Getting behind the drivers

March 13, 2014

Thomas Grace and Paul Fleckenstein report from Vermont, where public transit bus drivers are gearing up for a fight--and the community is gearing up with them.

BUS DRIVERS serving the largest county in Vermont are in a struggle to defend their union against management plans to push their working conditions back to 19th century standards--and they've sent a unanimous message that they're ready to strike.

A series of public events in the last week have shown that working people understand and support the drivers' demands for livable scheduling, the right to collectively bargain and an end to predatory management. In the run-up to a possible walkout, both sides have intensified their campaign.

The Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) drivers, members of Teamsters Local 597, were prepared to go on strike starting Monday, March 10. But round-the-clock negotiations over the weekend produced a "last, best offer" from management that the bargaining team promised to take to members for consideration.

The vote came on Wednesday night, March 12--and drivers decided unanimously to reject the proposal. While a strike date has not yet been sent, the community is already in motion to support drivers every step of the way.

Supporters of the Chittenden County Transportation Authority drivers show their solidarity
Supporters of the Chittenden County Transportation Authority drivers show their solidarity (Chad McGinnis)

AFTER A week's worth of events organized by a solidarity committee to show support for them, the drivers knew before the vote that they won't be going into this fight alone.

On March 5, seventy people turned out for a picket at the downtown Burlington Bus terminal to show bus drivers--and the management goons looking on--that our community stands with the drivers. Picketers represented a broad array of local unions and organizations that have built the solidarity committee: United Academics, Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, Vermont AFL-CIO, AFSCME Vermont Homecare United Local 4802, UE Local 203, Vermont Workers' Center, International Socialist Organization, System Change Not Climate Change and Rising Tide Vermont.

The next night, 125 people, including 35 drivers, filled the main chamber of Burlington City Hall to hear the voices of drivers themselves, along with solidarity messages delivered by an impressive array of local unions, political parties and community organizations.

Newly elected Progressive Party chair Emma Mulvaney-Stanak delivered a blistering condemnation of the local Democratic Party establishment for turning its back on local working people involved in this struggle.

Speaker after speaker from labor unions underscored the point that the demands for humane scheduling, full-time hours and an end to bullying management all resonate with their own members, as they do with working people across the state. Amanda Sheppard, a home care worker in the recently organized AFSCME local, captured the sentiment of the room: "All of us solidarity partners are standing here because the working class needs to have our backs lifted a little bit. We do so much. And we need to be respected for that. We need to be shown the dignity that we deserve at our workplaces."

Then the bus drivers took the center stage--literally. Chief Steward Mike Walker opened the drivers' speakout by capturing the sentiment of the drivers he represents:

While I've enjoyed driving, I have not enjoyed being disrespected by a management team that either can't or won't manage our bus company in a way that treats all of us--taxpayers, bus riders and drivers--with respect and dignity.

What I really have not enjoyed is knowing the kind of stress placed on my brothers and sisters, who really try to deliver the kind of services you all deserve. It would be easy to list the abuses. Its recent inability to provide one of its employees, an injured veteran, with the benefits he has earned and paid for. Or the 30-year employee terminated because she has medical problems. Or the fellow who was so intimated by management's threats about where to park his bus that he didn't make it to the bathroom on time. This management team is predatory.

Driver Rob Slingerland voiced the sentiment that was carried out of the hall by everyone present: "If there's no solidarity, there's nothing. And it begins with one person, then the group, then the company, then the other unions and friends, and then it becomes a community level of solidarity that's rock solid. Once you have that, you can't get touched."

That same evening, in a victory for the drivers on the other side of town, the local school board voted down a proposal to hire scab drivers in the event of a strike. Henry Prine, the Burlington High School student representing students' voices on the board, describes the impressive show of support:

The Burlington School Board showed solidarity with the bus drivers by voting to not hire scab drivers in the event of a strike. The move was unexpected, but the members of the boards' beliefs in supporting unions and fair working conditions came through loud and clear.

OVER THE next several days, the solidarity committee, energized by the picket and speakout, mobilized a leafleting campaign to raise awareness of the looming strike date and issues at stake. Leafletters found a well of community support among riders, despite being harassed by management, which made groundless threats that women handing out leaflets on public sidewalks would be arrested.

Riders were very receptive to drivers demands. Despite facing their own hardships in the event of a strike, they were disgusted by the disrespect faced by drivers, who are responsible each day for getting people where they needed to go and making Chittenden County run.

On Saturday, as management scrambled to pull together another round of negotiations, a crowd of 60 drivers and supporters rallied at the CCTA offices. Keith Brunner, of Rising Tide Vermont, connected the dots between the bus drivers' struggle and the work of environmental activists around the country:

Part of winning climate justice and a just transition for the economy and planet is dignified work and public transit. We need to support each other--all of these struggles are interconnected. We can't all be in our silos, we're only going to win if we're struggling together.

Pam Delphina expressed her own and fellow drivers' frustration with the disrespectful and undignified working conditions that management is refusing to address: "I keep going back to human dignity. We have an operations manager who told a driver, 'If you think I'm going to pay for you for pissing your pants, you're crazy.' That's who we're under every day. We leave slumped over with frustration and wiped of our dignity."

Supporters from other unions were on hand to explain why this is their fight too. Mari Cordes, president of Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Care professionals, said:

We love our bus drivers. Our professional bus drivers provide key services to our community. Everyone loses when our workers are treated poorly. It's a public safety issue, but more importantly, it's a human rights issue. And community members and workers need to bring bullying bosses out into the light of day.

Another union, United Academics (UA), which has also been active in the solidarity committee, mobilized for the rally, too. UA member Helen Scott from the University of Vermont commented:

I'm proud to be here with several union colleagues. Our workplace relies on the buses every day. The drivers are standing up for safety and the community, and they also offer an inspiring example of workers drawing a line. My union has a lot to learn from them.

With negotiations set to begin, the crowd escorted the negotiating team right up to the entrance of CCTA offices chanting, "What do we want? A fair contract! When do we want it? Now!" Nobody was surprised when management threatened to have "trespassers" arrested.

THE NEGOTIATIONS, which began at 9 a.m., ran through the night, ending more than 20 hours later as the sun rose on Sunday. The bargaining team emerged with the CCTA's offer for members to vote on--but a union representative who spoke to a local media outlet said he thought it was unlikely that the deal would be approved.

With drivers getting ready to consider the new offer, students at Burlington High School collected over 500 signatures in support of the drivers. Henry Prine described the impressive effort: "It was an overwhelming show of support for the drivers' demands, and it was incredible how much students were able to unify in just one day."

The drivers will need more support like that if management refuses to accept their demands. And they'll get it--the city solidarity committee is ready to keep up support for the drivers with another picket and speakout scheduled for later this week. Students at the local high school and at the University of Vermont have formed committees on their campuses to raise awareness and mobilize support for drivers. Local unions and community organizations will continue to build support themselves.

The drivers say they don't want to strike. But extended shifts, preservation of full-time jobs, and an end to predatory management practices need to be in the contract, rather than left to future discussions. If drivers are willing to walk out over these issues, it's up to the community to throw in every last ounce of support we can to contribute to their success.

As Tristin Adie, a member of the executive board of Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, told a city council meeting where the 500 student signatures were delivered to the council and mayor:

The complaints we hear from the drivers--overly long shifts, insufficient breaks, harassment and surveillance by managers, and unfair and harsh discipline--are complaints that are familiar to so many of us. A victory for bus drivers would be a victory for everyone who supports dignity and humane conditions for all workers.

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