“The need for the transit union, for representation, has been around for a long time. A lot of guys feel like they’re underpaid,” Ray says. “Living in Charlottesville is hard 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 pay starts at just $16 an hour and tops out at $22 an hour.
In general, the weekly earnings of local government workers are 14.1% lower than comparable private sector workers, but the gap is much wider for public sector workers who have no or weak bargaining rights.
“I had to personally move from Charlottesville to Waynesboro [30 minutes away] because I couldn’t afford to live in Charlottesville,” says Pettis. “I have three jobs because I couldn’t earn enough money driving the bus, and I’m a single parent. And I’m not the only driver who’s 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 officials in southern states like Virginia have been denied the right to collective bargaining. They have had to endure wages and working conditions that are dramatically worse than elsewhere in the country.
Now Charlottesville is on track to pass a collective bargaining ordinance that sets out how the city can legally negotiate with its unions. It’s part of a broader trend of municipal workers gaining collective bargaining rights in Virginia and the South. And it is reversing a trend that has seen union representation among public sector workers dwindle 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 stark divide between union members and non-union workers. In general, the weekly earnings of local government workers are 14.1% lower than comparable private sector workers, but the gap is much wider for public sector workers who have no or weak bargaining rights, especially in Virginia (difference of 29%), according to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute.
In Alexandria, bus drivers won a union contract this year that gave some workers as much as $12 an hour in pay raises.
“This union contract will allow more of these workers to actually live in the communities they serve,” said Raymond Jackson, president and business agent of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689.
“It’s a very special moment to organize right now. 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 a new momentum for organizing after the pandemic. In places like Savannah, Birmingham and DeKalb County, Georgia, bus drivers have gone on wild, sometimes illegal strikes to improve working conditions.
“It’s a very special moment to organize right now. The pandemic has really exposed the ugliness of this industry,” said John Ertl, trustee of ATU Local 1764 in Washington, DC. “We’ve organized bus drivers who are literally homeless and sleeping out of their cars, and people now want change.”
Ertl points to the safety record of union bus routes versus non-union companies during the pandemic. Union bus lines have been able to secure personal protective equipment, COVID-19 safety protocols and paid sick leave so bus drivers didn’t have to enter when sick.
The threat of privatization
But as unions in the South make progress in securing 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 see their work outsourced to private contractors who do not recognize the union.
“You know we’re negotiating a contract and then the contract is sold to a… [private contractor], who have not signed the contract and the first thing they come in and do is fight the contract and want to take things away,” said ATU President John Costa. “These private bus companies tell governments they can save money, but where does that savings come from? And it comes from the workers.”
Experts say elected officials routinely outsource public services to private contractors because it allows them to avoid responsibility for unpopular actions such as disbanding unions and cutting workers’ wages.
“It’s much easier for private contractors to disband unions because they’re not democratically accountable,” said Donald Cohen, founder of In the Public Interest and co-author of the new book. The privatization of everything.
As unions in the South make progress in securing collective bargaining rights for bus drivers, many recently organized bus drivers across the country face a new threat: privatization.
This week, bus drivers in Reno, Nevada, celebrate a major victory in a strike against a private bus contractor as they reach a tentative deal. After being first fired for 10 days from work against contractor, Keolis, in August for attempts to terminate their long-standing union contract, drivers went on strike for another 25 days in late September.
The August strike helped Reno bus drivers, members of Teamsters Local 533, defeat the company’s proposal to take away union-provided health care and force workers to join an inferior plan. Keolis tried to end 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 and is still doing everything in its power to take away your city bus drivers’ rights,” said Gary Watson, chairman of Teamsters Local 533. “They have bidding routes so bad that drivers have to choose whether to go to the go to the toilet or keep the route on time. To work [parents] under their bidding system will not be able to get out and care for their children.”
Keolis did not respond to a request for comment from Capital & Main. However, Keolis previously denied that his bidding system was hurting his employees. Instead, Keolis repeatedly took to the press to accuse the union of lying and claiming that negotiations were not conducted in good faith.
The Teamsters dug in and mobilized public support behind a campaign to get the local transportation agency, the Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission, to drop Keolis as a contractor. Teamsters Local 533 convinced nearby South Lake Tahoe to move away from using private carriers in 2017.
After 35 days of strikes, the drivers won an important feat this week when they reached a tentative agreement on scheduling, free time and other issues. They celebrated the preliminary agreement as a victory that reflected the union’s ability to mobilize the public behind it.
“Working class people need to know: it is time for us to unite. Don’t just unite individually in unions, but unite as a whole to stop this corporate attitude that they can just overwhelm anyone.”
– Reno Bus Driver and Teamsters Local 533 Shop Steward Michael Lansborough
“Working class people need to know: It’s time we united,” said Reno bus driver and Teamsters Local 533 Shop Steward Michael Lansborough. “Don’t just unite individually in unions, but unite as a whole to beat this corporate attitude that they can just walk all over anyone.”
On Martha’s Vineyard near Cape Cod, Massachusetts, bus drivers, as in Charlottesville, could not afford to live on their wages in the wealthy community. They won a historic first contract after a five-year battle with Florida-based contractor Transit Connection Inc. which ended with 28-day strikes that nearly brought the sights in the tourist mecca to a halt in the summer of 2019.
The union contract increased wages for new hires from $16.50 per hour to $19.50 per hour effective August 1, then increased the starting wage to $20.50 per hour effective August 1, 2021. The highest rate on the contract also increased the highest wage that bus drivers could earn $23.50 per hour to $25.00 as of August 1, 2019 and up to $27.50 per hour as of August 1, 2021.
The contract also doubled pay for drivers on holiday, when tourism on the island is booming. In addition, the contract contained strong language to reassure employees that their work would not be outsourced in the future.
Given the role of public transportation on Martha’s Vineyard, drivers say they have found allies among even the wealthiest people in the United States.
“We would not have won without the solidarity of our neighbors and other allies, who count on us and support us year round,” said bus driver Richard Townes.
This story first appeared on Capital & Capital.