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Striking Bus Drivers Steer the Way to a Better World

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All eyes are on essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic, as individuals, companies and even the federal government make a point to thank them for their heroic action: working. Frontline workers have received plenty of symbolic accolades, but many are working without proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and hazard pay, and are scared for their health and safety. Public transit workers, who shuttle other essential workers to and from work, have been sounding the alarm about poor safety standards at their jobs since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents 200,000 workers in the United States and Canada, told In These Times that nearly 1,000 of its members have been infected with coronavirus, and almost 40 have died. In response, the union has taken action by setting up coronavirus test sites, sharing information about safety gear, and lobbying both the federal and state governments to do more to protect transit workers. It has also partnered with the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) to increase its strength.

But the best way for workers to show their strength is to withhold their labor, and ATU locals across the country are engaging in work stoppages to make sure transit agencies understand what’s at stake if they don’t take immediate action to protect workers and riders. Bus drivers in Detroit kicked off the wave of workplace actions on March 17, relatively early in the pandemic, by shutting down bus service throughout the city, leaving only 10% of buses running. They won all of their demands around health and safety, including suspension of fares, rear door entrance, and PPE for drivers—but unfortunately, at least one bus driver has died from coronavirus. (ATU International President John Costa says that transport workers “have been the biggest casualty from this pandemic.”)

Several Birmingham drivers took action next and refused to work on March 23, in order to make the transit authority increase safety. They went back to work the following day after having won multiple safety measures, including a mandate that  passengers only use the rear door when boarding and exiting buses, physical barriers around the  operator seating area to give drivers social distance from riders, and only allowing 15 to19 passengers on each bus, depending on size of the bus. Gregory Roddy, President of ATU Local 725 in Birmingham, told In These Times that bus drivers “are here ready to work. But we will not work in an unsafe environment.”

Drivers in Richmond, Virginia and Greensboro, North Carolina also took action for safety on the job the following month. On April 27, about 50 drivers in Richmond caused massive service delays by calling out of work to demand hazard pay, in addition to other safety precautions, like PPE, on-site testing, and furlough protections. Two days later, bus service was stopped in Greensboro as some drivers refused to show up at work after a fellow driver tested positive for Covid-19. The transit authority sanitized buses and workspaces, and drivers returned to work the following day. Roddy shared that the coronavirus pandemic has inspired Alabama bus drivers to take action, and that their next fight is for hazard pay. Roddy said that “one person can be broken, but all of us together, we can be strong.”

Layoffs have swept the nation and transit workers are not immune: They have also been laid off and furloughed. President Costa said that without federal intervention, layoffs and cuts to mass transit could continue, long after the pandemic. But he also said his members are ready to fight back: “If we can build ships and bombs, we can transfer money back into the public transit system to keep the cities alive.”

The coronavirus pandemic has opened up new conversations about the future of public transit—in mostly scary ways, unless workers organize to take more control. Because so many people are now either laid off or working from home, ridership is down by 75% nationwide, according to statistics from the Transit App company, so bus lines have been cut, and trains come less frequently. And because numerous cities like New York and Philadelphia are pushing austerity budgets in response to deficits caused by the pandemic, many workers, riders and transit and environmental advocates are concerned that public transportation won’t be restored to its previous level of service. This could leave thousands of union members out of work, and countless others struggling to get to work, school and appointments on time.

But there are also openings to create a better, healthier future, as the pandemic has forced many of us to reckon with the past and imagine a new world. And as the coronavirus crisis has rocked our society, carbon dioxide emissions are projected to drop by about 8% this year. Businesses are closed, air travel has decreased, and millions of people are stuck at home, limiting emissions—for now. Going back to business as usual is not an option for the climate—and it’s not an option for workers either. This is not to argue that the pandemic is in any way a good thing: There is no doubt that the pandemic has ravaged our society, and there’s no way to spin that positively.

The coronavirus crisis is a wakeup call for the climate crisis, which will be far worse. Our only choice is to reimagine our society—to make jobs safer, and to massively invest in public transit, in order to help workers through this crisis and mitigate the climate crisis, which is poised to be far worse. Because of coronavirus, the fossil fuel industry is in total disarray, with prices collapsing and demand falling. By increasing public transportation, we can continue decreasing carbon dioxide emissions, even when businesses begin to reopen and more people go back to work. This is also an opportunity to create more good, union jobs—especially when unemployment is at nearly 25%. Bus drivers have already proven that they’re willing to take action to fight for health and safety on the job—and win. But what else can transport workers struggle for?

ATU says its “members already know that public transit is far more environmentally sustainable.” The union obviously supports expanding public transit—that means more workers, and more members—but it also supports making it free and powering it by the wind, sun, and seas. A retiree from Local 732 in Georgia, Paul McLennan, agrees that “it’s a no brainer. We need more public transit to get people out of cars.” Building and using electric-powered buses and moving away from fossil fuels would of course be gigantic undertakings for the union, but there’s really no other choice if we have any hope of a real future for our climate. The union choosing to prioritize fighting for expanded public transit—and fighting against austerity—opens up doors to work with environmental groups and free transit advocates, and to build the coalition necessary to actually win these huge demands. We’ve already seen this coalition at work during coronavirus—350.org, Sierra Club, and Sunrise Movement joined with ATU and TWU to demand that Congress increase the allocation for emergency assistance to public transportation.

This work is no small feat, but President Costa said that “we’ve been shut down for six weeks. Oil is worthless, they’re giving it away. Now the air is better, the world is cleaner. It pays to have a good and safe transit system in our world, and the Green New Deal means creating better jobs.” If we want to transition to a more just society, transport workers’ jobs must be safe and dignified, and we have to create more of them by expanding public transit. In the words of McLennan, “when we see problems from all sides, it makes for better solutions.” 

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on May 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.


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Why Hundreds of Georgia Bus Drivers Just Staged a Massive Sickout

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Robbie Brown loved her students. For 18 years, she drove them in her yellow bus to and from schools in DeKalb County, Georgia. And then, last Friday, two police officers showed up at Brown’s house with a letter. She’d been fired.

Brown is one of at least seven drivers sacked after staging a “sickout” to demand better pay and benefits. Last Thursday, nearly 400 school bus drivers and monitors in DeKalb County called in sick, aiming to pressure school district officials to boost driver pay, improve retirement packages and reclassify drivers from part-time to full-time employees. The drivers have 50 demands in all. Some paint a picture of a bus system in disrepair: Drivers say they need restrooms at parking lots, working intercom systems, air conditioning on buses. Other demands, like “fair treatment for bus drivers,” tell a story of workers who are tired of being pushed around.

While district officials say they fired “ringleaders,” drivers say plans for the sickout emerged informally, and spread by word of mouth. Drivers in DeKalb, which covers part of Atlanta, are not unionized, and as public employees in Georgia, they’re barred from collective bargaining and striking. But Brown, who’s 51, felt like she had to speak out.

“My mortgage is $1,000 a month, and there’s no way, even if I retire in 20 or 30 years, that I can afford to keep my home,” she told Scalawag Magazine. Brown’s retirement plan would net her only about $400 a month after she stopped working, she says. Many of her colleagues work well into their 70s just to keep the lights on.

“Once we get old enough to retire, we can’t pay the bills.”

The sickout, which continued through Monday, comes after months of meetings in which drivers voiced concerns over benefits and pay to district officials. And it follows waves of wildcat strikes by public school teachers across the South and West who are demanding better treatment and pay. It’s too early to tell what effect the DeKalb sickout will have, but supporters hope it will add fuel to a resurgent labor movement in public education. Closer to home, Brown hopes the action will pressure district officials to meet drivers’ demands, and perhaps provoke teachers, custodians and other workers in Georgia schools to fight for better pay, benefits and working conditions.

“They need to stand up,” Brown said. “If you stand together, if you make a chain link with your hands and hold on, it can be done.”

While a number of DeKalb teachers support the sickout, teachers in Georgia might be reluctant to jump on a picket line, says Verdalia Turner, President of the Georgia Federation of Teachers, a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

“We don’t even have the word strike in our vocabulary here because there is no reason for our membership to strike,” Turner said. “Our plan is to continue to organize as issues come about … I hope all workers can get organized with an organization that they control and can run democratically.”

In DeKalb County, employment incentives discourage teachers from organizing, according to a teacher in the district. She spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing concerns about retaliation. Some teachers are complacent, she said. And because enough teachers want to leave the classroom for the administrative ranks, where they can expect much higher salaries, it’s difficult to whip up support for collective protest, the teacher, who is a member of the Georgia Association of Educators, explained.

“The way the system has been created, it incentivizes keeping your head down and following the rules,” she said, adding that “there’s no indication of a walkout, a sickout, or a protest.”

Yet strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma have shown that teachers in states hostile to organized labor, and battered by funding cuts, can win material gains through collective protest. It’s worth remembering that the teacher strikes began in only a handful of counties in southern West Virginia, weeks before there was public chatter about a state-wide work stoppage. Even though the driver sickout only affected one Georgia county, 42 percent of DeKalb’s drivers refused to work last Thursday. If drivers win some of the improvements they’re asking for, it could be an early sign that drivers, custodians and other non-teacher staff can use direct action to successfully push for better labor conditions in the right-to-work south.

It’ll be a tough fight, though. While a DeKalb spokesperson told Scalawag that district officials have been developing a timeline for addressing driver concerns, the DeKalb County Superintendent condemned the sickout last week, saying the action put students in danger. “This is not acceptable and it will not be tolerated,” Superintendent Stephen Green told reporters at a press conference last Thursday, saying they will now require doctors’ notes from drivers who call in sick. “Your actions will have consequences and there will be repercussions for putting our children in harm’s way.”

For Brown, who has three children of her own, the suggestion that drivers would intentionally endanger their students is “totally ridiculous.” “I love my kids, I know all my kids’ names,” she said. She’s sad to think she might not see them again. “That’s the biggest regret I have — that I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to them.”

Drivers have been raising concerns about pay and conditions for over two years. In recent months, a committee of drivers and bus monitors met regularly with district higher-ups, and drivers flooded recent DeKalb County Board of Education meetings with questions and complaints. On April 17, two days before the sickout, drivers met with Superintendent Green to discuss their demands. When drivers didn’t get concessions they’d asked for, they informed district officials about a planned sickout, giving them time to alert parents about possible delays. The district’s decision to subsequently fire alleged “ringleaders” prompted drivers to seek assistance from outside organizations, including Atlanta’s General Defense Committee, which is affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World, a labor union.

On Thursday, fired drivers held a press conference calling on Superintendent Green to rehire Brown and her colleagues. They were joined by still-employed drivers, parents of DeKalb students, and members of supportive organizations.

Melanie Douglas, a fired driver, censured Superintendent Green for behaving contrary to what DeKalb schools teach students about the importance of free speech. “The message is if you speak up about injustice, if you use your First Amendment rights, then we will strike you down,” she said.

A district spokesperson told Scalawag Superintendent Green has no plans to rehire fired drivers, but did meet with members of the Driver and Monitor and Advisory Committee on Thursday. “The district has been open, is open, and will continue to be open to sitting down and thinking about issues and how to solve them,” the spokesperson added.

But during the press conference, Douglas said the superintendent was trying to “sow division between the fired and still-employed drivers.” Another fired driver, Marion Payne, said he wasn’t confident the Driver and Monitor and Advisory Committee would advocate for rehiring drivers. “They’re afraid to death. They might not say anything,” he said.

A current driver, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed that retaliation has not entirely chilled their efforts. He said drivers may yet resolve to take further action if their demands are not met.

Drivers are also consulting with lawyers about possibly contesting the terminations in court, according to Sara Khaled, a community organizer working with the drivers. “But we’re hoping we can resolve this outside the court to get the drivers hired again and get some of their original demands met,” they added.

Whatever comes of it, the sickout is history-making. It’s the first work stoppage by school bus drivers in Atlanta since 1980, when drivers shut down schools in Fulton County. And it comes on the heels of several successful organizing efforts by bus drivers elsewhere. In February, Seattle school bus drivers staged a week-long strike, forcing management to expand benefit packages and provide comprehensive healthcare coverage. Also in February, city transit workers in Atlanta went on strike to protest unfair labor practices, ultimately prompting their employer to agree to improvements in their contract. (Crucially, drivers in DeKalb insist that their action was not a strike.)

Meanwhile, Brown’s future remains uncertain. “I am applying for jobs,” she said, a little wistfully. “My license is a Class A, and I’m thinking of driving trucks, even though I love my kids and I loved my eighteen years.”

This article was published at In These Times on April 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Williams is a writer based in Durham, NC. He covers issues from environmental justice to southern culture, and has published work in The New York Times, The Nation, HuffPost, and other local and national outlets.


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This week in the war on workers: Self-driving cars will kill a lot of jobs. What then?

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A lot of companies are working on self-driving cars, hoping they’ll reshape a range of industries. That could provide benefits on some fronts, including the environment and road safety, but a lot of people work as drivers, so self-driving cars could have a massive impact on the jobs landscape. The Center for Global Policy Solutions has a report on autonomous vehicles, driving jobs, and the future of work, laying out the likely employment effects of such a shift and offering policy suggestions to protect workers during that transition.

“More than four million jobs will likely be lost with a rapid transition to autonomous vehicles,” according to the report. And that will hit some demographic groups particularly hard, starting with people with less than a bachelor’s degree.

Men would be hardest hit. They number about 6.5 times the share of the working female population in driving occupations and earn 64 percent more than women in these jobs. Although nearly as many women as men are bus drivers, men are the vast majority of those employed as delivery and heavy truck drivers and as taxi drivers and chauffeurs.

Whites hold 62 percent of the 4.1 million jobs in driving occupations, so they would experience the largest hit. However, Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, groups who are overrepresented in these occupations and who earn a “driving premium”—a median annual wage exceeding what they would receive in non-driving occupations—would also be hard hit.

  • With 4.23 percent of Black workers employed in driving occupations, Blacks rely on driving jobs more than other racial/ethnic groups. This is true in every driving occupation category.
  • With 3.25 percent of Hispanic workers in driving occupations, Hispanics have the second heaviest reliance and are especially overrepresented as delivery drivers and heavy truck drivers and very slightly as taxi drivers and chauffeurs.

But if self-driving cars are going to happen—and are going to have some benefits—how do you prevent disaster for these millions of workers whose jobs disappear? The report suggests automatic unemployment insurance and Medicaid eligibility, a progressive basic income, education and retraining, and expanded support for entrepreneurs.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on March 25, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.


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Teamsters Back School Bus Drivers in Fight Against ‘Rampant’ Wage Theft

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Bruce VailMore than 350 Baltimore-area bus drivers are preparing to celebrate victory in a $1.25 million wage theft case against Durham School Services, an Illinois-based bus-contracting company with operations across much of the country.

The case, which covers the employees at Durham between March 2010 and September 2013, reflects a troubling national trend of companies cheating workers out of their earnings. “Wage theft is a huge problem, and it’s outrageous,” says Andrew Freeman, one of the attorneys at Brown Goldstein Levy, the Baltimore-based firm that filed the suit against Durham last year. In their suit, the plaintiffs accused the company of failing to pay employees for overtime work such as bus inspections, bus cleanings, fueling, and other related tasks.

The settlement of the U.S. District Court case should be finalized April 4, with distribution of the stolen wage money following immediately afterward, says Moe Jackson, a union organizer for International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 570. For almost two years, the local has been trying to organize the drivers and aides at Rosedale, Jackson says, where employees are also bristling over low pay, substandard benefits and overbearing management practices. The Teamsters initiated the wage theft case on behalf of the workers, officers say, as a step in the unionizing process.

At Rosedale, Durham operates under a contract with Baltimore City Public Schools, but its business extends to more than 30 U.S. states, according to company spokesperson Molly Hart. As of the 2013-2014 school year, Durham, a subsidiary of the U.K.-based National Express Group, employs more than 18,000 workers to transport about one million school kids on 17,000 vehicles.

And many of those workers are dissatisfied with the company, says Deputy Organizing Director Kim Keller. The Baltimore case comes as part of a broader Teamsters campaign to bring school bus drivers from all over the country into the union. Teamster organizers have been active in some 20 Durham work sites over the last two years, according to Keller, and there are widespread complaints of wage theft throughout. “I would say [the practice] is rampant,” she says.

For example, more than 3,000 Durham school bus workers in California won about $7 million of lost overtime wages in a 2011class-action suit against the company.

Keller says Teamster organizers have also heard complaints from employees in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Florida, Illinois and elsewhere. Based on these reports, Durham could be liable for “hundred of millions of dollars” in similar payments at its other bus yards, Keller estimates.

“It’s their practice everywhere … Nearly every Durham yard where we talk to the people, there is a problem,” with workers forced to work without pay, she reports.

In addition to the controversy over lost earnings, Keller says, relations have been tense between the company and employees around a host of other issues. Last month in Pennsylvania, for example, the York Daily Record reported that Teamsters Local 776 voted to authorize a strike in the Spring Grove school district, based on management’s slow progress in renewing an expired collective bargaining agreement. Similarly, Keller says, frustration is mounting among Teamster supporters in Santa Rosa County, Fla., thanks to Durham’s efforts to fight certification of a successful union election there more than a year ago. And in suburban Charleston, S.C., Durham recently brought legal action against the union in a dispute over the company’s use of non-union workers.

But organizing the unhappy workers still hasn’t been easy everywhere. On the streets of Baltimore, for instance, Jackson reports that forming a union for the local Durham bus workers has been a tough slog. When Rosedale employees approached the Teamsters for help organizing in 2012, the union quickly amassed support, he says. Local 570 called for an election last year to cover the then-152 drivers and aides at the Rosedale yard, according to Jackson, but fell short by 13 votes in National Labor Relations Board-supervised voting in May 2013. The local attempted to have the election set aside on allegations ofimproper anti-union tactics by Durham managers, but those failed; Jackson says the union is now aiming for a new election in the fall.

In the meantime, the 350 former or current workers at the Rosedale yard can take some comfort in the checks they will be receiving for lost wage payments, according to Freeman. Though the payments will vary widely from individual to individual, all are closely calculated to represent 110 percent of each employee’s wages lost during a 31-month period in 2010-2013, he says. That adds up to $1 million, Freeman says, with the remaining $250,000 going to the law firm. Durham spokesperson Hart tells In These Times that the company has no comment on the Baltimore settlement at this time.

“We work hard and don’t make a lot of money to begin with,” Rosedale driver Martin Fox commented in a union press statement. “For many of us, the pay we didn’t receive was the difference between being able to pay the electric bill and having food on the table for our families. We are glad to finally win back the pay that was stolen from us.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on March 10, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.


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