made donations. Bus Project co-founder Joe Baessler became Oregon AFSCME’s political coordinator.

Fain climbed aboard the Bus Project when it was still an idea. At a Christmas holiday family reunion in 2001, his sister’s grandson, Aaron Imlah, asked him if he would drive a bus for a group he was helping form.

“They had a bus without a driver, and I was a driver without a bus,” Fain recalls.

Fain, 67, said he had always voted for progressive politicians and issues, but retirement would open up much more time to get involved.

He decided to keep his commercial driver’s license active and drive the bus, a 1978 MCI Crusader converted to biodiesel.

Fain thinks he’s done probably 95 percent of the driving since the project began. Volunteering sparked a political awakening for him. It strengthened his belief in the importance of unions and the power of individuals to make change by coming together.

Fain, the son of a bricklayer, worked in union jobs all his life, starting in the early 1950s with the Bricklayers Union, continuing as a Boeing Machinist, a member of a Railway Clerks Union, a Teamster truck driver, and finally an ATU-represented bus driver at TriMet. But he says he was one of those members who didn’t want his dues money going to anything but representing existing members; now he sees unionizing nonunion workplaces as essential to protect the well-being of all workers.

“It was like a light bulb went on,” Fain said.

“A lot of people in unionized jobs are complacent,” Fain said. “If everyone could get involved and do something, I think the unions and the country would be better off.”

In four years of volunteering at the Bus Project, Fain says he’s gotten to meet Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski, former governors John Kitzhaber and Barbara Roberts, many local politicians and an immense network of volunteers.

He’s become a regular caller on the Thom Hartmann Show, a progressive talk radio program that airs 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on 620 AM.

A former Marine, Fain now helps sustain a weekly peace vigil in Washington County that began a year ago August.

And he credits the Bus Project for his transformation.

“It’s energized me,” Fain said. “It was a chance to meet people and do things I would never have done.”

The inspiration is mutual, say others at the Bus Project. Downen said Fain was one of a few people without whom the Bus Project would not have gotten off the ground.

“With us, he’s a legend,” Downen said.

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