Bus driver saga exposes gap between union and non-union public sector workers

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“The need for the transport union, for representation, is long overdue. A lot of guys feel like they’re underpaid, ”says Ray. “Living in Charlottesville is tough with housing and everything. Most of our operators do not live in Charlottesville.

Mary Pettis, a 35-year-old black bus driver for Charlottesville Area Transit, says she can no longer afford to live in Charlottesville, where wages start at just $ 16 an hour and peak at $ 22 an hour.


In general, the weekly earnings of local government employees are 14.1% lower than those of similar private sector employees, but the gap is much larger for public sector employees who have no or few rights. negotiation.


“I personally had to move from Charlottesville to Waynesboro [30 minutes away] because I couldn’t afford to live in Charlottesville, ”Pettis says. “I have three jobs because I couldn’t make enough money driving the bus, and I’m a single parent. And I’m not the only driver who had to do these things, so I feel like a union would speak for us and give us a voice.

For decades, many bus drivers and other public employees in southern states like Virginia have been denied the right to collective bargaining. They suffered dramatically worse wages and working conditions than elsewhere in the country.

Now Charlottesville is preparing to pass a collective bargaining ordinance that defines how the city can legally negotiate with its unions. It’s part of a larger trend for city workers to gain collective bargaining rights in Virginia and the South. And it reverses a trend that has seen union representation decline among public sector workers across the country in recent decades. More than half of states do not have comprehensive collective bargaining laws for civil servants.

It also exposes the gap between unionized and non-union municipal workers. In general, the weekly earnings of local government employees are 14.1% lower than those of similar private sector employees, but the gap is much larger for public sector employees who have no or few rights. trading, especially in Virginia (29% difference), according to a recent report by the Institute for Economic Policy.

In Alexandria, bus drivers won a collective agreement this year that allowed some workers to get up to $ 12 per hour increase.

“Thanks to this collective agreement, more of these workers will be able to live in the community they serve,” said Raymond Jackson, president of Local 689 of the United Transportation Union (ATU) and business agent.


“It’s a very special moment right now for the organization. The pandemic has really exposed the ugliness of this industry. “

– John Ertl, administrator of ATU Local 1764 in Washington, DC


Union leaders like Jackson say they see new momentum for the organization after the pandemic. In places like Savannah, Birmingham and DeKalb County, Georgia, bus drivers have engaged in wildcat strikes, sometimes illegal, that improve their working conditions.

“It’s a very special moment right now for the organization. The pandemic has really laid bare the ugliness of this industry, ”says John Ertl, administrator of ATU Local 1764 in Washington, DC“ We have organized bus drivers who are literally homeless and sleep out of their cars and people want change now. “

Ertl highlights the safety record of unionized bus lines compared to non-union companies during the pandemic. Unionized bus lines were able to secure personal protective equipment, COVID-19 safety protocols and paid sick leave so bus drivers did not have to come in when sick.


The threat of privatization

However, as unions advance in the South to secure collective bargaining rights for bus drivers, many recently organized bus drivers across the country face a new threat: privatization. In many states, the ATU has organized drivers only to have their work contracted out to private contractors who do not recognize the union.

“You know we negotiate a contract and then the contract is sold to a [private contractor], who didn’t sign the contract and the first thing they come to do is fight the contract and want to pull things out, ”said ATU president John Costa. “These private bus companies are telling governments they can save money, but at the end of the day, where do those savings come from? And that comes from the workers.

Experts say elected officials regularly outsource public services to private contractors, as this allows them to avoid responsibility for unpopular actions such as breaking unions and cutting workers’ wages.

“It’s much easier for private entrepreneurs to organize because they’re not democratically accountable,” says Donald Cohen, founder of In the Public Interest and co-author of the new book. The privatization of everything.


As unions advance in the South to secure collective bargaining rights for bus drivers, many recently organized bus drivers across the country face a new threat: privatization.


This week in Reno, Nevada, bus drivers celebrate a major victory in a strike against a private bus contractor as they reach a tentative deal. After quitting work for the first time in August for 10 days against entrepreneur Keolis, over attempts to break their long-standing union contract, the drivers went on strike for another 25 days from the end of September.

The August strike helped Reno bus drivers, members of Teamsters Local 533, reject the company’s proposal to withdraw union health care and force workers to opt for a lower diet. Keolis tried to do away with a seniority bidding system that gave workers the freedom to choose when they worked, making life difficult for many bus drivers in Reno.

“Keolis hasn’t changed color and is still doing everything in its power to take away rights from bus drivers in your town,” said Teamsters Local 533 president Gary Watson. “They have such poor submission routes that drivers have to choose whether to go to the bathroom or if they keep the route on time. Job [parents] under their auction system, they will not be able to go downstairs and look after their children.

Keolis did not respond to a request for comment from Capital & Main. However, Keolis previously refused that its tendering system harmed its workers. Instead, Keolis has taken to the press on several occasions to accuse the union of lying and to claim that it is not negotiating in good faith.

The Teamsters rallied and rallied public support behind a campaign to get the local transportation agency, the Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission, to abandon Keolis as a contractor. Teamsters Local 533 convinced nearby South Lake Tahoe to forgo the use of private contractors on public transit in 2017.

After 35 days of strike action, the drivers won a major achievement this week when they reached a tentative agreement on schedules, holidays and other issues. They celebrated the tentative agreement as a victory reflecting the union’s ability to mobilize the public behind it.


“The working class people need to know: it is time for us to unite. Not only unite individually as unions, but unite as a whole to overcome this corporate attitude that they can just trample on everyone. “

– Reno Bus Driver and Teamsters Local 533 Steward Michael Lansborough


“Working class people need to know: it is time for us to unite,” said Michael Lansborough, Reno bus driver and shop steward for Teamsters Local 533. “Not only unite individually in unions, but unite as a whole to overcome this corporate attitude that they can just walk on everyone.”

In Martha’s Vineyard, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, just like in Charlottesville, bus drivers couldn’t afford to live in the affluent community on their wages. They won a historic first contract following a five-year battle with Florida-based contractor Transit Connection Inc. that ended in 28-day strikes that nearly halted sightseeing in Makkah. tourism in summer 2019.

The union contract salary increase for new hires from $ 16.50 per hour to $ 19.50 per hour as of August 1, then increased the starting salary to $ 20.50 per hour as of August 1, 2021. The highest rate of the contract also increased the highest salary bus drivers could earn. $ 23.50 per hour to $ 25.00 on August 1, 2019 and $ 27.50 per hour on August 1, 2021.

The contract also doubled the wages of drivers on vacation, when tourism is booming on the island. In addition, the contract included strong language reassuring workers that their jobs would not be outsourced in the future.

Given the role of public transit on Martha’s Vineyard, drivers say they have found allies even among some of the wealthiest people in the United States.

“We would not have won without the solidarity of our neighbors and other allies, who rely on us and support us all year round,” said bus driver Richard Townes.


This story first appeared at Capital and principal.





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