What’s at stake in Burlington?

March 24, 2014

Thomas Grace and Craig McQuade reports on the latest developments in the Burlington bus drivers strike--and the wider backdrop to this important labor battle.

BUS DRIVERS in the most populated county in Vermont have been walking the picket line for a week, and so far, management looks like it isn't budging.

The drivers, members of Teamsters Local 597, have drawn their line in the sand and communicated it to management at the Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA): No to inhumane scheduling, no to converting CCTA into a part-time workforce, and no to arbitrary discipline procedures.

Management's response is to wait the drivers out and hope their unity cracks. That's what CCTA officials have told the drivers and the nearly 10,000 people who each day rely on the buses that serve Burlington, Vt., and the surrounding area.

Negotiators for Local 597 delivered their most recent proposal and were ready to negotiate last Wednesday, but management refused and waited until Saturday to return to the bargaining table. Even then, while the drivers' negotiating team was ready at the appointed time and prepared to discuss its offer, management--in a calculated show of contempt for the drivers--didn't arrive until almost three hours later. After seven hours of no progress, negotiators for the drivers walked out.

Students from Burlington High School demonstrate support for striking bus drivers
Students from Burlington High School demonstrate support for striking bus drivers (Thomas Grace | SW)

As the strike enters its second week, drivers, riders and the community have been shocked by the disregard that management has shown for the rest of the Chittenden County. People are beginning to ask: What's at stake? What's so important that management has dug in its heels in and threatened the livelihood of over 70 drivers--and disrupted the lives of upwards of 10,000 riders?

The answers to these questions can be found by looking at the wider picture for the labor movement in recent years. The dynamic at work in Burlington is just the latest manifestation of a wider assault on the power of unions across the U.S.

AFTER MORE than three decades on the offensive, Corporate America has perfected the strategy of breaking union power by simply relocating production. This tactic is still used today, as the threats made by Boeing to move production of a new airline out of Washington state have shown.

But the business elite understands that a different approach is needed in fields where goods must be produced or services provided in a specific location. Thus, the attacks on unionized workers in telecommunications, education and transportation have employed a different set of tactics. These are jobs that can't be easily transferred to countries or states with fewer protections for workers--but having brought the unionization rate in the U.S. down to successive new lows, the elites are going after more immobile workforces and their unions.

In Burlington, the drivers have established decent wages and benefits in their contracts over the years. Management has attempted to use the union's success to its advantage, by trying to pit other workers in Burlington against the drivers. Some people bought the line that the drivers are overpaid, but many others have shown that they support their drivers, and that the drivers' demands resonate with their own experiences.

The experience of the drivers reflects a continuation of the dynamics of the age of austerity, where employers, when they can't move or eliminate jobs altogether, seek to weaken union power with tiered pay and benefit scales, part-time labor or restrictions on collective bargaining.

When political leaders like Barack Obama talk about being making the U.S. more "competitive" economically, what they really mean is that the wages and benefits of U.S. workers and the social safety of U.S. society as a whole must be driven down to the level of competitors such as China.

This "race to the bottom" is at work in Burlington, even though the battle only involves 70 bus drivers.

This wouldn't be the first time management set its sights on a unionized transportation workforce in Vermont. In mid-2002, union drivers at Green Mountain Transit Authority (GMTA) struck in response to management's attempt to impose an open shop--after facing awful conditions similar to those experienced by their CCTA brothers and sisters now, more than a decade later.

Tragically, the strike was defeated, and the union was ultimately decertified. Since then, the workforce at GMTA has gone from full-timers with a union, to part-timers without a union or benefits. CCTA management hopes to see the same result.

Moreover, a defeat for the bus drivers would set the stage for more attacks on organized labor in Vermont--and could sap the confidence of other unions in Burlington and elsewhere.

BUT THERE'S still a great deal of hope on the side of the drivers.

The strike has galvanized organized labor and the left in Burlington in ways not seen for years. Support for the drivers has been pouring in from other unions, non-organized workers and students, in the form of people on the picket lines, petitions directed at the city government, invitations for drivers to speak to various groups about their struggle and offers of help from all corners of the city.

This support has been essential to bolstering the drivers' spirits and encouraging them to fight on in the face of a nasty smear campaign orchestrated by CCTA management, the local media and the Democratic Party establishment, which rules liberal Vermont.

Indeed, the strike has shown--yet again--the true anti-labor face of the Democratic Party. With the city's transit system at a standstill, the mayor and a majority of City Council members are dodging the issue or backing the decisions of management.

The buses are a publicly funded and operated institution, but politicians at both the state and city level claim the CCTA isn't under their jurisdiction. At the same time, many of these politicians publicly supported management's push last week for binding arbitration--which would have surrendered the decision-making process to people who've never driven buses before and wouldn't have to live with whatever contract would have been imposed.

Thus, to drivers and their supporters, it's clear: For all their campaign season rhetoric, the local Democratic Party is siding against working people, and with an employer that is determined to undermine union power.

The stakes are high in this battle--but it is important to remember that working people organizing within the workplaces and within their community can fight and win. In February, nurses at Franklin Medical Center in Western Massachusetts held the line and won significant concessions from management with the threat of a strike. In Oregon, the Medford Education Association struck for the first time in its history and forced the school district to retreat on its concessionary demands. Straight north of Medford, the Portland Association of Teachers won their own contract victory with the threat of a strike, also because of the strong support of the community.

Turning the tide against austerity to win dignified working conditions and defend full-time jobs won't be easy, but victory is possible. The drivers at CCTA are taking a stand, and they have public opinion behind them. Over the next week, there will be plenty of opportunities for drivers and their community to come together, share their stories, walk the picket line and continue building solidarity in the Green Mountain State.

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