Vt. bus drivers focus on safety

December 13, 2010

BURLINGTON, Vt.--Unionized drivers and mechanics for the Chittenden County Transit Authority (CCTA) scored a double victory for themselves and the many people who rely on public transportation.

Last month, with a vote of 36 to 1, they rejected a contract that didn't address key safety concerns. Next, they successfully pressed the CCTA's board of commissioners to order management back to the table instead of suspending negotiations for fact-finding. "With a change of 10 sentences," said bus driver Chuck Norris-Brown, "we could have a model contract."

Norris-Brown is among the founders of the "Sunday Breakfast Club," a shop-floor movement that began more than a year ago to organize the workers in this Teamster local for greater voice and participation in negotiations and their union.

Sticking points in negotiations, the workers emphasize, aren't salaries and health care, but scheduling, safety and respect. Currently, CCTA management relies on computer-generated and GPS-tracked timetables that allow drivers no cushion for heavy traffic, bad weather, and especially disabled and elderly passengers requiring more time to board and leave the bus.

Additionally, the bus system relies heavily on split shifts, with drivers beginning work as early as 5 a.m. and then, following a six-hour "break," completing their shift in the evening.

"In 1911, coal miners in West Virginia went on strike to secure the eight-hour day. Nearly 100 years later, CCTA workers are facing the same fight all over again," read the call from the workers to area unions and community members to attend a public hearing on the issues.

The CCTA board of commissioners called the hearing for public input on a plan to halt negotiations and hire a fact-finder--a move that workers opposed as a further, and costly, attempt by management to avoid direct negotiations on the key issues.

At the December 3 hearing, more than two dozen people testified on behalf of returning to the table and heeding the workers' concerns. Among those present were CCTA shop stewards, one of whom is also on the negotiating team, and CCTA passengers, including a large delegation of University of Vermont students who rely on city buses.

"I have seen what driver fatigue can do if you have to get up at 3 or 4 in the morning, drive until 8, then come back at 2 or 4 in the afternoon and drive all evening," said Sherry Siebenaler, a long-time CCTA driver.

Amanda Calder, who depends on the bus for her commute between Shelburne and Burlington, told board members she witnesses daily the difficulties drivers face trying to keep pace with unreasonable timetables. "Management is trying to squish the whole run into a shorter and shorter run that isn't humanly possible," she said.

CCTA management claims that only by hiring more part-time drivers can schedules for full-time drivers be improved (the current contract limits the number of part-timers). But workers counter that full-time jobs and a regular eight-hour workday would be possible if management would put its efforts there instead of squandering resources on video surveillance and cars assigned to track buses. "Management needs to stop following us," said Siebenaler. "Passengers ask me 'Why is there a white CCTA car following the bus?'"

Because these drivers and mechanics organized to bring people to the hearing that the board voted to send management back to the table. But their fight for a fair, humane contract--and for rank-and-file voice in negotiations--isn't over. Needed as they continue will be the labor solidarity that was, beyond support from the University of Vermont's Students Stand Up and faculty union, largely absent at the December 3 hearing.

"When we turn back to see who is there, we don't want to look into empty space," said Norris-Brown, adding that every union in the region, particularly embattled public-sector unions, have a great stake both in supporting the CCTA's shop-floor democracy movement and the victory they could be poised to win.

Further Reading

From the archives