The great Key System strike of 1953 lasted 76 days


It’s easy to look at the BART strike and the possible AC Transit strike and pine for the “good old days” of public transit in the East Bay. But an earlier generation might laugh at that.
In 1953 the personnel of the Key System went on strike for 76 days, two-and-a-half months, bringing public transit to a halt in the East Bay.
Some key differences:
* The Key System was privately owned, rather than a public agency.
* Its workers did not receive nearly the compensation given to BART workers.
* The Bay Area population was much smaller. (Though so was the roadway system feeding commuting workers to the Bay Bridge or downtown Oakland.)
But at the time the Key System was the equivalent of BART and AC Transit, running streetcar and bus lines.


The workers walked off the job July 24, 1953 and residents — surprise — began forming car pools, something many of them became familiar with during World War II.
Businesses howled, commuters and shoppers complained loudly. (Click the pictures for a larger version if you want to read the articles.)


But the strike dragged on and drew attention in Sacramento after it entered its third week, as Gov. Earl Warren called a special session of the state legislature to consider a government seizure of the system. Legal representation of East Bay cities and Alameda and Contra Costa counties had met in Richmond and gave their approval to the governor’s plan. The government threat to seize the Key System didn’t happen then, but it laid the groundwork for the creation of AC Transit seven years later.

Our friend and El Cerrito rail buff John Stashik writes: “The long Key System strike in 1953 was the company’s undoing. Legislation enacting the AC Transit District occurred after the 76-day strike and in October 1960 AC Transit was running the bus lines.

“Privately owned transit could not make a profit. Today everything is publicly owned. Muni was one of the first to be a publicly owned system and it began in 1912. The city bought out the Market St. Railway in 1944 and finally the California Street Cable Railway in the early 1950s.”
The consortium of automotive-related industries that controlled the Key System also wanted out by the late 1950s and the system would make the conversion from private to public ownership.

The strike finally ended on Oct. 4, 1953 — the 73rd day of the walkout. But it was announced that it would take three more days before trains and buses would roll again, compared to having limited service the next day after the settlement of this week’s BART strike.


Chris Treadway

  • Thomas R Engel

    People don’t realize what labor relations were like back then. thanks to the New Deal strikes were almost encouraged and most industries in the US had frequent long strikes. The World Trade Centers were 100% steel from Japan to avoid steel strike disruptions–a big reason why steel management & labor gave up the strike every 3 years tradition. A 73-day strike means fewer passengers which leads to fewer busses and fewer bus drivers–tho’ that takes longer to catch on in that industry.
    For years I’ve been trying to find out what happened to the Key System rail operations and how they lasted so long from 3000 miles away; your piece helped.