What we learned from the bus drivers’ strike

June 10, 2014

Paul Fleckenstein, a Burlington activist and member of the Committee to Support CCTA Drivers, looks at the lessons to be learned from the drivers' strike victory.

IN EARLY April, public transit bus drivers in Burlington, Vt., and the surrounding region ended an 18-day strike with a victory. The members of Teamsters Local 597 ratified their new contract with Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) by a 53-6 margin.

The strike was for safe working conditions, an end to predatory management and driver harassment, protection of full-time jobs--and ultimately defending the drivers' union against a management aiming to eliminate it.

The walkout was met with overwhelming public support. The Committee to Support CCTA Drivers organized rider, union and public solidarity--its activities included leafleting, press conferences, a public meeting in City Hall, multiple picket line rallies each week and a large weekend solidarity rally and march. Students at Burlington High School organized their own solidarity committee.

Vermont's Democratic Party lined up behind CCTA management, demanding that the drivers act responsibly and return to work before their demands were won. But in the end, the strike--organized under the social justice slogan, "We are all on this bus together"--continued until CCTA gave in on virtually all the issues.

CCTA bus drivers celebrate the end of a successful strike
CCTA bus drivers celebrate the end of a successful strike

The victory has already led to an upsurge in union organizing locally. With this inspiring win, here are some of the lessons to be learned for building workers power, demanding respect at work and revitalizing the labor movement in Vermont and beyond.

Social Justice Unionism: "We Are All on This Bus Together"

"You have the teachers, nurses, the truckers, bussers, all these different unions and groups, but the fight is the same," bus driver and strike spokesperson Rob Slingerland reflected after the strike. "It's all for the same reasons. When it starts affecting one group, as we always said, it affects all of us."

Tristin Adie, a nurse and member of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Healthcare Professionals, drew the same conclusions about the struggle. "Drivers spoke to what is in the heart of every working class person: We can't take it anymore. We don't deserve to take it anymore. Their issues are our issues," Adie said.

The drivers struck against part-time work and for livable jobs. Significantly, they also struck for the rights of new immigrant and Muslim drivers for recognition of cultural and religious holidays.

Perhaps the most galvanizing issue for building broader working class support was the drivers' stand against predatory management. Winning the strike has meant big progress on this front. Before the strike, there were an average of three disciplinary actions against drivers each week. In the seven weeks since the strike ended, there have been zero disciplinary actions.

Rank-and-File Unionism

In the week leading up to the strike deadline, union staffers from the statewide Teamsters Local 597 were on vacation. While not surprising, their absence didn't ultimately matter to the strike's success.

Speaking at a panel discussion on the lessons of the strike, driver Mike Walker, the chief shop steward, explained that the strong roots of the struggle were sunk years ago:

I started looking around at the people who were interested in making the place a better place to work. You have to get the people who are really interested in making a change. We started making plans on how we are going to change the work atmosphere. We came up with the Sunday Breakfast Club.

The Sunday Breakfast Club first met in 2009 when a group of drivers began discussions, educational reading and networking about how to how transform their union into a rank and file-led organization with real power in the workplace.

As has been the case before in U.S. labor history, the drivers had to win against both the company and the bureaucracy of their union. For years, Local 597's leadership has been hostile to bus drivers' activism and democracy. The local tried for weeks to demobilize the drivers with bureaucratic tricks to delay and ultimately prevent a strike--and force acceptance of a concessionary contract.

As Walker said, "The union was fighting us as well. They just want to sit there and get a contract signed. They don't actually have to live by the rules."

However, the drivers and their strike committee were able to organize and work independently of local officials. After multiple, virtually unanimous votes in favor of striking, they had an authorized walkout. Under pressure, the local did eventually support the drivers, including working with the community solidarity campaign.

But the rank-and-file core of the drivers, who comprised the strike committee and the picket captains, were the essential ingredients to winning. As Slingerland summarized, "When you have the drivers united the way they were for the first time ever, two unanimous votes, and then all the supporters"--that's what wins strikes, he said.

Communication and Politics

The CCTA bus drivers didn't have a well-prepared strike organization going into the walkout. The textbook rules for media communications, trained picket captains and internal communications were more aspiration than reality at times. But on their side was a strong activist core and strong politics--a commitment to democratic independence of workers on the shop floor, wedded to a commitment to leave no worker behind.

The bargaining team had a lengthy list of priorities--including addressing long split shifts, discipline, racism and the cultural rights of Muslim drivers--all of which were key to resisting management's attempts to divide the union. Tellingly, in the last days of the strike, the drivers held firm to their demand for retroactive pay with one condition--that it would be the same amount for every driver.

Internal communication among the drivers was an ongoing challenge in the lead-up to and during the strike. There were regular driver meetings during the walkout and daily phone calls. At the heart of this democratic culture was person-to-person communication--there can be no substitute for it.

According to Slingerland, "One issue we worked on is communication. We found that to be the most challenging thing. Just do the best you can. It is all about the one-on-one. I can do a lot of damage one-on-one, getting the information out."

Dealing with Politicians

Burlington's Democratic Party gyrated through several approaches to defeating the strike.

At first, the goal was to ignore the walkout and hope that CCTA management's threats and belligerence would intimidate the drivers back to work.

When that obviously didn't work after the first week, the City Council went on the offensive. The Democratic council members, along with anti-union Progressive City Councilor Jane Knodell, pushed a resolution calling on drivers to return to work and submit to binding arbitration. When hundreds of drivers, other unionists and supporters, including other Progressive Party leaders, packed a City Council meeting, several Democrats (though not Knodell) switched sides, and the resolution was defeated.

The Mayor then attempted some desperate backroom deal-making to convince drivers to continue with a "working strike"--a promise from the City Council to pressure CCTA management to negotiate a fair contract if the drivers went back to work. The drivers said no to this as well.

Management's commitment to weakening and breaking the union was a goal shared by a political establishment--including a mayor bankrolled by real estate interests--that is keen on its own neoliberal, anti-union agenda of maintaining a low-wage workforce for business and developers.

What pulled several prominent politicians to the side of drivers was the walkout itself--the remarkable unity of drivers over the course of the three-week strike and the overwhelming support from riders and the public. Several local Democrats did make cameo appearances at the picket line late in the strike, and it was reported that Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who works with the Democrats in Congress, made calls to management to back the drivers.

Whatever the impact of this support, it's clear that it only developed in the wake of the drivers' success in maintaining their work stoppage with strong public support.

"The only way you can win is coming together," Slingerland explained. "And that's how we did it--first within and then we reached out to you guys." Appealing to the politicians was last on the list of priorities for the drivers as the least important, though possibly helpful, source of allies of the drivers.

Raising Expectations: "If You Don't Fight, You Will Lose. If You Do Fight, You May Win."

The long neoliberal assault on unions, living standards and working conditions has intensified since the Great Recession of 2008. It has had an impact of diminishing expectations of U.S. workers. In the midst of one of the greatest recoveries for corporate profits that the capitalists have ever had--profits coming from stagnating wages, that is--these low expectations and a lack of confidence that labor struggles can be won continues for many workers.

Nancy Welch, a strike supporter and member of United Academics at the University of Vermont, framed another important lesson of the drivers' strike:

Austerity has also taken a grim toll on our consciousness, our expectations. Austerity attempts to roll back any belief that we can defend ourselves against these attacks, that if we stand and fight, others will stand with us, and that if we stand and fight, we could win...It matters how much [the drivers] struck a blow against diminished expectations.

In a period where strikes are rare; when union officials and organizers downplay their importance or even the possibility that they can take place; and when concessionary, behind-the-scenes deal-making tends to take precedence, the CCTA drivers' strike was a breath of fresh air for a stagnating labor movement.

Winning, of course, leads to rising expectations. In the wake of the CCTA victory, drivers at two other Vermont bus companies moved to form unions.

The old bureaucratic strategies of endless contract negotiations and a largely passive union membership aren't up to the task of fending off the attacks of an emboldened capitalist class, let alone inspiring new union organizing and winning back some of the losses over the last decades.

Moving Forward

While the lessons of the drivers' strike are many, the real question is whether those lessons can be learned, spread and applied to other struggles.

Tristin Adie, speaking at the panel discussion, marked the significance for other unions:

It was members who prepared for this strike, organized and carried it out. It wasn't what usually passes for member involvement--where leadership tells you when to show up, what sign to hold, and when to go home. This was a member-driven strike. For too long, we have been treated as actors on a movie set, and told to show up. The only way we can win is if we're the directors.

With goal of generalizing the lessons about rank-and-file initiative and class struggle unionism, the CCTA Solidarity Committee is continuing to meet and organize on several fronts.

One is supporting rank-and-file initiatives in other Vermont unions. The Committee is also launching reading groups aimed at our own theoretical development, with the first one on Kim Moody's recent In Solidarity: Essays on Working-Class Organization and Strategy in the United States. Planning is also just underway for a "Troublemakers School"--a daylong conference designed to build rank-and-file, social justice unionism--to be held in the fall.

Further Reading

From the archives