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I live in Burlington, Vermont. This city, which is large by Vermont standards but small when compared to most other cities in the world, has a reputation of being socially and politically progressive. When compared to the rest of the United States, this perception is reasonably accurate. However, like every other place in the world, the greedy claws of neoliberal capitalism have made steady inroads into Burlington over the past decade and a half. Some of these inroads, like the increasing privatization of public space, have been subtle and even supported by the majority of Burlington residents since they provide tax income from tourists and part-time residents. Other neoliberal intrusions have been less popular. These include the attacks on labor at the local colleges and universities, the regional hospital center, and local school districts. One can also include the increasing high rents and housing prices and a growing number of impoverished locals without work.
Vermont has had a third party, the Progressives, that has fared well in Burlington city elections and even at the state legislature. In fact, there are currently four Progressives on the Burlington City Council. It was the Progressive Party that first got Bernie Sanders elected as Mayor of Burlington and has provided the footwork and votes to help keep in Washington. Yet, as any astute observer must realize, Sanders is not immune to the neoliberal fascination with privatization and war. Despite this, Vermonters re-elect him over and over, often reminding me that he is better than almost all of the rest of the politicians in Washington. Of course, that is true, for what it is worth. It is more of a comment on Washington than on Bernie.
I write this introduction to Burlington to provide some background to the essay below. This essay has been making the rounds in Burlington and surrounding towns since it was written in early March once it became apparent that the drivers of the public transit system would have to strike to get a fair contract. The strike is now scheduled for Monday March 17, 2014. As a side note, it is important to mention that the Teamsters International has been less than completely supportive of the drivers’ local. If you are reading this and are a Teamster, I urge you to express your support for the drivers. If you are a Vermonter or someone who visits Burlington, I urge you to email the Mayor of Burlington and the Transit Authority’s Board of Commissioners to encourage them to support the drivers’ call for a fair contract.
Here is the piece:
I ride CCTA buses every day back and forth to work. This is why I support the drivers call for a strike. I started riding CCTA buses when I first moved to Burlington in 1992. The improvements in the service since then are immeasurable. One thing that has not changed, however, is the professionalism, courtesy and commitment to safety exhibited by the bus drivers. I have seen drivers help disabled folks get on the bus, help mothers with babes-in-arms get their children situated, give precise directions to newcomers and tourists, and more.
Recently, CCTA management walked out on negotiations between the drivers and management. These negotiations have been going on since April 2013. When I talk with drivers I am told that the real issue is not the money, but the working conditions and the way they are treated by management. Foremost among these issues is the question of safety. As I remarked earlier, I have always found the CCTA drivers’ attention to safety first-rate. I always assumed that management shared this commitment. However, their proposal to add an additional hour of time between shifts for drivers assigned to split shifts seems to prove my assumption wrong. What this proposal would do is keep drivers on call for 13.5 hours. In other words, a driver who drove school kids to school early in the morning would be expected to still be driving thirteen hours later. Drivers have told me that, when they have raised the issue of how this would affect passenger safety, management dismissed their concerns.
Another issue is one many of us have experienced in our own workplaces. This involves the addition of part-time workers to the staff in order to avoid providing benefits to the workers. This ploy by management is just wrong. It ignores the fact that the people who do most of the work in CCTA-the drivers—are real people with families, mortgages, rents and other bills. Like management, which usually only has full-timers with benefits, the drivers can perform their work better if they have a full-time job with benefits. Otherwise, their lives take on added stress as they struggle to make ends meet.
The final element of the contract where there are major disagreements is the way CCTA management treats it drivers. For those who do not ride public transit, nowadays most buses have surveillance cameras on them. Although the cameras are there to record instances of passenger disturbances in case a crime occurs on the bus, CCTA management seems to use their cameras to spy on the drivers. According to drivers, management spends a fair amount of time reviewing surveillance tapes looking for any driver infractions. If any are found, drivers are called in and threatened with suspension or firing. The contract proposed by CCTA management would prevent any suspended or fired driver from appealing any such disciplinary action. Besides creating an abusive work environment, this type of managerial behavior is just plain wrong, especially if the worker is not allowed any type of appeal.
After unanimously rejecting the contract offered by management on March 12, 2014 (after driving through the worst March snowstorm in Vermont since 1969), the CCTA drivers will go on strike. I will not cross their picket lines. There is one right way to prevent a strike. That is for CCTA management to get off its managerial high horse, and sign the contract as proposed by the drivers. Chittenden County has taken the CCTA bus drivers for granted long enough. If there is a strike we will discover just how important they really are.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.