Vermont drivers stand strong

April 2, 2014

Thomas Grace reports from Burlington, Vt., on another week in the strike by public transit bus drivers who are keeping up the fight for a fair contract.

THE STRIKE by some 70 public transit bus drivers for Burlington Vt. and the surrounding region was going strong into its third week, with members of Teamsters Local 597 proving once again that they are unanimously committed to their demands for humane scheduling, limits on part-time drivers and an end to management's harassment and abuse.

The drivers for the Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) went on strike on March 17 to send a simple message: We want dignity and respect.

Management tried to frame the conflict as a matter of well-paid workers asking for even more money, but the walkout was strengthened from the start by a tide of community support--which has only grown, in spite of the difficulties faced during the strike by the nearly 10,000 daily riders.

Solidarity was the key ingredient at perhaps the most important showdown of the last week: The March 26 meeting of the Burlington City Council, where council members planned to push through a resolution demanding binding arbitration to settle the strike.

Supporters join Burlington bus drivers on their picket lines
Supporters join Burlington bus drivers on their picket lines (Jennifer Kenny)

But council members were confronted by a room packed with more than 150 drivers and their supporters, who spoke eloquently and defiantly to the real issues in this struggle. In the end, under pressure from the crowd, the language encouraging binding arbitration was stripped out of the resolution.

Encouraged by the outcome of that confrontation and a biggest support rally yet held a few days later, the drivers were confident that their negotiating team would return from talks over the weekend with a new--and fair--contract to vote on. But management showed that it's prepared to continue holding hostage both the drivers and Chittenden County's 10,000 daily riders until they can break the union's resolve.

As before, union negotiators agreed to bring management's lame offer to the rank and file for a vote. On Monday, all 64 drivers present at the union meeting said no. That's nearly the entire workforce minus those on paid sick leave--and definitely the highest turnout on a contract vote to date.

The press was reporting rumors that a deal was close as another round of negotiations was due to begin on Wednesday. But drivers have heard this before. They know that management is out for blood--and that anything short of what the union has proposed will be a compromise on safety and livable jobs.

As the strike continues, efforts to mobilize public support are more important than ever. Drivers and members of the community solidarity committee are collaborating on a plan to get drivers' stories out into the community with a leafleting operation, plus speakouts at workplaces and community organizations--and, of course, rallies and picket line solidarity.

The bar for solidarity and community mobilization has already been set high. Now isn't the time to lower it, but raise it up another few notches.

AS THE second week of the strike began, more than 100 people--most of them students--turned out to a meeting March 25 to hear the drivers' side of the story. The drivers' message was clear: Their struggle is about fighting back against the part-time, low-wage future that students are set to inherit on graduation.

Driver Tom Griffith spoke about why management is pushing so hard for 13.5 hour split shifts for drivers: "These crazy route combination are designed, literally, to squeeze as much productivity out of each driver as their crazy minds can come up with." Rob Slingerland emphasized the human impact the split shifts: "If I agreed to the company extension [to 13.5-hour split shifts], that means I won't see my kids for three days straight every week."

Slingerland also spoke about management's refusal to give up their surveillance cameras: With the language they want, we'd be signing away our future and that of any future bus driver in here--your future would be signed away. That language would not only allow them to continue to be judge and jury, but they'll be able to convict you on false charges--which they've done already."

Claire Wiggin, a student at University of Vermont (UVM) and member of Vermont Students Towards Environmental Protection and the Campus Solidarity Committee, called on fellow students to connect the dots between the drivers' strike and the environmental struggles: "These are the people pursuing green jobs. These are the people who will drive you to work each day, these are the people you're going to be working with to have a more livable and sustainable world. Keep that in mind when you're organizing for this."

The next day, 50 drivers and their supporters rallied at the CCTA offices to welcome the first official delegation from another Teamster local. Driving up from Rhode Island with a massive 18-wheeler emblazoned with the Teamsters' logo, Teamsters Local 251 brought the message loud and clear that drivers in Burlington in this alone. Teamsters Locals 100 and 805, representing tens of thousands of workers in New York City, sent messages of solidarity.

Hanging over the events of the week, however, was the threat of the City Council resolution calling for binding arbitration to settle the strike.

As the meeting began Wednesday evening, local Democrats and Republicans started out united around the resolution, falsely claiming that it was a neutral step to bring both sides together.

But drivers had already twice rejected binding arbitration. In addition to undermining the democratic rights of union members, drivers believe that whatever contract comes out of binding arbitration would essentially be concessionary, because arbitration would split the difference between management's anti-worker positions and the compromises that the drivers have already put forward.

When the council meeting's public comment session began, the hall was filled with more than 150 drivers and supporters. One driver after another testified about management's inhumane treatment, while a member of CCTA's board of directors squirmed under the indictment. The stories painted a vivid picture of a management eager to drag working conditions back to the 19th century.

Ultimately, two of the resolution's sponsors withdrew their support until the language encouraging binding arbitration was removed.

Attempting to distance himself from CCTA management, Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger suggested a provision, later adopted, that would require the CCTA board to make presentations to the City Council every two months about steps taken to address the toxic atmosphere at the company.

The resolution calling for a return to good-faith negotiations ultimately passed with only one intractable Democrat still demanding binding arbitration--though he seemed unwilling to focus on the matters at hand, having paid more attention to than the drivers' testimony.

ON SATURDAY, more than 300 people attended one of the most broadly sponsored rallies ever to be held in Vermont to cap off the second week of strike.

Drivers and supporters alike had hoped Saturday's rally might be a victory party, but the news that management had once again stonewalled through 17 hours of negotiations, refusing to take the drivers' demands seriously, spread through the crowd as people arrived.

The setback only made it clearer to those attending that Vermont is facing what some have called our "Wisconsin moment"--in reference to the February 2011 occupation of the state Capitol building in Madison against anti-union legislation.

With management intent on breaking the will of strikers, speaker after speaker talked about the significance of continued solidarity--and how the strike has galvanized working people and their families around the city.

Henry Prine, a student at Burlington High School, told the crowd, "I'm excited about the conversations that have been started around BHS about what unions mean, what strikes mean, and how important these workers are to our community." Sabine Rogers added, "We know that an unfair contract hurts our community. Unsafe working conditions hurt the community. Disrespect hurts the community. Every person deserves dignity and respect in the workplace. We are here to stand with you until you win that."

Selene Coburn, a Progressive Party City Council member-elect, made it clear that there is a wider dynamic at play in this battle:

We know who this strike is impacting, and it isn't the managers still collecting their paychecks and receiving their benefits, and it's certainly not upper management with its six-figure salary. It's the riders who can't get to the food shelf for a daily meal, or to medical appointments, or to work. It's the drivers who stand to lose their health insurance, and who have forgone wages in order to stand up with courage for dignity and respect.

One driver took on the claim that union members are only in this for the money:

I've heard people saying this is a selfish act on the drivers' part. Nothing could be further from the truth. Shame on those who think that! The American worker and the international worker has only so much blood to let. I implore you in the coming days and years to unionize, go forth, gain back workers rights to a life that is dignified and fair.

Ashley Smith of the International Socialist Organization summed up what's at stake in the strike:

These drivers aren't striking just for themselves, they're striking for all of us. They're striking for safety on the road, for livable jobs, and for full-time jobs. And they're galvanizing a new labor movement in this city, in this county and in this state. Look at this unprecedented solidarity from schools, through the communities, to the union.

What we're trying to do is stop the bosses' attacks. It's about putting people first, putting workers first, and the corporations last. Workers power is what's going to turn back the bosses' assault, and that's what's going to bring victory to the drivers at CCTA.

Everyone involved in the strike and solidarity campaign has been energized by the support, the rallies and the unity of the drivers as we head into week three. We all know the stakes are high. This week, the CCTA board authorized management to explore hiring scab drivers, and drivers' health insurance is set to expire at the beginning of the April.

That's why solidarity has to be paired with greater organizing efforts. While favorable press and pledges of support from politicians are welcome, it's up to the drivers and the solidarity committees to keep spreading that word that our drivers are standing strong for safety, democratic unions and livable jobs.

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