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Two Paths to a First Contract

New organizing is the life blood of any union. New organizing victories grow our ranks and with it our power as a union. They serve as an opportunity for existing members to sharpen their campaign skills and for new members to experience solidarity for the first time, to realize they have a voice on the job, and to witness just how low their employers are willing to stoop to keep them silent and poor. But too often we forget that a new organizing campaign is only the beginning. The rubber really meets the road as new members begin negotiating their first contract.

In the spring and summer of 2019, Locals 689-Washington, DC, and 1548-Plymouth, MA, won two historic first contract victories – the former in Alexandria, VA, and the latter in Martha’s Vineyard, MA. While the bargaining units, bosses, local unions, members, and communities were different in each place, leaders on the ground adopted a similar strategy to gain the upper hand in negotiations and win.

DC Local triumphs in anti-union stronghold

Transit in the Washington, DC, area is heavily unionized. Until recently there was one stubborn holdout – the  Alexandria Transit Company, branded as the Driving Alexandria Safely Home (DASH) bus system, in Alexandria, VA. The city debuted DASH 35 years ago as a private service to create a cheaper, nonunion alternative to the regional Metrobus service run by members of Local 689-Washington, DC.

To ensure they paid the lowest wage rates in the region, DASH spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on union-busting consultants, promised change, and curried favor with particular workers to keep their loyalty. Despite multiple attempts by DASH employees and ATU to organize, the company succeeded in keeping the Union out time and again.  Whenever the latest organizing drive receded, it was always back to business as usual. “There was no respect for the drivers,” said veteran driver Charles Barrett. “When a customer complaint came in, they’d always side with them, but they’d never give us a compliment.”


‘There ain’t no bars on the windows’

“There ain’t no bars on the windows. You can always leave,” is what the ham-fisted operations manager would say whenever someone brought up a problem. And people did leave. DASH was a place where “people take a job to get a commercial driver’s license so that they can go get another job someplace else,” said driver Tyler Boos.

Meanwhile, a generation of DASH drivers saw Alexandria transform from a backwater into a posh hub of development, and none of this newfound prosperity trickled down to the bus operators. In one of the most expensive places in the country for housing, they were making do on a starting salary of $35,000. Each year of the wage scale was $3 to $10 less per hour than at unionized facilities. And it took 20 years to reach top pay, so the majority of workers were making less than $20 per hour.


The last straw

The last straw came when, five years into a wage freeze, management withheld the end-of-year bonus that drivers had always counted on. Workers again contacted Local 689. Organizers quickly signed up the drivers on union authorization cards and built an organizing committee that could reach all pockets of the workforce.

The company caught wind of the drive and hired a union-busting consultant called the American Labor Group. Workers were press-ganged into captive-audience meetings and subjected to a barrage of propaganda. Union-busters even boarded the bus, sitting right behind the operator to continue the anti-union barrage while the operator was meant to be focusing on safety.

To counter the union-buster, ATU met with members of the entirely Democratic city council. The union confronted them: why were taxpayer dollars being spent to hire a union-buster to squash the rights of city servants? After an all-out press by the Union, the city forced DASH to fire the union-buster.


Workers win election

Freed from the union-buster’s coercive influence, the workers won their union election 97 to 13.

DASH management was stung and embarrassed. Led by the vindictive operations manager, DASH continued its anti-union campaign with a vengeance. First came the firing of two key activists. Latonya Robinson had been perhaps the most indispensable leader during the organizing drive. Robinson, a single mother of two, coordinated the collection of many union cards and served as one of the union’s observers at the vote.

The union’s other election observer was Yonas Aemiro, who anchored the sizeable group of Ethiopian immigrants. Not long after the vote, Aemiro had to travel to his homeland to be with his sick mother. One way that DASH had retained immigrant drivers despite its low wages was by routinely allowing them to travel home for extended periods in excess of what the handbook allowed. Suddenly the company decided to enforce the rules strictly and fired Aemiro for job abandonment. 

Next, two-thirds of the ATU’s bargaining committee were sent in for “random” drug tests. Clearly, the company was out for blood.

To fight back, the union looked to its strength – the membership. Organizers put out a contract survey, and ATU activists drove up the participation past 75 percent of the workforce. The survey showed that DASH operators were tired of doing the same work as their unionized counterparts for much less, so they decided they would accept nothing less than equality.

The union’s committee turned members out in droves to union actions. At a city council forum, a sea of red union shirts occupied most of the seats. Drivers took the microphone one after another to speak out about unfair conditions.

Meanwhile the company’s opening economic proposal was a meager $1 raise – which it had dangled in front of workers before they ever organized – and a compression of the 20-year wage scale into 10 years. In lieu of a real retirement, DASH offered to restore the two percent year-end bonus it took away right before the union drive.


Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

Meanwhile, the region was preparing to shut down most of Virginia’s commuter rail system for repairs. Thousands of local residents who commuted to DC every day would be relying exclusively on bus service all summer. Seeing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the union held a strike authorization vote. The results were unanimous. Unless management agreed to match regional union standards, drivers were ready to bring the capital’s commute to a standstill.

With a potential strike on the horizon, it was time to educate the riding public. Union activists spent a week handing out 10,000 flyers at the busiest rush-hour transit hubs.

Even still, management tried to get the union to settle for half a loaf. DASH presented a “final offer.” But the Union knew it was in the driver’s seat and made its own final offer – take it or we strike. Management surrendered.

The contract achieved all the union’s objectives. Workers won complete wage parity with Local 689 members at Metrobus. The 20-year wage scale was compressed to seven years. Funding for retirement grew to match the public pension. Drivers won more vacation, sick time, holidays, and even retiree health benefits. Ratification was unanimous, 111-0. One of the sweetest prizes? The two fired activists were reinstated, and DASH terminated the reviled operations manager who had fired them.

“Before the union, I would see drivers from other companies and feel inadequate,” said driver Didier Balagizi. “I used to be embarrassed to wear the DASH uniform. Today, I am proud to work at DASH. I’m proud to be 689. I’m proud to be a bus driver.”

Plymouth Local strikes in Martha’s Vineyard – and wins

Like the Washington, DC region, transit in Massachusetts is mostly unionized. But on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, bus drivers at the Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) have long been at the mercy of their employer.

The VTA was established 39 years ago to help relieve congestion on the island’s narrow roads. While Martha’s Vineyard is home to just 17,000 year-round islanders, the population swells to more than 100,000 as tourists and summer residents flock to the island for their seasonal getaways. Some bring their cars along on the 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland, but many opt to rely on VTA service instead.

As required by Massachusetts law, the VTA subcontracts day-to-day operations to a private contractor. For years, the Florida-based Transit Connection, Inc. (TCI), has filled that role. That means the three-dozen year-round VTA drivers are private sector employees. 

Much like DASH in Alexandria, the VTA and TCI have worked together for years to crush union organizing drives. Noting the drastic shift in ridership between the winter and summer months, the VTA prioritized protecting TCI’s profit margins by supporting the company’s efforts to keep wages low, benefits non-existent, and as many workers as possible classified as seasonal or casual rather than full time. 


Drivers join in 2015

The latest chapter in the drivers’ struggle for a union began in 2015. Driven by concerns about bus safety, a severe driver shortage, dangerous reliance on overtime, wage stagnation, poor benefits, and abusive management within both the VTA and TCI, the drivers voted to join ATU.

But TCI refused to recognize the union. ATU filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB, which ruled in the union’s favor and found the company was in violation of federal law for “failing and refusing to recognize and bargain with” Local 1548-Plymouth, MA.

TCI threw a fit. They challenged the NLRB and took their case all the way to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. The court agreed with the NLRB and again ordered the company to begin bargaining with the union. TCI’s contract with VTA is what is known as a “pass-through” agreement, meaning all legal fees for this failed union-busting effort was paid for by the public agency using taxpayer funds.


Bargaining begins in August 2018

After nearly three years of legal wrangling, the parties finally began bargaining in August 2018. But TCI still stalled. CEO Edward Pigman, too busy living in Florida and managing several other firms that extract money out of public transit agencies, hired union-buster Greg Dash of Pennsylvania to negotiate for the company. Dash and TCI immediately adopted a delay strategy, choosing to again dispute the eligibility of employees and classifications that could be included in the bargaining unit.

“They just don’t want the union,” VTA driver Richard Townes told the Vineyard Gazette newspaper at the time.

Under TCI’s thirteen-year nonunion wage progression, Townes, who had been behind the wheel for 21 years, hadn’t received a raise in recent memory. Most of his coworkers, regardless of their seniority, hadn’t received a raise in at least five years. Meanwhile, Angela Grant, the longtime anti-union public administrator at VTA, saw her salary increase four times over the same period. She went from making about $100,410 to taking in $135,200 in base salary – a whopping 35% increase.

While Martha’s Vineyard is home to thousands of working-class islanders, the island’s status as a vacation destination for the rich and famous makes it an expensive place to live. “The cost of living on Martha’s Vineyard is on average sixty percent higher than it is in the rest of America,” noted Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, in a video of support she sent to the drivers. “Yet wages fall far short of the national average. That’s wrong.”

VTA driver wages topped out at $23.50, making them the lowest paid bus operators in the region. As a result, few young people saw a VTA job as a path to the middle class. Instead, most drivers in the bargaining unit relied on retirement income from past careers, were forced to take second jobs to make ends meet, or were considering quitting and moving off-island to find work.


Glaring injustice

This glaring economic injustice in one of the world’s richest locales would not sit well with its overwhelmingly liberal residents and visitors, if they only knew about it. With that in mind, VTA drivers worked with Local 1548 and the International to launch a community campaign.

For months, drivers reached out to strengthen relationships with their riders and neighbors. They spoke out at selectmen meetings in each of the island’s six towns. Selectmen are the most local form of government on the Vineyard, and each town selects one representative to serve on the VTA’s Advisory Board. 

Drivers delivered a petition with hundreds of community signatures to Darren Morris, TCI’s on-the-ground general manager. They launched a Facebook page, “Support Vineyard Bus Drivers,” and printed yard signs that neighbors placed along roads, island-wide, to show solidarity.


Ludicrous proposals

Nonetheless, the company continued to hold its position. It submitted ludicrous proposals, like demanding the right to cancel the collective bargaining agreement at its convenience. For her part, Administrator Grant adopted an increasingly public anti-union position, accusing ATU of being an “off-island” group trying to divide the island community. ATU negotiators requested a federal mediator join negotiations to try to talk some sense into the company, but TCI refused to budge.


Strike authorization in April

Fed up, the drivers overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike in April 2019. They floated Memorial Day weekend as a potential strike date, then pulled back, hoping the company would come to its senses. Instead, TCI abandoned negotiations and submitted its “last, best, and final” offer at the end of May.

The time for drastic action had finally arrived. Working with the International, drivers kicked their campaign into high gear. They launched radio ads calling out TCI, requested and received statements of support from state elected officials and U.S. presidential candidates, including Senator Bernie Sanders, I-VT, and organized a community town hall to prepare riders for the possibility of a strike. 

At the town hall, TCI negotiator Dash told veteran driver Roland Goulart that the company believed that unhappy drivers were at fault “because they chose to live here.” “I didn’t choose to live here,” Goulart shot back. “I was born here. I’m going to die here.” 

With the island’s busiest week – 4th of July – on the horizon, ATU set June 28 as the strike date. As drivers took to the picket line, TCI and VTA scrambled to recruit scabs and compel the nonunion seasonal drivers to stay on the job, even illegally threatening them with eviction from their employer-sponsored summer housing. The result was that, while the strike disrupted service in the first few days, TCI was able to run on average 80% of service through much of the strike.

For riders who boycotted in solidarity, strikers and supportive neighbors ran courtesy shuttles in their personal vehicles, transporting an estimated 1,568 people over the course of the strike. Unfortunately, tourists continued to cross the picket line in droves. ATU offered to end the strike if TCI agreed to binding arbitration, but the company refused.

By day six of the strike, the drivers needed a morale boost and a new strategy.


Standing ovation

They managed to get into the lineup for the July 4th parade and received cheers and chants of “we support you” from parade-goers. A few days later, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg held a town hall-style fundraiser on the island. Buttigieg spent thirty minutes listening to the strikers, then invited them into the packed auditorium. Without prompting, nearly 800 islanders rose to their feet for a standing ovation as the drivers entered the room. 

Their spirits renewed, strikers decided to get more aggressive. While they kept the picket lines going, a core activist team began putting direct pressure on VTA Board members. Strikers showed up uninvited to Board members’ places of work and picketed in public places near their homes, demanding that the Board hold a meeting and fill two long-vacant at-large seats.

ATU also developed new materials to inoculate selectmen and other influential local officials against lies and misinformation spread by the VTA administrator. Drivers also developed deeper alliances with local community groups like the MV Dems, the Chamber of Commerce, and various faith congregations, all of which had expressed concern about the VTA’s union-busting and the impact of the strike on local business.

The shift in strategy began to bear fruit. First, the Town of Tisbury voted to work with other towns and the VTA to determine whose turn it was to fill the vacant ADA and rider seats on the Board. Then, the Town of West Tisbury voted to organize other towns and demand the VTA Board meet to address the crisis.


The Board buckled

Feeling the pressure, the Board buckled and in week three of the strike held its first meeting in months. It was flooded with riders, strikers, selectmen, and community allies demanding that the Board compel the company to enter into arbitration or at the very least return to negotiations. After nearly two hours, the Board voted unanimously to send TCI back to the table.

Despite significant progress, ATU and the strikers didn’t rest. They began planning a solidarity rally in Boston, hoping to pressure the Commonwealth to audit VTA finances. Attendees to the ATU Can-Am conference raised more than $50,000 to support the Vineyard strike fund, ensuring drivers could remain on the picket line for weeks to come.


Agreement at week four

Week four began with two days of intense bargaining, the first time TCI and ATU had been in the same room since spring. The dam finally broke. By Thursday, the parties had reached a tentative agreement. That Sunday, members ratified their first-ever collective bargaining agreement, with 97% voting in favor. 

The wage scale was compressed from 13 years to seven. By the end of the agreement, the top rate will rise from $23.50 to $27.40 and the starting rate from $16.50 to $20.50. For the first time, seniority will be recognized in route selection, and hourly rates of pay will be doubled for holiday shifts.

After 28 days, the historic strike was finally over, and the drivers were back on the job with the riders they loved. With a union and first contract finally secured, they are already gearing up for the next steps: enforcing what they’ve won and reforming VTA so the next contract fight doesn’t require a strike to win. But if it does,  these new members of Local 1548 will be ready.