Vt. drivers hit the picket line

March 18, 2014

Thomas Grace reports from the picket lines in Burlington, Vt., as public transit drivers send a message to management that they want a fair contract and a safer system.

BUS DRIVERS who make the public transit system run in the most populated county of Vermont went on strike March 17, in a struggle for a fair contract that includes safe work scheduling, preservation of full-time jobs and an end to predatory abuse by management.

The roughly 70 drivers for the Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) are members of Teamsters Local 597. The central issue in this ongoing contract battle has been simple: The drivers want dignity and respect.

Not only does the CCTA insist on scheduling that risks the health and safety of drivers and passengers alike, but supervisors carry out a continual steam of arbitrary punishment and abuse, drivers say. Workers who raise their voices face equally arbitrary disciplinary measures designed to punish them.

Management is trying to ride the wave of public-sector-worker scapegoating popular among politicians and the media these days. It claims that drivers are paid above average compared to the rest of northern New England--when in reality the cost of living in metropolitan Burlington, Vt., is one of the region's highest.

CCTA bus drivers on the picket line as their strike begins
CCTA bus drivers on the picket line as their strike begins

The CCTA's real attitude shows through in its abusive treatment of its drivers--and its demand that they work split shifts, for several hours in the morning and several hours in the evening, a recipe for driver fatigue that can lead to accidents.

But the CCTA drivers are proudly taking a stand--and people throughout Burlington, Vt., and the surrounding area are standing right beside their drivers.

THE PICKET lines went up before dawn at the CCTA offices, with 30 drivers and at least a dozen supporters from several unions and community organizations braving the frigid cold to walk the picket line. Several buses, their "out of service" boards glowing in the darkness, stood idle behind closed gates. One driver recalled that he had never seen the gates--installed not long after the last round of contract negotiations--closed before.

Drivers and their supporters walked the line, chanting, "Workers rights are under attack. What do we do? Stand up, fight back!" and "What do we want? A fair contact! When do we want it? Now!"

Driver Rob Slingerland said that he and his fellow Teamsters "feel good--no complaints except the cold. We're here to stay until the company decides to move."

An impressive list of unions and community groups turned out in support of the drivers during the early morning hours and throughout the day: the United Electrical Workers, the Vermont AFL-CIO, the National Education Association, AFSCME, United Academics, Vermont Federation of Nurses and Healthcare Professionals, and the Vermont State Employees Association, as well as Rising Tide Vermont, the International Socialist Organization, the local IWW and the Vermont Workers' Center.

With enthusiasm and excitement overcoming the cold, the contingent split up. A majority of the drivers and their supporters headed to the downtown bus terminal for a rally. All told, around 80 strikers and their community and labor allies gathered to welcome a moving show of support from over 70 students from Burlington High School, who walked the picket line in the sub-zero temperatures before marching along the number 7 route, which brings hundreds of students to school on a daily basis.

Student Sabine Rogers explained why she came out to the rally:

We're trying to make a public show of support for our drivers, who bring more than 60 percent of us to and from school each day. This is for the kids whose parents don't have a car to bring them to school. We realize the strike is going to be hard for everyone, but we support the drivers' demands and hope management will change.

A surge of solidarity warmed the crowd, despite the temperatures, as students, escorted by a delegation of drivers, made their way to school. The quiet of the morning was broken by rousing chants: "When I say 'student,' you say 'power.' Student! Power! Student! Power!"

Later on, about 40 people walked the picket lines at the downtown terminal for gatherings at noon and 5 p.m. Driver Jim Fouts said he appreciated the "tremendous amount of community support," and pointed out that it's "management which doesn't understand what respect means." Lyndsey O'Day, vice president of UE Local 203 said she was "moved to see this turnout in zero-degree weather. But the important thing is for unions to stick together. [Local] 203 wants to let everyone know that we stand with the bus drivers."

Riders Aunnah Guzman and Benjamin Kendrick weren't aware that drivers would be on strike, but when they found out on Monday, they came down to the picket line to walk with their drivers for several hours. "When they're working hard to get the people where they need to be, it's important for us to come out and support them," Guzman said.

And support them we will. Plans for the week ahead include reaching out to local unions to "sponsor" shifts on the picket line, and providing both people for the picket lines and warm drinks and snacks for the picketers. On Tuesday, the CCTA board will hold a meeting to accept public comment--the solidarity committee for the drivers is mobilizing for that. Supporters will be there through the week--and come Friday, there will be a community potluck to bring together drivers and their supporters to either celebrate a victory or keep the spirit of solidarity going into week two.

DRIVERS AND their supporters have been preparing for this fight for weeks. The union had set a strike date of Monday, March 10--but after a round-the-clock negotiating session the Saturday before, management put forward its "last best offer," and the bargaining team promised to bring it to members for a vote.

That vote took place on March 12--drivers voted unanimously to reject the proposed contract and set another strike date for March 17. During the days that followed, drivers pulled together in solidarity, and the community support for them--already strong and proven--grew more active.

On March 14, nearly 100 people attended an afternoon informational picket and rider speak-out. Students from the University of Vermont--who, according to drivers, make up a large portion of the daily CCTA ridership of close to 10,000--had missed prior solidarity events because of "spring" break, so this was their first opportunity to raise their voices. After professors and students alike made classroom announcements, a contingent of 30 students marched from campus to join the other picketers.

The speak-out provided an opportunity for riders from communities that will be most affected by an interruption of bus service to counter the media narrative that they blame union members for the strike. Instead, a strong spirit of solidarity inspired speakers and picketers to continue their action despite an afternoon snow squall.

Maggie, a longtime bus rider and a key organizer of a ride-share in the event of a strike, spoke powerfully about what the drivers' struggle was making clear for many residents of Chittenden County:

I want to thank the management of the CCTA for affording me the opportunity to witness the devastating effects of the inhumane, inappropriate and predatory behavior they consider an effective leadership style...What exactly did their calculations tell them they would gain from this? Did they think their behavior would be silently accepted by everyone in the company? Did they think that the riders would silently accept this treatment of our drivers? I think it's safe to say that we wouldn't, and we don't.

Other speakers talked about family members who suffered long-term health effects from a career of driving buses, and the consideration and dignity that drivers extend to the physically challenged, among other comments. It was clear that the drivers are the ones who are held in high esteem by the community.

Two days later, with a joint meeting of drivers and community supporters scheduled for later in the afternoon and picket lines set to go up the next morning, driver Rob Slingerland wrote a comment on Facebook capturing the spirit of solidarity that has brought together drivers and their supporters together:

It feels good this morning knowing I have people I know and people I don't know supporting me and my fellow drivers. Tomorrow is also history for US! No more sitting back and doing what we know isn't right. No more abuse! Gone are the days of the "Target" on the back! Tomorrow is the first day in CCTA history that we the drivers, we the people, stand as ONE, demanding our RESPECT for OURSELVES, OUR UNION, and OUR DIGNITY!...

We the drivers have our different views and opinions. We've argued, screamed and yelled at one another, proved our different points and so on, working on a fair contract. Democracy in motion! Now, we are out on the street Monday morning AS ONE! We will be with you all AS ONE! One day closer to that fair contract.

The meetings were an example of what writer and activist Jonathan Leavett, in an excellent article for Truthout.org, has called "old-fashioned organizing." And while that is certainly true, it is important to emphasize how models of more contemporary social-justice unionism, of rank-and-file workers leading their labor and community allies, have underpinned this campaign from the start and throughout.

Rajab Mohammad, a striking driver, said he was confident that the community was backing the drivers in their struggle:

I think the message will go to the public and management. The drivers' concern is safety. When we talk about safety, it's about the community's safety, not just the drivers'. Drivers are part of the community--we should be one united community. Our responsibility is to look to each other. Policy is policy, but respect is between human beings.

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