Vermont drivers end their strike with a victory

April 7, 2014

Thomas Grace reports from Burlington, Vt., on the outcome of a bus drivers' strike.

ON APRIL 3, bus drivers for the Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) in northwestern Vermont ended three-and-a-half weeks on the picket line with a 53-6 vote to ratify a new contract.

The agreement holds the line and more on the most important demands of the drivers, members of Teamsters Local 597. It also serves as a powerful demonstration that strikes can win when union members are united and strong--and when they have the support of community members who connect the strikers' issues to their own concerns.

Ade, a driver, said the new contract was "a victory for the people. The bosses should know that when the people speak, they should respect our will." Ade's message to other working people around the country was simple: "Don't give up, keep fighting. You are the people--keep fighting and never give up."

The contract contains a 2 percent raise per year over the three-year contract. But drivers were most intent on pushing back management demands that would have created unsafe conditions on the job, shifted in the direction of a part-time labor force and handed over new tools to spy on and harass the drivers. On these questions, the drivers believe they won.

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

CCTA buses began rolling again on Friday, with fares for local routes waived through the middle of this week. The mood was celebratory, though it was hard to tell who--riders or drivers--was more excited that the buses were running again.

ONE OF the central issues of the strike was hours. CCTA drivers work split shifts--morning runs, then afternoon and evening runs, up to a maximum of 12.5 hours under the previous contract. Management wanted to increase the maximum to 13.5 hours, as well as extend provisions for mandatory overtime to make the drivers' total days as long as 15 hours.

But drivers stuck to their demands to keep the roads safer and their jobs livable, and they won--the new contract keeps the maximum for split shifts at 12.5 hours, with further restrictions on mandatory overtime set at 13.5 hours.

Another point of contention was management's abusive behavior toward drivers, who described CCTA supervisors as "predatory" in their pursuit of any violation of the rules. On this question, too, the drivers prevailed--they won the language they were looking for on discipline and work rules that will help them stop management's harassment.

The CCTA also hoped, through this new contract, to expand service routes by creating more part-time positions for drivers. During the course of negotiations, management attempted to include provisions giving them the power to replace any full-timer who leaves their position, whether through retirement, quitting or firing, with a part-timer.

While the contract ratified by drivers does concede up to 15 positions for part-time drivers, the agreement has protections that will stop management from converting the workforce to part-time status through attrition.

The drivers also stood united on the issue of retroactive pay. While their raises will not be backdated to the end of the last contract, all drivers will receive a one-time payment to compensate for working the last nine months without an agreement. In a sign of solidarity within the union, veteran drivers refused the CCTA's offer that the payment go only to drivers' with more than one year's service, and demanded the money for all workers in the bargaining unit, including recent hires.

The new contract also recognizes the rights of employees to their preferred religious holidays, though there is room to improve the language in the next round to ensure that all religious holidays are paid for those who observe them.

In addition to ratifying the new contract at their April 3 meeting, the 63 drivers present voted on a petition of no confidence in the management team at CCTA. The petition highlights management's attempt to ignore and circumvent the union, its arbitrary disciplinary procedures, its bullying leadership and its negligence regarding employee and public safety.

The no confidence resolution, together with a petition signed by more than 500 community members demanding new management, was delivered to the CCTA Board of Commissioners on Thursday afternoon, during the public comment period preceding the board's vote on the contract. The board okayed the contract, too--though only after commissioners realized, an hour into their meeting, that neither they nor management had copies of agreement to read before their vote.

NOT EVERYONE understood the stakes involved in the struggle. Late in the walkout, Peter Shumlin, the liberal Democratic governor of Vermont, sniffed: "It's time for adults from both sides to sit down and resolve their differences so that we can get the buses running again." It was an especially insulting comment considering the drivers' refusal to compromise on safety for those dependent on public transportation--including students at UVM and the Burlington public schools.

But the importance of what the drivers achieved is clear. CCTA management was out to break the power of the union and begin converting drivers into a part-time workforce. But the Teamsters stood united from the start, unanimously rejecting unacceptable contract offers, both on the eve of the walkout and during it, that would have compromised on their objective of winning safe and livable jobs.

Speaking after the press conference announcing the ratification vote, driver Rob Slingerland said: "We're looking forward to going back to work. We're looking around at our fellow drivers and understanding just how unified they became through all this. And we fully understand that we've got to stay unified. The fight isn't over with some signatures on a piece of paper. The fight will go on."

Also critical in this victory was the drivers' determination to win the community to their side--to the idea that workers' know best how to keep their jobs and our roads livable and safe.

People from around Burlington--other unionists; students, faculty and staff at the University of Vermont; and others--rose to the occasion with a powerful display of support for the union, despite the hardships caused by the shutdown of a transit system with nearly 10,000 riders every day.

In the days before the contract ratification, members of a grassroots solidarity committee went out into neighborhoods to hand out leaflets and talk with community members about why supporting the drivers was all the more necessary as the strike dragged on--among all the reported conversations with residents, support for the drivers was unanimous.

The message that the drivers' working conditions were directly connected to the safety of the community, developed from the outset of the campaign, resonated with working people around Burlington--as did the sympathy with the drivers' struggle for dignity and respect on the job.

Rob Slingerland had this message for all the people who backed the drivers, including members of other unions involved in struggles of their own:

I couldn't begin to remember everybody who supported us--there were so many. But a heartfelt thanks to everyone--because we couldn't have done it without all that support.

It's a very good feeling to know that somebody's got our backs when the times got tough and we ended up striking--they were there. Now it's time to pay that back. Hopefully, our victory will show them the strength they have. Some of them might not know that strength is there. For us, it took four years to recognize it. I think that's what goes on in most union shops--the strength is there, you just need something to get it out there.

The victory of Teamsters Local 597 in the Burlington bus strike of 2014 is just the kind of "something" to inspire other working people to fight--and win.

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